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The Undirected Letter of J. Alfred Prufrock

Akihiro Eguchi


            No matter what period of time they lived in, people have always questioned the meaning of their lives. While they have their public roles, most of them have another self which is tormented by many conflicted thoughts such as longing, skepticism and self-derision. Therefore, the drudgery of daily life easily increases their anxieties and self-dissatisfactions and makes them think deeply about the definitions and the value of their lives.

            In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot describes Prufrock, a methodical gentleman, who ruminates about those complex feelings in his daily life. He starts the poem by quoting from Dante's Divina Commedia of which speaks about confession of a man's honest mind. In the poem, Prufrock tries to confess, yet because of his many self-deceits, it becomes rather a “tedious argument” (Eliot 8). Therefore, although the title of poem is suggestive of love, this poem does not describe those passionate feelings but rather focuses on Prufrock’s inner conflicts. Prufrock sees himself as an insect in one sense, but he shows his desire to become a low organism on the ocean floor in the other sense. He also compares himself with a prophet and Hamlet although he understands that he is in fact none of them. Those descriptions of his self-searching successfully draw him as not being able to find out the purpose of his life. Eliot gradually unfolds the fear and cowardice of a middle aged man who tries to approach a woman in whom he’s romantically interested.

            Eliot begins the poem by describing Prufrock’s negative thinking and hesitation to make up his mind. The first line, “LET us go then, you and I” (1) and the description of the evening sky seem to be a common way to start a love song. However, by writing “Like a patient etherized upon a table” (3), Eliot makes readers notice that this is not a normal love poem because words like “patient” and “etherized” tend to be related to anxiety. Then, after being shown description of sleazy dirty streets, readers realize that this poem is about Prufrock’s “overwhelming question” (10) which he cannot ask for a woman. In the third stanza, descriptions of “yellow fog”(15) and “yellow smoke”(16) with words like “muzzle”(16) and “tongue”(17) evoke an image of a small animal, and by writing “Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap”(20), Prufrock describes this animal's flexible and agile movement. Nevertheless, the rhythm of this stanza is predominantly iambic which seems to express his humdrum life. In addition, the description of the fog which cannot come into his place because of “window-panes” (15,16), which are described twice, shows the separation of Prufrock and the fog. Therefore, this animalized fog, which is changeable, is also used later to contrast to the image of Prufrock who cannot make his decision even after his “visions and revisions” (33) and emphasizes his obstinate way of thinking.

            The fourth stanza begins with Prufrock's convincing himself that “there will be time” (23) for asking “the overwhelming question”; however, his repeating this phrase twice in line 26 shows his lack of confidence for having that chance. Also, by looking at the way Eliot writes the sentence “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (27) and the movement of “lift and drop” (30), it can be pointed out that Eliot intentionally makes sentence grammatically complicated so that Prufrock can gain spare time before acting. Thus, in lines 28-29, he exaggerates as if Prufrock has enormous time for doing anything. Nevertheless, he yet is holding a “hundred indecisions” (32) which shows he seems to be a man of words and not of deeds.

            Then, in the fifth stanza, Prufrock is now near women; however, Elitot's writing “In the room the women come and go. Talking about Michelangelo” (36-37) for the second time shows Prufrock's consistent anxiety of being compared with their ideal figure Michelangelo. Therefore, he repeats “Do I dare?” (38) and shows a recession of his courage. At lines 42-43, he mentions his being neatly dressed and tries to encourage himself. These thoughts become even stronger by choosing words like “firmly”(42) and “asserted”(43), which are usually used for presenting one’s will. Nevertheless, here, Prufrock is still afraid of being critically viewed by women and questions his capability once again. Then, he thinks about “the universe” (46), which is all that surrounds him and a woman, and if his action would make some changes in it, so he holds back again. He shows his feeling of inability in the sixth stanza because of the use of present perfect form and saying “I have known” (49), and he describes himself as an insect stung by a pin. The word “pin” is also used in the fifth stanza as a thing attached on his necktie to show his being neatly dressed and acting like a gentleman. Therefore, it shows the irony of his perception: While he is feeling annoyed to be over expected to act as a gentleman, it in fact is a self-imposed pressure. The words “spit out” (60) and “butt-ends” (60) show his irritations because of these struggles; nonetheless, by asking “how should I presume?” (61), he decides to go to meet women not because of his strong will but rather just let things happen.

