T.S. Eliot is one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century. He is also a tremendously complex figure, for a number of different reasons. American critics long to claim him as one of their own writers, while critics in England are equally adamant about suggesting that people ought to regard him as British. In studying this important writer, one of the most worthwhile and significant of his works is also one of his earliest: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Although a first glance might suggest that this poem is relatively simple, a more careful analysis demonstrates that this is a faulty conclusion. In order to arrive at a complete and clear analysis of this text, one must first consider Eliot’s background. Next, it is important to examine who the important characters in this poem are, how Eliot establishes the setting, and the various people and animals to which Prufrock compares himself. Finally, readers must examine what kind of attitude Eliot espouses about women. Only through considering all of these facets of the poem will one arrive at a complete picture of the text.
One of the many reasons that "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock" is such a complex poem is the ambiguous and often confusing biography of the poem’s author, T.S. Eliot. First, it is difficult to know exactly how one should categorize Eliot. While he was born in St. Louis and lived his early years in the United States, he spent the majority of his adult life in Europe, and became a British citizen. Clearly, therefore, a case can be made that he should be studied in a British Literature class, yet his works often appear in American Literature classes and anthologies as well. To understand Eliot, and this poem, it is first necessary to examine his background in some detail.
Eliot’s family was tremendously influential in his developmental years. His grandfather was a Unitarian minister, which proved to be an important, albeit enigmatic, influence in his life. While Eliot never fully embraced the faith of his grandfather, his rejection of it and later conversion to Anglicanism demonstrate that religion played a key role in his life. As Peter Ackroyd asserts, the atmosphere of Eliot’s childhood "was one of duty and responsibility; his family, for the most part, took up careers in social service, in teaching, or in the Unitarian ministry" (18). Eliot’s relationship with his father was not a particularly strong one. This may be in part due to the fact that his father was in his late forties when Eliot was born, and he was growing deaf. These facts, combined with his father’s preoccupation with his successful business, lead Ackroyd to the conclusion that "Eliot never seems to have felt close to his father" (19). While these relationships with the important males in his life seem to have had an impact because of what they were not, women played a very important and generally positive role in Eliot’s early years. Women dominated the Eliot household, which included Eliot’s four sisters and his mother, along with the various servants the family employed. Eliot’s mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot, "wrote poems [and] throughout her life she was involved in various kinds of social work" (Ackroyd 20). Ackroyd believes that Eliot was "genuinely devoted to his mother" (20), and the frequency with which Eliot wrote to his mother after he left home confirms Ackroyd’s assertion. Moreover, Eliot was infirm as a child, and therefore grew dependent upon the nurturing of his mother, sister, and nurse. "He was born with a congenital double hernia…the combination of a delicate infant and an household full of women is a potent one: he was surrounded by their protection and sympathy" (Ackroyd 21). The relationships that he enjoyed with the women in his life tremendously influenced Eliot. Certainly, "Prufrock" presents the picture of a man who is very unhappy and uncomfortable about his relationships with women. To the degree that the poem is autobiographical, this fact can perhaps be explained by the fact that Eliot never quite seems to have been able to recapture the level of maternal nurturing that he experienced as a child.
His adolescent and young adult years also seem to have had an important impact on the creation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Eliot, like the protagonist of the poem, was a young man who was not comfortable in relationships with his peers. Eliot’s mother explained in a letter to the Headmaster of Milton Academy, where Eliot attended school before enrolling at Harvard, that he "had been deprived of companions his own age…And so it was decided: he needed to ‘grow up’ in a more regular way" (Ackroyd 28). This letter from his mother indicates the difficulty that the young Eliot experienced relating to his peers. It was with this frame of mind and this type of background that Eliot was to begin forming "Prufrock." Additionally, it was during his years at Harvard that Eliot began to encounter some of the authors who would prove to be such a significant influence on his poetry. During his second year at Harvard, he started reading the works of both Baudelaire and Laforgue (Ackroyd 33). After ingesting some of the works of Laforgue, "he writes poetry which satirizes conventional sentiments and the predilections of the (Boston ) bourgeoisie" (34). It seems, therefore, that his subject matter by this point is beginning to anticipate that of "Prufrock." While at Harvard, others described him as manifesting "strange social behaviour" (Ackroyd 35). The picture of Eliot, then, at this point in his development, is of a socially awkward young man who was beginning to write poetry which was influenced by the French, about the lives of the Boston bourgeoisie. Clearly, "Prufrock" was not too far away.
