The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary and Analysis
by T.S. Eliot
Lines 37-86 Summary:
Prufrock agonizes over his social actions, worrying over how others will see him. He thinks about women's arms and perfume, but does not know how to act. He walks through the streets and watches lonely men leaning out their windows. The day passes at a social engagement but he cannot muster the strength to act, and he admits that he is afraid.
Prufrock's social paralysis is diagnosed in these six stanzas. The smallest action - descending stairs - is occasion for magnified self-scrutiny and the fear that he will "Disturb the universe" (46). He continues asking himself questions about how to comport himself, but admits he will reverse these decisions soon. His inaction is constantly tied to the social world: "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" (79-80) The somewhat silly rhyme here underscores the absurdity of Prufrock's concerns.
Yet Eliot fleshes out Prufrock's character and makes his worries, however trivial, human. Prufrock twice refers to his balding head, describes his plain, middle-aged clothing, and draws us into his point-of-view of the social world. His eye is specific in its observation: "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)" (63-64) Although the first line is an allusion to the line "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" from John Donne's poem "The Relic," a line Eliot admires for its sharp contrast in his essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), the specificity of Prufrock's eye shows more the influence of the 19th-century French Symbolists, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephene Mallarme, and particularly Jules Laforgue. (In fact, Eliot's repeating line about Michelangelo is a somewhat parodic nod to a similar line by Laforgue about the masters of the Sienne school.) The Symbolists butted heads with the Realist movement, believing life could be represented only by symbols, however confusing or chaotic. Eliot's objective correlative serves a similar purpose, expressing Prufrock's emotional life through concrete, oft-elusive symbols.
As detailed as Prufrock's eye is, he feels the effects of the penetrating social gaze far more deeply:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all -
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall
"Sprawling on a pin" refers to the practice of pinning insect specimens for study, suggesting Prufrock feels similarly scrutinized, but the key here is Prufrock's discussion of eyes. As with his catalogue of the "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare," Prufrock isolates the body part from the rest of the body. Detached, the eyes multiply in power; they dominate both the room and the bodies of those who look at Prufrock.
Anxiety is foremost a concern with the future, and Prufrock continues to show his inability to advance in time. Of the six stanzas here, four begin with "And" (37, 55, 62, 75) while five lines at the end of different stanzas do (61, 68-69, 85-86), suggesting a repetitive, inescapable present tense. His mental logic conforms to a similar pattern; the "sprawling on a pin" lines make tiny steps forward ("And when..."/"When I am..."/"Then how..." [57-59]) rather than large leaps. Prufrock's refrain "And indeed there will be time" (23, 37) is an allusion to Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" ("Had we but world enough, and time" ), in which the speaker urges his lady to speed up their courtship. As with most of Eliot's allusions in "Prufrock," the Marvell reference is ironic. Rather than hurrying his lady, Prufrock makes excuses for himself; he assures himself there will be time to act, although his repetitive, paralytic nature has so far belied that. The line also contains a possible pun; "indeed" can be read as "in deed," another reference to Prufrock's inability to act (to do a deed). A further irony unfolds in Prufrock's use of the word "presume." While the Latinate root of "presume" means "to anticipate," something Prufrock spends much time doing, its main English meaning is "to undertake without leave or clear justification," a boldness Prufrock surely lacks.
Not only is Prufrock paralyzed in the present, but he seems to have a disordered sense of time. He describes the "evenings, mornings, afternoons" (50), and the odd order gives us pause. While it primarily describes a cycle from night to the next day, reinforcing the idea of repetition, its abrupt switch from "evenings" to "mornings" echoes Eliot's images of vertical descent present in the first three stanzas. He resumes the vertical descent motif in this section of the poem as well; Prufrock descends the stairs, and as he watches smoke rising from pipes and lonely men "leaning out windows" (72) just below, he feels he "should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (73-74). This final alliterative image of debasement (the third animal association for Prufrock after the cat and insect connections) paints a pathetic portrait of Prufrock, but the suggestion of a crab is perhaps an allusion to Shakespeare's "Hamlet," in which Hamlet mocks Polonius (Eliot later explicitly references "Hamlet," making this more plausible): "for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward" (2.2.205-206).
Perhaps, then, Prufrock's propensity to move backwards and downwards is suggestive of his nearness to death, of his backpedaling down into Hell. The Dante epigraph casts a deathly pallor over the entire poem, and Prufrock himself sees "the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker" (85). While he says in the next line "in short, I was afraid" (86) in reference to his fear of social action, he may also be referring to this deathly figure awaiting him.
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