In his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot explores the timeless issues of love and self-awareness – popular themes in literature. However, through his use of Prufrock’s profound self-consciousness he skews the reader’s expectations of a “Love Song” and takes a serious perspective on the subject of love, which many authors do, but few can create characters as deep and multi-layered as Prufrock; probably the reason that this poem still remains, arguably, Eliot’s most famous.
The beginning of the poem is pre-empted by an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno which Eliot uses to create the poem’s serious tone, but also to begin his exploration of Prufrock’s self-consciousness. By inserting this quote, a parallel is created between Prufrock and the speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, who is very aware of his position in “hell” and his personal situation concerning the fate of his life. Prufrock feels much the same way, but his hell and the fate of his life are more in his own mind and have less to do with the people around him. The issue of his fate leads Prufrock to an “overwhelming question…”(10) which is never identified, asked, or answered in the poem. This “question” is associated somehow to his psyche, 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 internal turmoil and inability to reason.
Prufrock’s dissatisfaction in his personal appearance is one, but not the most important of his idiosyncrasies. Not only is he unhappy with the nature of his appearance, having “To Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” but he is fearful of what others will have to say about him: “(They will say: How his hair is growing thin!’)”(41) and “(… But how his arms and legs are thin!’)”(44). Prufrock is insecure and frightened of peoples’ reactions to his balding head and slim, aging body.
Unfortunately, his lack of confidence isn’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 other people, repeating “visions and revisions”(33) and “decisions and revisions…”(48). Eliot uses repetition here to emphasize the concept of Prufrock’s alterations in behavior – whether he does change his behavior or not is 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 he should dare “and drop a question on your plate;”(30) meaning one of his “dares” could be something that he’d like to ask a woman but can’t; he also asks “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”(45-46).
In this case Eliot uses hyperbole to give the reader the impression of the seriousness of Prufrock’s insecurities – they are his whole “universe.” However, this is only one explanation where there are a number of possibilities. Once again, Eliot uses the device of ambiguity to reflect the internal struggle in Prufrock and lead the reader to ask themselves again “What is the overwhelming question’ that Prufrock is asking?” Unfortunately even Prufrock himself doesn’t have the answer… even recognizing the issue itself is beyond the simplicity of his mind, which he confesses by saying “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter;”(84). By downplaying the importance of the issue, Prufrock echoes his lack of self-worth. In fact, to Prufrock, the issue is extremely important – the fate of his life depends on it.
His declaration that he isn’t a prophet indicates Prufrock’s view on his position in society, which he is as confused about as everything else. To interject a little history: Eliot wrote this poem during a time in which social customs, especially in Europe, were still a very important issue. There were basically two classes – rich and poor, neither of which Prufrock really fits into. Eliot creates the idea of Prufrock being caught between the two classes in the very beginning of the poem, (if not by J. Alfred Prufrock’s unusual pompous/working class sounding name) when he juxtaposes the images of “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”(4-5) and the women who “come and go Talking of Michelangelo.”(13-14). These two images represent two completely different ways of life.
The first image is of a dingy lifestyle – living among the “half-deserted streets”(4) while the second is the lifestyle that Prufrock longs to be associated with – much like the image of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel where God and Adam’s hands are nearly touching, but not quite. While Prufrock doesn’t belong to either of these two classes completely, he does have characteristics of both. He claims to be “Full of high sentence; but a bit obtuse” while “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-“(117-118).
Being the outsider that he is, Prufrock will not be accepted by either class; even though he 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 a farther 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 dying fall.”) suggests that Prufrock is just out of reach of the group of people that he wishes to be associated with in life and love, but most likely his feelings of insignificance prevent him from associating with anyone at all.
He sees himself as a unique “specimen” of nature, in a class all by himself – “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin/ When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,”(57-58). This image suggests that not only is he an object for speculation, but he is trapped in that role; a situation which he is 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 is beginning to feel especially detached from society and burdened by his awareness of it. He thinks “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Eliot not only uses imagery here to create 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.