During the summer of 1910, while at Harvard, Eliot began working on the poetry that was eventually to become "Prufrock." He started by writing poems concerned with "urban squalor and dilapidation" (Ackroyd 37). These poems deal with the thought processes of a "solitary wanderer through dilapidated streets" (Ackroyd 38). This sounds like the setting and central character of "Prufrock." During this time, Eliot wrote a poem for the Harvard Advocate entitled "Spleen" that shares much in common with "Prufrock." As Leonard Unger explains,
this early poem records the distraction and dejection produced by the "procession…of Sunday faces," by the social routines of the day and the sordid aspects of an urban alley, and then ends with a personification of "Life" as a balding and graying man, fastidiously attired and mannered, waiting with self-conscious correctness as a social caller upon the "Absolute." (195)
Additionally, in his poetry written during this period, when describing some of the actions of the bourgeoisie, Eliot speaks of the "flannel suits, the cakes and tea, the outings, the circumspect conversations" (Ackroyd 39). Clearly, some of these words and actions are very close to what he would later write in "Prufrock."
However, "Prufrock" was not brought to completion while he was at Harvard. As Eliot was crafting his poem, he took a year to study abroad in France. While there, he did not make many friends, and suffered tremendously from loneliness (Ackroyd 43). He completed the poem "between 1910 and 1911" (Ackroyd 43), finally finishing it during the summer of 1911, while in Munich (Ackroyd 45). This brief biographical sketch illuminates the reason behind some of the difficulty of studying this poem. Critics often label Eliot an "American" or a "British" poet. As his background up to the creation of "Prufrock" demonstrates, he cannot simply be identified as either. Much of the poem was inspired and began while Eliot was an undergraduate at Harvard, yet he brought the poem to full completion while in Paris and Munich. Clearly, therefore, when focusing on this poem, one cannot construe Eliot merely as a "British" poet. Leonard Unger believes that "in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America" (191). While this is mostly true for "Prufrock," Eliot also is not exactly an "American" poet. To understand Eliot, people must remember that he is "both westerner and New Englander, but not wholly one or the other" (Unger 193), and that the writings of the French symbolists were very influential to him. Finally, he wrote the poem in Boston, Paris, and Munich, while he was feeling very disconnected and alone. All of these factors somehow combine to generate the ultimate context within which Eliot wrote "Prufrock."
Bearing Eliot’s background in mind, it is possible to move on to a discussion of the poem itself. To begin, the title of the work tells a great deal about the poem. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is an ironic title on a number of different levels. First, Eliot draws upon the sound of his protagonist’s name to create irony. "J. Alfred Prufrock" sounds like anything but the name of a person who might sing a "love song." Eliot further reinforces the irony of the title as the poem begins, and he paints the picture of a man who is unable to communicate at all, much less sing "love songs" to anyone. Stanley Sultan confirms the irony of the poem’s title, when he says that with "two equal length strikingly incongruous phrases mediated by a brief genitive preposition, the title announces Prufrock’s immobilizing predicament" (234). Sultan’s analysis takes the comparison even a step further, by noting that the two parts of the title are of a similar length, yet noteworthy by virtue of how different they are. Apparently, the name "Prufrock" was not one which Eliot created, but rather, "is borrowed from a firm of furniture wholesalers in St. Louis" (Gray 338). One can surmise two conclusions from this information. First, Eliot was struck by the humor and stodginess of this name, and therefore remembered it when he was trying to create this same sense about the protagonist of his poem. Secondly, Eliot further enhances the irony of the title by having the singer of this "love song" come from an occupation as unromantic as a furniture wholesaler. Interestingly, the title of the poem was not originally "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In its earliest versions, the poem was called "Prufrock Among the Women" (Ackroyd 44). While this title perhaps also touches upon some of the irony of the final title, it does not do so as profoundly as the final title at which Eliot arrived. However, what is important to note is that both titles share the subject of love, to some degree. Whether it is manifested through entitling the poem a "love song," or merely anticipated by putting this socially awkward man in the midst of women, the impossibility of love for Prufrock was at the forefront of Eliot’s mind from the beginning.
