The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary and Analysis
by T.S. Eliot
The following is a rebuttal to several arguments put forth by Professor W.C. Dowling of Rutgers University. The response is composed by Teddy Wayne, the author of GradeSaver's ClassicNote on Prufrock:
I am happy to defend my analysis against Professor Dowling, most of which is confirmed through research and careful reasoning. I will go point-by-point; Professor Dowling¹s original comments are italicized, while mine are plain and boldfaced. The entire text of Professor Dowlings comments is available at http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~wcd/eng219.htm:
I will give some examples of the ClassicNotes howlers below, but I cannot resist starting with the skilled Harvard-educated commentator's analysis of the ending of the poem, and in particular Prufrock's famous question to himself: "Do I dare to eat a peach?"
At this point in the poem, you may recall, Prufrock has faced the fact that he is never going to declare his passion to his lady-love. He imagines himself as an old man, walking along the beach, frail and dried up and never having really experienced life before descending into the grave.
Part of the way he imagines himself as being old has to do with the loosening of his teeth. In Prufrock's time, before there was modern dentistry, most people lost some or most of their teeth as they got older. Like stiffness of the limbs or shortening of sight, it was thought to be one of the inevitable consequences of aging.
Even older people who didn't lose their teeth almost invariably had some loosening of their teeth in the sockets - like when you were a kid losing your first set of teeth and felt them going wobbly before you actually lost them.
That's what Prufrock is imagining. The reason he imagines a peach as something he might not "dare" to eat when old is that peaches contain pits - if your teeth are loose, and if you bite into a peach thoughtlessly or unwarily, biting down on the pit of the peach can cost you a tooth.
Here we have, in a word, the meaning of Prufrock's "Do I dare to eat a peach?"
But that is not what the skilled Harvard-educated commentator of ClassicNotes makes of the line. Far from it.
What the skilled Harvard-educated commentator of ClassicNotes thinks the peach is about is "female genitalia."
I am not making this up. Here's what he says: "The peach, through shape and texture, has long been a symbol for female genitalia." He then helpfully adds that "Prufrock's anxiety about eating a peach has much to do with his feelings of sexual inadequacy."
Here is my full analysis, which points out that the associations with femininity constitute only a minor part of the peach¹s meaning:
"Prufrock, on the other hand, knows he is going to die soon but he still cannot even "dare to eat a peach" (122). While Eliot's main intent is to trivialize Prufrock's anxieties - a simple piece of fruit confounds him - the peach has a few other possible meanings. First, it is the Chinese symbol for marriage and immortality, two things Prufrock desires. Moreover, the peach, through shape and texture, has long been a symbol for female genitalia. Prufrock's anxiety about eating a peach, then, has much to do with his feelings of sexual inadequacy, his worry that his balding head and thin physique earn him the scorn of women."
While Professor Dowling¹s idea about loose teeth may have some validity, it would be hard to deny that the main function of this section is to reveal Prufrock's pathetic anxieties over such small concerns. After that, the "teeth" theory has just as much validity as my sexual theory, which, at the very least, is a more engaging and original notion. An Internet search reveals that the peach is, indeed, the Chinese symbol for immortality and marriage, as well as for femininity and, in particular, feminine genitalia. Here is one site of several that confirms it, http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch6.html: "Cultivation of peaches began in China as early as 2000 BCE, where the ancient Chinese thought of the peach as a symbol of the female genitalia and recognized its yin qualities." Eliot could have chosen any number of pitted fruits if he cared so deeply about the teeth issue, but he chose the fruit most associated with the sexuality of women, the underlying subject of the poem.
While we are right here at the end of the poem, let me note another howler perpetrated by our skilled Harvard-educated commentator.
In this part of the poem, Prufrock also thinks back to the days - now half-mythical in his own memory - when he thought he might have the courage to declare his love to his lady. The way he describes his imagined success is to say that he has seen himself "wreathed with seaweed, red and brown."