            The scene changes at line 62, and Prufrock and the women are now in the same room, and Eliot describes Prufrock's tension running high and his self-degradation in this part. In the eighth stanza, Prufrock stares fixedly at the women's arms, which sexually-stimulates him, and loses his composure. The rhymed lines, “It is perfume from a dress” (65) and “That makes me so digress?” (66) show his discomfort and his slowness of thought, and he asks again “how should I presume?” (68). He becomes afraid of the women's voice in the sixth stanza and becomes afraid of their eyes on him in the seventh stanza. Then, here, he becomes afraid of the atmosphere of being with them; he has no more bravery for asking the “overwhelming question” anymore.

            Therefore, in the ninth stanza, Prufrock asks himself if he should give up acting as a gentleman and show his miserable inner self because he has no reason for hiding it anymore. This scene bears close resemblance to the quotation from Dante's Divina Commedia at the point of showing his true self. However, the tenth stanza shows that he is deficient in courage here again by showing his desire to degrade to “a pair of ragged claws” (73) which do not have any obsessions. Also, “Floors of silent seas” (74) seems to be a metaphor of an ideal place where he can escape from reality.

            Similar to the third stanza, Prufrock sees the flexible animal-like thing (fog and smoke) again among the women in lines 75-78, and by contrasting it with him, Eliot emphasizes Prufrock's awkward way of life. The description of “after tea and cake and ices” (79) is contrasted with the description of “before the taking of a toast and tea” (34) when Prufrock still had time to make his decision, and this implies his frustration by losing his available time. At line 81, he sees past time flashing in front of him and falls into self-degradation in line 82. Then, he surrenders his hope by saying “I am no prophet” (83). He can imagine a good future and failure at the same time, but the “overwhelming question” stops him from making his proposal. This part is closed by his lamenting over his moral cowardice.

            In the third part, Prufrock justifies the aftermath, but in vain. In the twelfth stanza, Prufurock lists every object he sees such as “cups” (88), “marmalade” (88), and “porcelain” (89). This seems that he is trying to express the satisfaction with his life without asking the “overwhelming question.” Also, he exaggeratingly says that he does not care about anything with the woman at all anymore in lines 90-93, and he thinks his attempt would have failed if he has asked the question in lines 96-98; however, ironically, these descriptions rather sound like excuse. At the beginning of the thirteenth stanza, Prufrock repeats “would it have been worth” (100,101), which is also repeated in lines 87 and 90, and tries to justify this idea in lines 101-103. However, the use of words like “after” and “and” many times to connect random objects shows his empty justification. By showing his frustration with saying “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104), Prufrock also describes his conflicted feeling. Then, again, he claims “would it have been worth it” (106), and says he would have failed anyway. However, adversely, the repetition of these similar sentences in the twelfth and the thirteenth stanza seem to imply his regret.

            Then, in the fourteenth stanza, Prufrock insists he is “not Prince Hamlet” (111) and tries to find out who he is. By expressing himself as “attendant lord” (112), he describes what he would be like, a gentleman who tries to be nice but is very awkward. As he negatively describes himself, his rhythm becomes slow by adding many commas as the stanza's ending. Finally, by muttering, “I grow old ... I grow old ...” (120), Prufrock shows his feeling of helplessness.

            However, in the sixteenth stanza, the word “shall” implies his strong desire to escape, which makes him think of the sea. Although Prufrock still does not have confidence at line 17 by saying “I do not think they will sing to me” (125), his images are combined with the sea, which he thinks is far away from reality. These descriptions make readers think that Prufrock finally gets his assurance by separating from his complicated self and reality. However, in fact, “human voice”(131), which is a metaphor of reality, pulls him back at the end, and this shows people can never run away from the conflicted self and reality.

            This poem ends full of sarcasm, telling that even if people can escape from stressful reality for a while, all of them eventually have to come back at a certain point. The word “drown”(131) amplifies the feeling of despair; at the same time, the image of the sea also gives warmth, so it rather leaves the atmosphere which people feel in a morning in a state between sleeping and waking, tiredly starting a new day. This seems to represent Prufrock's negative attitude toward not only a romance but also a very complicated society where people live. Also, this poem describes the inflexible middle-aged man who is confused by the society and looking for a place to give away his true feeling. Therefore, Prufrock might be a projection of Eliot himself who worries about keeping up with the rapidly changing society.

Work Citated

  • Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, and Robert Funk. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2005. 621-624.