One of the first complexities of the poem is determining who the central characters in the poem are. Eliot starts the poem with the line "Let us go then, you and I." While this might seem an innocuous beginning to the work, it has spawned a tremendous amount of criticism. The key question, of course, is who the "you" is in this poem. Since Prufrock refers to the companion throughout the work, but never definitively identifies him or her, the reader must indulge in speculation. Hugh Kenner suggests the possible antecedents of "you" as the reader, some other part of Prufrock, or Dante (Sultan 242). Perhaps the initial response of most readers is to conclude that Prufrock is addressing the reader directly. However, as the poem continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not a strong possibility, as it certainly seems that Prufrock is already acquainted with this "you." Therefore, Kenner’s first suggestion is unlikely. Skipping to Kenner’s third suggestion, identifying the companion as Dante also is tempting, since the poem’s beginning is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno. Sultan explains the rationale of calling Dante the antecedent in this way:
"The Dante figure of the poem," has now been identified as the analogous poet – as Eliot himself. In support, Eliot’s statement in a letter that "the ‘you’ in THE LOVE SONG is merely some friend or companion" is quoted, and this instance of the usual evasive politeness of Ol’ Possum interpreted as signifying that You is himself. (243)
This kind of interpretation allows the reader to interpret the Dante figure as some sort of alter ego to Eliot. Of course, this type of interpretation is clearly attractive, since even a brief study of Eliot’s biography suggests that many events and circumstances in Eliot’s own life inspired parts of the poem. However, Eliot himself placed great emphasis "on the poem itself rather than on the personality of the poet" (DiYanni 443). Therefore, if Eliot believed that the knowledge of the personality of the poet is not important to an understanding of it, it would certainly be curious to have written himself into this poem. On the other hand, Eliot was a very private person, and he wrote this poem when he was young, so may merely have been attempting to maintain his own privacy. Nonetheless, there are some biographical elements to the work, and therefore, readers should not discount this interpretation of the antecedent of "you" entirely.
Clearly, the interpretation that makes the most sense, and offers the richest interpretation of the poem, is if the "you" of the poem is an alter ego of Prufrock. Sultan confirms the popularity of this interpretation by offering that "the critical consensus that, in Mathiessen’s phrase, Prufrock is engaged in a ‘debate with himself,’ is the reasonable inference about a thought process which is a response" (244). Thus creating the poem to be an argument between two aspects of an individual psyche imbues the poem with tremendous richness. Sultan believes that this dual-personality of the protagonist "is Eliot’s telic design for making his poem express formally the crucial meaning the poem portrays – that the process of Prufrock’s consciousness is a doomed psychomania" (235). In this way, the very fact that Prufrock is engaged in this debate with himself prefigures the inevitable conclusion of someone who is doomed to failure. Establishing Prufrock’s dual identity from the beginning allows Eliot to demonstrate what the inevitable end result of this man will be. Leonard Unger expands on this interpretation, when he says that Prufrock "has gone nowhere and done nothing. He has conducted an ‘interior monologue,’ as the critics have said, and he is the monologue. All the scenery of the poem, indoor and outdoor, is finally the psychological landscape of Prufrock himself" (207). Unger’s interpretation lends an interesting perspective to the poem. Since the narrator is engaged in a debate with himself, one has to question on what level anything in the poem actually transpires. One is forced to wonder if Prufrock actually wanders the streets at all, or whether this is merely a way in which he expresses the confused meanderings of his mind. Similarly, one must also wonder whether the women who "come and go" are as much a fantasy as the mermaids who appear at the poem’s conclusion. Sultan believes that the confusion about the "you and I" at the inception of the poem may also serve another purpose. As he says, "the reader’s irresolution about the meaning of the opening words mirros Prufrock’s irresolution throughout the poem, and may be a strategy of Eliot’s to stimulate negative capability respecting Prufrock’s predicament" (242). In other words, what Sultan believes is that Eliot may intentionally make the beginning of the poem confusing, so that he can create in his reader a state of mind that is similar to what Prufrock experiences. The reader cannot successfully decide who the characters are in the narrative, just as Prufrock cannot decide to enter in to a meaningful relationship in his life. Clearly, therefore, the complexities of the poem begin with the first line. In any event, it is appropriate that this poem, which follows the thoughts of such a conflicted man, should begin in a manner that is open to so many different interpretations.