It would take too long to explain everything that's going on here - i.e., why Prufrock, in thinking about his own past hopes and aspirations, sees himself as having been, figuratively, among mermaids - but the essential point is that he is imagining himself (Prufrock) as being "wreathed with seaweed."
Our skilled Harvard-educated commentator does not, however, see things this way. What he gets out of the line is that the mermaids are wreathing themselves with seaweed. He thinks, in a word, that the seaweed is artificial hair used by the mermaids to piece out their own inadequate hairdos. Again, I am not making this up. He actually says "artificial hair."
I quote from the poem:
"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)
Indeed, the lines can be read with the "We" subjects being wreathed by the sea-girls - or they could be read with the "We" subjects lingering by the sea-girls who are themselves wreathed with seaweed. Eliot has willfully provided this double meaning in his lines, and it is disheartening to see that Professor Dowling, a supposed advocate of "close reading," which prizes locating such textual ambiguities, denies the existence of a second reading. I provided my interpretation because, as the lines read to me, it seems the more plausible of the two. Once again, Professor Dowling also fails to provide my full analysis, which contains several pieces of evidence leading up to the final one about the mermaids:
Accordingly, Prufrock immediately switches his attention to the mermaids "singing, each to each" (124) - the society of women who ignore him. The elusive images perhaps have more cohesion than on first glance:
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
Prufrock has just wondered "Shall I part my hair behind?" (122), and previously he has agonized over his bald spot, turned his keen eye to the women's arms "downed with light brown hair!" (64), and agonized over eating a fuzzy peach. Mermaids are conventionally depicted combing their hair with a mirror, so as symbols of vanity and lush beauty - "wreathed with seaweed red and brown" (130), they possess even more artificial hair - they threaten Prufrock (whose thinning hair is perhaps now a salt-and-pepper mixture of "white and black" and no longer "red and brown").
If anything, I should have made more of the fact that Eliot uses the words "combing the white hair" for the mermaids who, as I said, are conventionally depicted "combing their hair with a mirror." I quote from another website about mermaids, http://www.whiterosesgarden.com/Enchanted_Waters/mermaid_article.htm, which discusses the goddess Aphrodite, as "Many of the symbols associated with Aphrodite, subsequently the Roman Venus, have been retained in the mermaid myth":
"Her abundant, flowing hair, symbolizing an abundant love potential, was also an attribute of Venus in her role as fertility goddess. Her comb, necessary to keep all that hair in order, carried sexual connotations for the Greeks, as their words for comb, kteis and pecten, also signified the female vulva. Thus the mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses, particularly as the link between passion and destruction."
Moreover, the seaweed is not a literal symbol of "artificial hair," but one component of many in Eliot's objective correlative system. Professor Dowling seems not to understand, or at least chooses to ignore, this pioneering poetic technique Eliot adapted from the French Symbolists. I quote from Eliot¹s essay "Hamlet and His Problems," which I also quote from in my interpretation: "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative¹; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be the formula of that particular emotion." Put another way, fragmented objects assume emotional value and cohere in some kind of meaningful fashion through the objective correlative; in this case, hair is used as a motif for sexual potency throughout the poem in a number of ways, as my analysis explains. Instead, Professor Dowling insists on reading the poem literally; a peach is only a peach, hair is only hair. This is fine to do, but I, at least, find exploring a poem¹s subtextual meaning far more rewarding.
1) Our skilled Harvard-educated commentator (hereinafter, SHEC) thinks that Prufrock is middle aged. (He is not middled (sic) aged. The whole meaning of the poem depends on his not being middle aged.)
