The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

How does Eliot disorient the reader in the poem so you get a sense of the confusion that Prufrock is experiencing?


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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, / Š 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.