The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Themes
by T.S. Eliot
Paralysis, the incapacity to act, has been the Achilles heel of many famous, mostly male, literary characters. Shakespeare's Hamlet is the paragon of paralysis; unable to sort through his waffling, anxious mind, Hamlet makes a decisive action only at the end of "Hamlet." Eliot parodically updates Hamlet's paralysis to the modern world in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Parodically, because Prufrock's paralysis is not over murder and the state of a corrupt kingdom, but whether he should "dare to eat a peach" (122) in front of high-society women.
Indeed, Prufrock's paralysis revolves around his social and sexual anxieties, the two usually tied together. Eliot intended Prufrock's name to resound of a "prude" in a "frock," and the hero's emasculation shows up in a number of physical areas: "his arms and legs are thin" (44) and, notably, "his hair is growing thin" (41). The rest of the poem is a catalogue of Prufrock's inability to act; he does not, "after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis" (79-80).
The original title of the poem was "Prufrock Among the Women," and Prufrock, as a balding, weak, neurotic, effete intellectual, is both baffled and intimidated by women. Perhaps the central image of his anxiety is his being "pinned and wriggling on the wall" (58) under the unflinching gaze of women (exacerbated since the women's eyes, much like their "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare" , seem eerily disconnected from their bodies). At least here the women seem to be paying attention to him, however hostile they may be. By the end of the poem, Prufrock feels ostracized from the society of women, the "mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me" (124-125). Interestingly, Prufrock's obsession with his bald spot rears its ugly head here; the beautiful, vain mermaids comb the "white hair of the waves blown back" (127). As hair is a symbol of virility, Eliot suggests that Prufrock's paralysis is deeply rooted in psychosexual anxiety.
Yet Prufrock admits he is not even "Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord / Almost, at times, the Fool" (111-112, 119). At best he is the doddering Polonius from "Hamlet," or a generic clown. He is a modern tragic hero, which is to say he is a mock-hero whose concerns are pathetic yet still real. The final six lines of the poem comprise a sestet that somewhat echoes the Petrarchan sonnet, yet Prufrock, unlike Petrarch, does not have an ideal, unrequited love like Laura; he has a very real anxiety about all women.
Temporal repetition and anxiety
Prufrock's paralysis (see Prufrockian paralysis, above) roots itself in the poem's structure. Eliot deploys several refrains, such as "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14, 35-36) and "And would it have been worth it, after all" (87, 99), to underscore Prufrock's tendency to get stuck on a problem. Just when we believe Prufrock has waded through the "hundred visions and revisions" (33) and come to a conclusion, he echoes a line from the beginning of the stanza. For instance, the double "'at all'" from the woman's "'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all'" (109-110) provides the answer for Prufrock's original question of "And would it have been worth it, after all" (no, evidently).
The refrains and echoes indicate Prufrock's entrapment in the present tense, but Eliot notes his hero's other temporal afflictions. The swinging rhythm of the poem - at times rhymed for long stretches, often not - hints at a confusing, chaotic sense of time within Prufrock's head. The confusion establishes itself in the "And would it have been worth it, after all" line. By using the perfect conditional tense, Prufrock deludes himself into thinking he has made a decision and is now reviewing it.
This delusion only masks Prufrock's greater anxiety about the future and aging. Already characterized as having lost the luster of youth (and pathetically trying to approximate the bohemian style of rolling his trousers), the only thing Prufrock marches toward decisively is death. The poem's epigraph from Dante's Inferno casts a deathly pallor over the proceedings, and Prufrock seems already in his own nightmarish afterlife. The two allusions to Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" ironically comment on Prufrock's attitude toward life. In the poem, the speaker urges his lady to have sex with him while they are still young and alive. Prufrock's allusions, however - "And indeed there will be time" (23) and "Would it have been worth while, / To have squeezed the universe into a ball" (90, 92) - reinforce his fixation on paralysis rather than sex. He deludes himself into thinking he has plenty of time left, and thus does not need to act; death looms, though, however much he wants to deny it. Sex, of course, reproduces new life while death ends it; Prufrock is somewhere in the middle, gradually advancing on the latter.
