In his poem “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot explores thetimeless issues of love and self-awareness – popular themes in literature. However, through his use of Prufrock’s profound self-consciousness he skews thereader’s expectations of a “Love Song” and takes a serious perspectiveon the subject of love, which many authors do, but few can create characters asdeep and multi-layered as Prufrock; probably the reason that this poem stillremains, arguably, Eliot’s most famous. The beginning of the poem is pre-emptedby an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno which Eliot uses to create the poem’s serioustone, but also to begin his exploration of Prufrock’s self-consciousness. Byinserting this quote, a parallel is created between Prufrock and the speaker,Guido da Montefeltro, who is very aware of his position in “hell” andhis personal situation concerning the fate of his life. Prufrock feels much thesame way, but his hell and the fate of his life are more in his own mind andhave less to do with the people around him. The issue of his fate leads Prufrockto an “overwhelming question.Order now
. . “(10) which is never identified, asked,or answered in the poem. This “question” is associated somehow to hispsyche, but both its ambiguity to the reader and Prufrock’s denial to even ask”What is it?”(11) gives some insight into his state of internalturmoil and inability to reason. Prufrock’s dissatisfaction in his personalappearance is one, but not the most important of his idiosyncrasies. Not only ishe unhappy with the nature of his appearance, having “To Prepare a face tomeet the faces that you meet;” but he is fearful of what others will haveto say about him: “(They will say: How his hair is growingthin!’)”(41) and “(.
. . But how his arms and legs arethin!’)”(44). Prufrock is insecure and frightened of peoples’ reactions tohis balding head and slim, aging body.
Unfortunately, his lack of confidenceisn’t limited to his looks. Prufrock has difficulty communicating with people -not surprising considering his extreme lack of confidence in his appearance. He’s indecisive and unsuccessful in his attempts to communicate with otherpeople, repeating “visions and revisions”(33) and “decisions andrevisions. . . “(48).
Eliot uses repetition here to emphasize the concept ofPrufrock’s alterations in behavior – whether he does change his behavior or notis another issue. . . most likely he doesn’t because he also repeats the question”Do I dare?’ and, Do I dare?'”(38). Possibly, he’s asking if heshould dare “and drop a question on your plate;”(30) meaning one ofhis “dares” could be something that he’d like to ask a woman butcan’t; he also asks “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”(45-46). In thiscase Eliot uses hyperbole to give the reader the impression of the seriousnessof Prufrock’s insecurities – they are his whole “universe.
” However,this is only one explanation where there are a number of possibilities. Onceagain, Eliot uses the device of ambiguity to reflect the internal struggle inPrufrock and lead the reader to ask themselves again “What is theoverwhelming question’ that Prufrock is asking?” Unfortunately evenPrufrock himself doesn’t have the answer. . . even recognizing the issue itself isbeyond the simplicity of his mind, which he confesses by saying “I am noprophet- and here’s no great matter;”(84). By downplaying the importance ofthe issue, Prufrock echoes his lack of self-worth.
In fact, to Prufrock, theissue is extremely important – the fate of his life depends on it. Hisdeclaration that he isn’t a prophet indicates Prufrock’s view on his position insociety, which he is as confused about as everything else. To interject a littlehistory: Eliot wrote this poem during a time in which social customs, especiallyin Europe, were still a very important issue. There were basically two classes -rich and poor, neither of which Prufrock really fits into. Eliot creates theidea of Prufrock being caught between the two classes in the very beginning ofthe poem, (if not by J.
Alfred Prufrock’s unusual pompous/working class soundingname) when he juxtaposes the images of “restless nights in one-night cheaphotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”(4-5) and the women who”come and go Talking of Michelangelo. “(13-14). These two imagesrepresent two completely different ways of life. The first image is of a dingylifestyle – living among the “half-deserted streets”(4) while thesecond is the lifestyle that Prufrock longs to be associated with – much likethe image of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel whereGod and Adam’s hands are nearly touching, but not quite. While Prufrock doesn’tbelong to either of these two classes completely, he does have characteristicsof both. He claims to be “Full of high sentence; but a bit obtuse”while “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-“(117-118).
Being theoutsider that he is, Prufrock will not be accepted by either class; even thoughhe can clearly make the distinction between the two and recognize their members:”I know the voices dying with a dying fall/ Beneath the music from afarther room. “(52-53). This Shakespearean allusion (Twelfth Night (1. 1.
4) -“If music be the food of love, play on. . . That strain again! It had a dyingfall. “) suggests that Prufrock is just out of reach of the group of peoplethat he wishes to be associated with in life and love, but most likely hisfeelings of insignificance prevent him from associating with anyone at all. Hesees himself as a unique “specimen” of nature, in a class all byhimself – “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin/ When I am pinnedand wriggling on the wall,”(57-58).