Since the background of the author and the characters in this poem are so unusual, one must approach the text very carefully. Eliot is one of the first "modern" poets in the English language, and therefore, much of what he attempts to do in this poem is relatively new. Sultan describes Eliot’s goal as the "neo-Jamesian objective of rendering directly an experiencing consciousness" (38-9). Of course, this type of "stream of consciousness" writing is the same kind of thing that James Joyce and Henry James were accomplishing in some of their early prose. Eliot, however, was one of the first to try this technique in English poetry. The psyche that Eliot describes in his poem is certainly one which is jolted in to a harsh reality. In spite of the ambiguous nature of the "you and I" of line one, the poem begins with a kind of lyrical rhythm, as Eliot writes, "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky." At this point, the reader is perhaps untroubled by the ambiguous nature of the "you," hoping that the author will soon identify the antecedent. For the first two lines, the poem seems like it really might be a love song, and the speaker is preparing to go for a walk with his beloved at twilight. However, the third line dashes any hope of romanticism or normality, as Eliot does not compare the sky to something lovely or romantic, but instead to "a patient etherised upon a table." Clearly, Eliot is attempting to shock and unsettle his reader. He accomplishes this goal not only through what the line says, but also through the absence of rhyme or rhythm. It is one of the only lines in the first stanza that is not part of a rhymed couplet. Marion Montgomery explains the effect of the line in this way: "the ‘objective correlative’ which an image establishes also allows an imposition of the indefinable ‘feelings’ upon an image, as in the famous instance of Prufrock’s evening as a patient etherized upon a table" (11). In this passage, Montgomery discusses the notion of the "objective correlative," a theory espoused by Eliot which suggests that certain objects placed in a particular order will elicit an emotional response on the part of the reader. Line three is an example of just this kind of technique. One is not exactly sure what the line means, but Eliot still clearly conveys feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and lack of control. Additionally, this line locates the poem in contemporary times, since the notion of using narcotics to subdue a patient surely is a modern one. The atmosphere into which the narrator and his companion depart, therefore, is one that is contemporary, and one that is nearly overwhelmed by a total lack of control.
In the second stanza, Eliot continues to set the scene by describing a world that fundamentally lacks moral values which he feels were an integral part of the past. The second stanza is the first instance of the couplet "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo." Opinions vary as to the significance of these lines. To some, they show Prufrock’s disgust with the modern world. Prufrock feels that people ought to revere and venerate a master as great as Michelangelo for the beauty and profundity of his creation. The casual nature with which these women discuss the great master is a shock and disturbance to Prufrock. Sultan takes a slightly different approach to the lines. He feels that "the satiric, soon repeated, jingly, go/Michelangelo couplet also is Prufrock’s mental play" (233). In other words, Sultan does not ascribe great significance to these lines, but believes that they are merely a phrase that Prufrock repeats to himself while he is wandering, much like one might hum a jingle while walking down the street. This interpretation clearly does not give Eliot, or psychology, enough credit. In any event, even if the lines are merely a phrase that Prufrock repeats to himself to keep entertained, they nonetheless reveal the high standards to which Prufrock holds the world, and which he feels people must follow at all times.