I call Prufrock "presumably middle-aged" (and "middle-aged" is hyphenated), and performing an Internet search for "Prufrock middle-aged" reveals that just about everyone else thinks of him as a middle-aged man, too; one example is from http://www.hwwilson.com/print/eliot.html, a biography of Eliot from the World Authors Series, which maintains that "¹Prufrock¹ is a long dramatic monologue about a fastidious middle-aged man who is unable to overcome his emotional timidity to find love and meaning in life." While Prufrock might be somewhat younger and already worrying about his advancing age, the major evidence - his baldness and his semi-membership in a society of sophisticated adults - suggests he is at least in his thirties, if not forties. Eliot was mocking his own anxieties through much of the poem, and was projecting his twenty-something self (his age when he wrote it) onto a much older character. If the "whole meaning of the poem," according to Professor Dowling, is staked on Prufrock¹s not being middle-aged, then apparently everyone else but the professor has gotten it wrong.
2) When Prufrock sees the fog as a cat at the beginning of the poem, SHEC notes that "Prufrock's effeminacy emerges through the cat, as felines generally have feminine associations." (Q: they do? Is that why their genitalia are so often symbolized by peaches, one wonders?)
As this website - http://www.holisticshop.co.uk/dictionary/bast.html - again, one of many, confirms, the cat was first domesticated in Egypt 4,000 years ago, and Bast, or Bastet, was the Egyptian cat goddess. Since then, the enigmatic, somewhat seductive qualities of cats have often associated them with women - hence "Cat Woman," not "Cat Man." If Professor Dowling is so curious about cats and genitalia, I invite him to think of all the other cultural associations we have between women and cats. Here is my full interpretation:
"The fog/cat seems to be looking in on the roomful of fashionable women "talking of Michelangelo" (13). Unable to enter, it lingers pathetically on the outside of the house, and we can imagine Prufrock avoiding, yet desiring, physical contact in much the same way (albeit with far less agility). Eliot again uses an image of physical debasement to explore Prufrock's self-pitying state; the cat goes down from the high windowpanes to the "corners of the evening" (17) to the "pools that stand in drains" (18), lets soot from the high chimneys fall on its back (since it is lower down than the chimneys), then leaps from the terrace to the ground. While Eliot appreciated the dignity of cats, this particular soot-blackened cat does not seem so dignified. Rather, the cat appears weak, non-confrontational, and afraid to enter the house. Moreover, Prufrock's prude-in-a-frock effeminacy emerges through the cat, as felines generally have feminine associations."
3) SHEC shares with us in one of his helpful summary sections the insight that "Prufrock walks through the streets and watches lonely men leaning out their windows." (Wrong. Prufrock is inside during the entire time of the poem. It is true that he thinks back to previous evenings when he walked through half-deserted streets, but that is not what SHEC is seeing here. SHEC is imagining that the Prufrock who exists right now is out there in those lonely streets.)
The lines from the poem:
"Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?..." (70-72)
As this was a summary section, I summarized it as if the action were occurring in the present tense - the only way to write a summary. While the entire poem does most likely take place as an interior dramatic monologue, to write the whole summary as this would have been tedious and unhelpful to a reader; it would have required my stating "He thinks about walking through streets..." and the like prior to each sentence. I tried to suggest this mental journey with my opening summary: "J. Alfred Prufrock, a presumably middle-aged, intellectual, indecisive man, invites the reader along with him through the modern city. He describes the street scene and notes a social gathering of women discussing Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He describes yellow smoke and fog outside the house of the gathering, and keeps insisting that there will be time to do many things in the social world."
4) SHEC makes a sartorial comment about Prufrock's "plain, middle-aged clothing." (Wrong. Prufrock's dress is about as patrician as you can get. His clothing is the only thing about himself he has confidence in. To cite Polonius, whom Prufrock echoes, it is apparel that is rich, though not gaudy. It is true that Prufrock inhabits a world where quiet good taste prohibits excessive ornamentation, but not to know that he's J. Press all the way (so to speak) is seriously to misunderstand the poem. Also, his clothing isn't middle-aged.)
This is Dowling¹s only debatable point, and I should have explained my idea somewhat more. Just as Prufrock feels he is, in the poem¹s central image of anxiety in the face of the social gaze, "formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall" (57-58), here Eliot also uses the word "pin" to suggest Prufrock¹s necktie similarly "pins" him down:
"My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin -
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]" (42-44)
His confidence in his clothing is debatable, as the necktie¹s "pin" does little to make him feel better about his thin arms and legs.