One of the key terms in Modernist literature, fragmentation is the accumulation of numerous and varied - often to chaotic effect - signs (words, images, sounds). James Joyce's Ulysses, with fragments as obscure as specific letters that course meaningfully throughout the novel, is possibly the defining fragmented Modernist work. But it is so successful because the Modernists also believed that meaning could be made out of these fragments. To quote from Eliot's "The Wasteland," possibly the defining Modernist poem: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (431). From the ruins of fragments, some coherence can be established; only this gives the chaos of modern life hope.
Prufrock concerns itself with fragmentation, yet it does not quite have the hopefulness of "The Wasteland" (it should be noted that many readers do not see this optimism behind the finale of "The Wasteland"). The city Prufrock lives in is itself fragmented, a scattered collection of "Streets that follow like a tedious argument" (8) above which "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" (72) lean out of their isolated windows. The population is fragmented, lost and alone; even the sterile skyline resembles a "patient etherized upon a table" (3).
Eliot achieves much of this fragmentation through his exquisite imagery. Whether it is the subliminal comparison between the fog "that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes" (16) and feline movement, a self-conscious dissection of how women's eyes have Prufrock "pinned and wriggling on the wall" (58), or Prufrock's self-debasement as a "pair of ragged claws" (73), the images in "Prufrock" are specific and symbolic. Eliot takes a cue from the 19th-century French Symbolists - Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephene Mallarme, and particularly Jules Laforgue - who believed that life should be represented in literature through symbolic, and not realistic, forms. Eliot uses what he has referred to as the "objective correlative," in which he grafts emotional meaning onto otherwise concrete objects, such as the cat, an insect specimen (the pin), and the crab's claws. His intent behind these fragmented images is, as he has argued in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that the "progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." Out of the fragmented images we come away with a coherent analysis of Prufrock-the-character, not of Eliot-the-poet.
Augmenting our appreciation of the fragmented Prufrock is insight into his mind and voice. His mind is perhaps more easily represented; all over the place, interrupted by self-interrogation and self-consciousness, looping back on itself, Prufrock's train of thought is deeply fragmented. But his voice is Eliot's greater achievement, one that sows the seeds for "The Wasteland." What is Prufrock's voice, poetically speaking? It is difficult to answer because it is a combination of so many historic poetic voices. The poem comes in the form of a dramatic monologue, a form that is usually fit for a resonant speaking voice (and one that extinguishes the personality of the poet, too). But "Prufrock" has a chorus of fragmented voices - the epigraph to Dante, the frequent allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, and many poetic predecessors - which deny the existence of a solo voice. This, then, is Prufrock's voice: a fragmentation of voices past and present that somehow harmonize. In "The Wasteland," Eliot would go on to write a poem whose vocal origins are hugely varied and hidden, much like Joyce's Ulysses.
Debasement and HellThe opening image of the evening "spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table" (2-3) hints that what is lower down will be much worse. The epigraph from Dante's Inferno, a work in which the hero descends into the nine successive levels of Hell, also suggests this lowering of height and expectations. Indeed, Prufrock sweeps the reader on a generally downward ride - from the skyline to street life, down stairs during a party, even to the sea floor. Prufrock consistently feels worse about himself in these situations - the reference to "Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (74) is the ultimate in self-pitying - but they have more resonance when we consider the Dante epigraph. Prufrock is descending into his own Hell, and he brings the reader along with him for safety - just as Guido da Montefeltro tells Dante his story in Hell only because he thinks Dante will never resurface and tell others about it. Fittingly, Prufrock switches from his first-person singular narration to first-person plural in the last stanza: "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown" (129-131). For his final plunge, Prufrock wants to make sure that we, his Dantesque listener, accompany him into his self-pitying Hell.
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