In the third stanza, Eliot continues to use the objective correlative, but in a different way, as he begins to utilize color imagery to establish the setting. In this stanza, Eliot describes fog as a yellow cat. As for the significance of this comparison, Richard Gray believes that "the scene is, perhaps, initially American but it, and the narrator who dissolves into it, are presented in those radically disintegrative, dream-like terms that characterized many of the best French poets of the late nineteenth century" (339). In other words, this descriptive stanza serves a number of different purposes. First, it aligns the poem with the work of the French symbolists. It is a means of Eliot acknowledging his indebtedness to them, and invoking in the mind of the reader Eliot’s predecessors. Additionally, the yellow fog, which is somehow like a cat settling down to sleep, is strongly suggestive of a dream-like state. This is important to establishing what follows in the rest of the poem, because it lends credence to the suggestion that what follows does transpire in the main character’s mind, and not in reality. Whether the subsequent passages in the poem are real or whether Prufrock imagines them, establishing the context in this way does lend the poem a surreal aura. It is yet another way of reinforcing the notion that the atmosphere is anesthetized. As the sky is a drugged patient, so is the fog that pervades the city and settles into every area of it somehow reminiscient of a dream. Characters in this type of atmosphere cannot be sure of anything they experience, and their environment is certainly an unpleasant one.
After Eliot establishes the physical setting in these first three stanzas, Prufrock continues to set the scene by discussing how he perceives himself. In the early parts of the poem, one of the primary concerns that appears to occupy Prufrock is the passage of time, and his own aging. Numerous times, he reiterates the phrase "there will be time" (lines 23, 26, 28, 37), and makes other explicit references to time in lines 29, 31, 32, 47, and 48. This considerable preoccupation with the passage of time belies the surface of what he says. One must question Prufrock’s insistence that "there will be time," because he sounds like a man trying to convince himself of something that he knows is not true. Ackroyd confirms Eliot’s preoccupation with time when he writes, "in his early student poetry there is a preoccupation with the passage of time – time running away, flowers that wither…but the old topos is explored with renewed concern…of the emptiness of passing days, of the need to use time" (31). Ackroyd’s perceives that what concerned Eliot was dying, whether that be the death of vegetation, or the death of himself. While discussing time, Prufrock mentions the "bald spot in the middle of [his] hair" (line 40), and fears that others will comment that "his hair is growing thin!" (line 41). In the following lines, he describes how he will need to wrap his clothes tightly about himself, and admits that his "arms and legs are thin!" (line 44). These lines describe a protagonist who is losing his hair, growing thin and frail, and is losing the struggle to keep warm. Clearly, this is a man who is uncomfortable with the state of his own age and health. This is somewhat curious of a character to describe for the young T.S. Eliot, who was barely in his twenties when he wrote the poem. Perhaps Eliot was looking in to the future, fearing the way that his own life might turn out if he stayed the present course. In any event, the foggy, drug-induced, aging character and environment that Eliot establishes in the first fifty lines of the poem establish a remarkably somber setting.
In the poem’s eighth stanza, Prufrock moves on from describing the setting to offering the first of many objects to which he compares himself. In this stanza, Prufrock likens himself to a butterfly pinned up for display on a wall. He wonders, "when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? / And how should I presume?" (lines 57-61). These lines illuminate how Prufrock feels about his own existence. It is interesting that his man who feels so isolated and alone, also feels that he is an object of scrutiny. This is the second crucial image in which Prufrock admits to a feeling of powerlessness. Although the first image, which compared the sky to an etherized patient, was not about Prufrock explicitly, it nonetheless is an expression of how he perceives the world. In this image, Prufrock compares himself explicitly to an animal on display. Perhaps this helps explain why he wears his coat with his "collar mounting firmly to the chin" (line 42). He feels that he is on display, and thus, uses clothing both for warmth and privacy. Surely, the existence that Prufrock describes in these lines is the worst kind of loneliness, because he is not alone. He is in the midst of people, yet does not feel as though he belongs with them. Therefore, the image of the pinned butterfly is a perfect way of explaining Prufrock, for he is very much near and among people, but is different from them, and serves only as a scientific, rather than as a personal, interest to them.