5) Back to the ending. Poor SHEC imagines that Prufrock's vision of himself walking by the beach in rolled trousers is "a popular bohemian style at the time," and therefore "a pathetic attempt to ward off death." (Wrong. Prufrock is imagining himself as an old man, and older people actually shrink due to spinal compression as they get on in years. But males of Prufrock's social class bought very good clothes, meant to last a lifetime, so Prufrock imagines himself as having to roll his trousers up to keep from tripping himself as he gets shorter and shorter with old age.)
Again, I am discouraged that Professor Dowling has so callously discarded my interpretation with the simple word "Wrong." Before passing such judgment, it might behoove him to do some basic research. While Eliot may have used the notion of Prufrock¹s shrinking as a minor idea about senescence in line with the teeth theory for the peaches, my annotation is taken and cited from an annotation in the Norton Anthology of English Literature and has become a universally accepted interpretation. I trust the authority of Norton over that of Dowling.
It is clear that Professor Dowling is upset about the existence of academic websites such as GradeSaver, and this is a fair and understandable complaint, especially coming from a professor. However, in his knee-jerk reaction he has not put much effort into investigating GradeSaver; he mistakenly believes that utilizing the free ClassicNotes costs $30 per page, while this is instead the cost for a completely separate service GradeSaver offers. I will not speculate on whether my ClassicNote is a more engaging study of "Prufrock" than a seminar or lecture with Professor Dowling would be, but Professor Dowling¹s antagonistic, bitter, and sarcastic attitude toward my interpretation of "Prufrock" does not make him seem like a sympathetic teacher willing to explore ideas not his own. His constant harping on my being a "skilled Harvard-educated commentator" is sophomoric and mean-spirited, and makes one wonder what terrible abuses he endured while he received his Ph.D. at Harvard (a fact he is not shy about trumpeting elsewhere on his webpage).
I do not mean to turn the attention from myself to Professor Dowling, but his idea of what "close reading" should be merits some attention. Most readers would agree that Professor Dowling¹s treatment on his webpage of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is below collegiate, and even high school, standards. His various interpretations - that "had we means if we had,¹ and that were means would be,¹" or that "the internal audience¹ of the poem is the lady addressed by the speaker in line two" - are basic reading comprehension analyses most junior-high students could readily grasp. To be fair, Professor Dowling may have downplayed his analytic abilities for the sake of introducing the concept of close reading to the uninitiated. However, writing "So the poem is really in a way philosophical¹ at the same time as it is about youth and love and passion" is nobody¹s idea of close reading, let alone precise writing.
Ultimately, what Professor Dowling fails to understand is that the Internet can be a valuable intellectual and academic resource, and that it is changing the way information can be accessed. If my exegesis were contained in a single copy of an out-of-print book along some musty library shelf, he never would have known about it, let alone condemned it. Instead, my interpretation, for better or worse, is available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. Of course, its widespread dissemination may be used for unethical gains, but any teacher with competent computer skills could easily nab a plagiarist foolish enough to lift sentences directly from my text by using an Internet search engine and matching parts of his essay with mine. On the other hand, the Internet has made research more powerful than ever before, and it would be a shame to hem in honest scholars simply because others might abuse the system.
I do not think Professor Dowling has given adequate thought both to the positive uses of the Internet and to my interpretation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." His vitriolic attack on me is unprofessional in its decorum and scholarship. I am unfazed by his cruel, possibly insecure, behavior; his reference to ClassicNote¹s being staffed by "utter morons, especially (on the evidence) ones educated at Harvard," if anything, elicited a chuckle from me. However, I sincerely hope that he has not personally attacked and hurt any students at Rutgers who have dared to challenge his own reductive ideas.
- Teddy Wayne, author of the ClassicNote for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
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