The head is detached from the crab, and the lines are detached from the poem in their own stanza, much like Prufrock wishes his self-consciousness would just “detach” itself. This concept is echoed in the very next stanza when he says, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in/ upon a platter,”(83), an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist by Princess Salome. These two headless images represent Prufrock’s desire to be rid of his self-consciousness (obviously in his head) and possibly some suicidal tendencies which can be tied into just about all of the ambiguous questions Prufrock asks of himself throughout the poem.
Prufrock’s series of questions can also be tied into his unsuccessful attempts at relationships with women. His insecurities keep him from doing the things he wants to do; he feels inadequate and unable to express his true feelings to women, “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”(79-80). He knows what he wants to say, but doesn’t have the confidence or mental capacity to put his feelings into words. He compares himself to Hamlet, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;”(111), who, in contrast, was able to express his feelings very successfully to his lover – an ability which Prufrock is envious of, characterized by his emphatic “No!” He is also second-guessing himself constantly throughout the poem: “Do I dare?”(38), “So how should I presume?”(54) and “Then how should I begin”(59) are all questions Prufrock repeats to himself during his monologue. His feelings of inadequacy toward women are not only related to his appearance and lack of mental strength, but to the passage of time and its effect on him.
Throughout the poem, Prufrock struggles with the concept of time. He tries to keep reassuring himself that “indeed there will be time”(23), an allusion to a love story (Andrew Marvell – To His Coy Mistress – “Had we but world enough and time.”) which suggests that Prufrock fears that he will in fact not have time for love before the prime of his life is over. His obsession with the passage of time is characterized by its repetition throughout the poem, especially the beginning of the poem. Eliot uses time as a tool to shape Prufrock’s complicated, disturbed psyche into the form of a mid-life crisis.
Prufrock keeps assuring himself that, “indeed, there will be time” to do all of the things he wants to do in his life, but first he must come to terms with his insecurities. However, his insecurities are related to his aging and the passage of time, so he is truly a tragic, doomed character. This is not to say, however, that Prufrock is unaware of the connection between time, his aging, and his unsuccessful attempt at a social life… on the contrary, he claims that he’s “measured out his life with coffee spoons,”(51) a true testament to the self-proclaimed insignificance of his life. Prufrock claims that “I have known them all already, known them all-“(49) referring to the “evenings, mornings, and afternoons”(50) of his life which he has seen pass by, insignificantly. He also says “And I have known the eyes already, known them all-“(55) and “I have known the arms already, known them all-“(61) which illustrate both his failure with and fear of women.
Ironically, Prufrock dreams of saying: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/ Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”(94-95), a biblical 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 know what to tell them all, or how. Prufrock echoes the old cliche “Ah… to be young again; and know then what I know now.” Unfortunately for Prufrock, it will take a miracle to make him either younger or give him the knowledge he seeks. Eliot doesn’t give any sense of hope for him in the poem – he remains a doomed character until the very end. Prufrock even admits that he has “seen the moment of my greatness flicker,”(84) – a victim of time and natural selection.
Prufrock’s connection to nature and the cycle of life is also an important factor in understanding his state of mind. In the third stanza, Eliot creates an image of yellow fog, connecting Prufrock’s consciousness and emotions to nature in a lazy, animal-like way. This connection echoes not only the insignificance of Prufrock’s emotional state in a “natural world” context, but the futility of Prufrock’s efforts should he try to contend with Mother Nature and change his behavior – relating to Prufrock’s feeling of entrapment 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 the end when he imagines how his life might end up, he envisions himself as an ocean creature, surrounded by mermaids “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” Once again, Eliot disconnects Prufrock from the real world.
Even though Prufrock’s fantasies to be a crab, swim with the mermaids, be young again like Lazarus, talk to women about Michelangelo with the poise and eloquence of Hamlet, slink around the city like a lazy yellow fog, and have his head chopped off like John the Baptist give him a detachment from his day-to-day worries about love and aging, he will never stop torturing himself trying to figure out that “overwhelming question.” The only hope that Eliot gives the reader out of this poem is the hope that we don’t end up like Prufrock.