The next important metaphor that Prufrock uses in the text is that of a crab. Eliot notifies his reader of this image’s importance because of its central placement in the text. In the tenth stanza of this nineteen stanza poem, Eliot states his desire that he "should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (lines 73-74). Certainly, this desire to have been born a crab is an interesting one, for a number of different reasons. First, this crab, due to its location on the bottom of the ocean, would have to endure the same kind of loneliness that Prufrock currently bemoans. The difference, of course, is that the loneliness in this case would stem from physical isolation from other creatures, rather than from psychological isolation from them. Of course, a crab is also a silent creature, one that does not have to face the difficulty of communication which so frustrates Prufrock. Finally, a crab is able to protect itself, perhaps more so than Prufrock is able to. Sultan comments quite insightfully about this passage:
Here "should" expresses neither the possibility expressed in the set of three paragraphs preceding it, nor the conditional contrariness to fact of the set following it, but the psychological bridge from aspiration to rationalization: complaint. It specifies a preferable alternative the desolate nature of which, conveyed at the center of the poem as much by "scuttling" and by "silent" as by the crab image itself, eliminates doubt either about the futility of his "love song" or about his destiny. (237)
This is quite an insightful observation, on a number of levels. For one, Sultan notices the central location that this stanza enjoys in the poem. Additionally, Sultan also feels that this is the moment in the poem when Prufrock ceases to aspire to be something more, and begins merely to complain about his station in life. Finally, he illuminates how the language employed by Prufrock, much like the other examples of the objective correlative noted above, serves to underscore the content of what he is saying. Another interesting aspect about a crab is that it is a creature that moves sideways. This might be appealing to Prufrock for several reasons. For one, moving sideways suggests an alternative to moving forward, which is often seen as congruous to Prufrock’s great problem of moving in to the future. Additionally, moving sideways would suggest that he could move around the obstacles that face him, rather than having to confront them directly.
As Eliot moves in to the second half of the poem, Prufrock continues his pattern of comparing himself to various people and objects. The next significant comparison takes place in line 82, when he says "I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter." The initial reaction, of course, is to surmise that this passage is making reference to the beheading of John the Baptist. If one adopts this interpretation, certainly it seems a fitting one. John the Baptist is a great Biblical Prophet, the one who was to pave the way for the coming Messiah. Of course, this great and important man saw his life come to a rapid and tragic end when his head was requested on a platter, as reward for the daughter of Herodias, who pleased King Herod with her dancing. For a man who feels awkward with women, as Prufrock does, this is perhaps a fitting ending. A woman whom he does not know requests that he be executed for no apparent reason, and his life is thus brought rapidly to its end. It is interesting and perhaps a bit surprising that Prufrock, who has such a low self image, would compare himself to a great Prophet. However, the only point of comparison that he sees between himself and John the Baptist is the latter’s untimely demise. Critics have also cautioned readers of this poem to be careful when considering this allusion. Marion Montgomery believes "it is necessary for the reader of ‘Prufrock’ to consider the mock heroic overtones and the question of the extent of Prufrock’s self-irony" (65). What this quotation suggests is that perhaps one should not interpret this allusion on its face value, but should instead consider that perhaps Prufrock is being ironic. Other critics, like Sultan, question if the allusion is even Biblical. He says, this passage could be a reference to "the hero of Wilde’s Salomè (‘Jokanaan’)…[or] Laforgue’s John the Baptist (in Salomè)" (253). These critics serve to remind the reader that Eliot was a genius, and his readers need to proceed with caution when interpreting his work. Of course, there is also the possibility that Eliot had all of these things in mind: a literal and an ironic interpretation, and references to the Bible, Wilde, and Laforgue. Certainly, he would have been aware of all of these possible interpretations, and it is impossible to know which one he intended, if it even was any solitary reading. Therefore, the reader must consider all of these possible interpretations when considering this passage.