This image suggests that not only is hean object for speculation, but he is trapped in that role; a situation which heis obviously unhappy with but has no idea how to change; he asks himself,”Then how should I begin”(59). At this point in the poem, Prufrock isbeginning to feel especially detached from society and burdened by his awarenessof it. He thinks “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttlingacross the floors of silent seas. ” Eliot not only uses imagery here tocreate a picture of a headless crab scuttling around at the bottom of the ocean,but he uses the form of the poem itself to help emphasize his point here.
Thehead is detached from the crab, and the lines are detached from the poem intheir own stanza, much like Prufrock wishes his self-consciousness would just”detach” itself. This concept is echoed in the very next stanza whenhe says, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in/ upona platter,”(83), an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist byPrincess Salome. These two headless images represent Prufrock’s desire to be ridof his self-consciousness (obviously in his head) and possibly some suicidaltendencies which can be tied into just about all of the ambiguous questionsPrufrock asks of himself throughout the poem. Prufrock’s series of questions canalso be tied into his unsuccessful attempts at relationships with women. Hisinsecurities keep him from doing the things he wants to do; he feels inadequateand unable to express his true feelings to women, “Should I, after tea andcakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to itscrisis?”(79-80). He knows what he wants to say, but doesn’t have theconfidence or mental capacity to put his feelings into words.
He compareshimself to Hamlet, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant tobe;”(111), who, in contrast, was able to express his feelings verysuccessfully to his lover – an ability which Prufrock is envious of,characterized by his emphatic “No!” He is also second-guessing himselfconstantly throughout the poem: “Do I dare?”(38), “So how shouldI presume?”(54) and “Then how should I begin”(59) are allquestions Prufrock repeats to himself during his monologue. His feelings ofinadequacy toward women are not only related to his appearance and lack ofmental strength, but to the passage of time and its effect on him. Throughoutthe poem, Prufrock struggles with the concept of time. He tries to keepreassuring himself that “indeed there will be time”(23), an allusionto a love story (Andrew Marvell – To His Coy Mistress – “Had we but worldenough and time.
“) which suggests that Prufrock fears that he will in factnot have time for love before the prime of his life is over. His obsession withthe passage of time is characterized by its repetition throughout the poem,especially the beginning of the poem. Eliot uses time as a tool to shapePrufrock’s complicated, disturbed psyche into the form of a mid-life crisis. Prufrock keeps assuring himself that, “indeed, there will be time” todo all of the things he wants to do in his life, but first he must come to termswith his insecurities.
However, his insecurities are related to his aging andthe passage of time, so he is truly a tragic, doomed character. This is not tosay, however, that Prufrock is unaware of the connection between time, hisaging, and his unsuccessful attempt at a social life. . . on the contrary, heclaims that he’s “measured out his life with coffee spoons,”(51) atrue testament to the self-proclaimed insignificance of his life. Prufrockclaims that “I have known them all already, known them all-“(49)referring to the “evenings, mornings, and afternoons”(50) of his lifewhich he has seen pass by, insignificantly.
He also says “And I have knownthe eyes already, known them all-“(55) and “I have known the armsalready, known them all-“(61) which illustrate both his failure with andfear of women. Ironically, Prufrock dreams of saying: “I am Lazarus, comefrom the dead,/ Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”(94-95), abiblical allusion to Lazarus, an elderly man brought back to life by Jesus -unfortunately for Prufrock, even if his dream came true, he still wouldn’t knowwhat to tell them all, or how. Prufrock echoes the old cliche “Ah. .
. to beyoung again; and know then what I know now. ” Unfortunately for Prufrock, itwill take a miracle to make him either younger or give him the knowledge heseeks. Eliot doesn’t give any sense of hope for him in the poem – he remains adoomed character until the very end. Prufrock even admits that he has “seenthe moment of my greatness flicker,”(84) – a victim of time and naturalselection. Prufrock’s connection to nature and the cycle of life is also animportant factor in understanding his state of mind.
In the third stanza, Eliotcreates an image of yellow fog, connecting Prufrock’s consciousness and emotionsto nature in a lazy, animal-like way. This connection echoes not only theinsignificance of Prufrock’s emotional state in a “natural world”context, but the futility of Prufrock’s efforts should he try to contend withMother Nature and change his behavior – relating to Prufrock’s feeling ofentrapment and inability to change his situation. He wishes to himself, instead,that he could be a mindless crab, scurrying around the bottom of the ocean;another example of Prufrock’s impression of his position in the natural world -rarely comparing himself to real people. In fact, in his dream sequence at theend when he imagines how his life might end up, he envisions himself as an oceancreature, surrounded by mermaids “Till human voices wake us, and wedrown. ” Once again, Eliot disconnects Prufrock from the real world.
Eventhough Prufrock’s fantasies to be a crab, swim with the mermaids, be young againlike Lazarus, talk to women about Michelangelo with the poise and eloquence ofHamlet, slink around the city like a lazy yellow fog, and have his head choppedoff like John the Baptist give him a detachment from his day-to-day worriesabout love and aging, he will never stop torturing himself trying to figure outthat “overwhelming question.” The only hope that Eliot gives thereader out of this poem is the hope that we don’t end up like Prufrock.Poetry