Prufrock makes a similar comparison when he likens himself to Lazarus, the friend of Jesus’s who was raised from the dead. Again, one must consider if Eliot means for his reader to interpret this line literally or ironically. Interestingly, when Prufrock tries to compare himself to some great figure, he once again decides to compare himself to someone who is most famous for his death. Clearly, Prufrock is a man greatly preoccupied with his impending demise, and this is part of what leads him to choose these morbid images. However, the difference between Prufrock and Lazarus is that no one ever meets Prufrock with great joy, as is the case with Lazarus after his resurrection. Prufrock’s fear is that even if he conquered death, and came back from the underworld, when he would try to share his great revelation with someone, he would meet with the response, "’That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all’" (lines 96-97). Even if Prufrock did have something profound or worthwhile to say, he still would experience indifference and a sense of disconnection.
The last important comparisons that Prufrock makes in the poem are to the three Shakespearean characters alluded to near the end of the poem: Hamlet, an attendant lord, and the Fool. Interestingly, the allusion that Prufrock makes to Hamlet is one that he defines by negation. He says, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be" (line 111). This is an ironic allusion by Prufrock, whether intentional or not, because the overriding characteristic that defines Hamlet is his inability to act. Yet, Prufrock says that he is not Hamlet, not because he can act, but because he cannot muster the self-confidence to present himself as the title character of a play. Of course, what cannot be known is on how many levels of irony Prufrock offers this statement. Naturally, Eliot knows that this statement is ironic, because Prufrock, who is already unable to enter into meaningful dialogue with anyone, ironically feels that he is not even as significant as the ultimate in inactive characters. On the other hand, Prufrock is also very bright, so he as a the speaker of the line may be aware of the irony of the statement. If so, then he is cynical as well as insignificant. If he is being intentionally ironic, then the reader can interpret his statement as saying that he is so insignificant that he could not even become famous for his inability to communicate and act.
After defining what Shakespearean character he is not like, Prufrock goes on to assert that he is similar to an attendant lord. This is surely an even more depressing analogy to make. An attendant lord is a character that exists to provide time for the main characters to change their costume, or to give the illusion of the passage of time. Prufrock goes on to describe this character as a "tool…Deferential…Politic, cautious…meticulous" (lines 114-116). Clearly, none of these images present a positive self-image. He is something that others use, who is careful to say the right thing, and attentive to detail. These are the attributes of someone whose very existence is characterized by being careful. This kind of attendant lord will take no risks in life, and probably would not cause any alarm if he were to disappear altogether. Moreover, while this character is attentive to detail, he does not get the bigger picture, because he is also "obtuse [and] almost ridiculous" (lines 117-118). He is not even someone who can just do his job well, because he is not intuitively bright, and others perceive him as an object of ridicule and derision.
The final Shakespearean character to which Prufrock compares himself is the character of the Fool. Once again, this is an ironic statement, on many different levels. If one were to read this statement only at the surface level, it seems like the statement of someone who suffers from low self esteem. However, as any student of Shakespearean drama know, the character of the Fool in Shakespeare is often the one who in fact has some wisdom and understanding, but the main characters in the play do not listen to him, until it is too late. Therefore, when considering this statement, the reader must once again grapple with the question of whether or not Prufrock is aware of this irony, and if so, how that changes the statement. Clearly, Eliot knows the role of the Fool, and surely has that in mind. Whether or not Prufrock understands the role of the Fool is open to debate. If he does understand this, then his statement is a bit self-congratulatory, in that he feels that he really is a wise figure, but those around him simply do not give him his just recognition. On the other hand, if he does not know that the Fool in Shakespeare is actually wise, then he is even more of a fool, because of this very ignorance. Therefore, Prufrock surely is a man in a difficult position, whether it is due to his ignorance, or a result of the fact that others do not pay enough attention to him.
The final important image in the poem is in the last few stanzas, when Prufrock talks about the mermaids. This is obviously an important passage, not only because it is the one with which Eliot concludes the poem, but also because it reveals a great deal about the protagonist. Mermaids have long been an important image in literature, representing both escape and fantasy at the same time. However, the mermaid is also an image of something that is outside the realm of ordinary human experience. Therefore, the mermaids are again removed from Prufrock. Eliot has come close to this fantasy world, yet he fears that that the mermaids "will not sing to [him]" (line 125). Prufrock is doomed in that he can both see and hear the mermaids, yet he is only with them "Till human voices wake us, and we drown" (line 131). Prufrock’s use of the first person plural here is interesting, for it implies that the fate of drowning is not his alone, but also the fate of his alter ego. Naturally, critics have also been fascinated by this image of the mermaids with which Eliot concludes the poem. Unger notices the fact that Prufrock’s "escape to the beautiful and the ideal from the ugly and the real, his reverie of the mermaids, is only momentarily sustained" (202). Other critics have not fully agreed that this dream about the mermaids is really any kind of an escape at all. Sultan wonders, "do the voices drown him, or do the mermaids? Mermaids traditionally drown humans; however, his mermaids ignore him, so that he can be undersea with them safely until wakened. In fact, does he (metaphorically) die – ‘drown’ – at all? Mermaids do not really exist, so ‘waking’ is accepting reality" (255). Cetainly, this is an interesting perspective to bring to the poem. Sultan suggests that in fact, ending the poem with "drowning" is not a negative image at all, but instead, one which exemplifies Prufrock’s newfound acceptance of reality. This interpretation seems too much of a stretch. Surely, this would be a radical new direction from the way in which the poem had been heading up to this point. It seems far more likely that what Eliot means in these final lines is that Prufrock is ultimately unable to live in any kind of meaningful relationships at all. He cannot enter into dialogue with the people he encounters, and he similarly is unable to remain in his fantasy world of mermaids. He must face a reality that he does not like, but waking up from that fantasy is anything but comforting for the protagonist.
This final image raises one of the most important and controversial points of the poem, which is what kind of attitude towards women the poem espouses. Certainly, many can and have forwarded the argument that this is a misogynistic poem. Evidence of this suggestion lies in the fact that women in the text either seem to be shallow or deadly. While Prufrock wants to enter into relationship with some woman, his inability to do so inspires feelings of bitterness and resentment. Ackroyd suggests that "we are able to recognize in the tone and preoccupations of his poetry during this period a brooding dislike, or fear, of women" (44). Ackroyd goes on to suggest that because Eliot’s early relationships with women were so nurturing, he found it difficult later in life to accept females as sexual beings (45). Evidence of this difficulty is found in the fact that even as a twenty six year old, Eliot "was still referring to himself as a virgin" (Ackroyd 45). The combination of this evidence suggests that Eliot was a young man who was perfectly comfortable with women as nurturing mothers, but very uncomfortable with their sexuality. This attitude carries over in the poem, where Prufrock also experiences great difficulty with the sexuality of women.
Prufrock manifests his inability to reconcile his relationships to women with their sexuality through the great difficulty he experiences while talking with women in bed. He imagines formulating some great question, which, when he poses it to a lover in bed, meets with the response, "’That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all"(lines 97-98). Prufrock underscores the frustration he feels about this expected lack of connection by reiterating this response a few lines later. Once again, he imagines being told "’That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all" (lines 109-110). Clearly, Prufrock fears making himself vulnerable to a woman, because he believes that if he does so, the woman will not understand or empathize with what he is saying, thus leading him to feel even more profoundly alone than he already does. Significantly, these lines take place immediately after the woman has settled a pillow, thus suggesting that they are in a bedroom. This reveals that in addition to a feeling of emotional disconnectedness, Prufrock also believes that he cannot make himself physically vulnerable, either. Prufrock feels that if he does allow himself to be open with a woman, he will meet with profound rejection.
The question, perhaps, is why Prufrock fears this rejection. One has to wonder if he believes that women will reject him due to his own unworthiness, or because of prejudicial feelings he has about the nature of women. It seems apparent that the combination of these two passages, along with the women speaking casually of Michelangelo, combine to create the idea that Prufrock holds women in disdain. He feels that women are too shallow to be able to connect with him. They do not regard the classics of art with as much reverence as they should, nor do they think about life on the same level as Prufrock. However, one must once again question if he truly feels this, or if this is a defense mechanism he has created to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with him, but that instead, it is women who are flawed.
As the discussion above makes manifest, this is a poem that is tremendously complex, especially given Eliot’s youth when he wrote the work. Surely, the strong female figures in his early life, and his own loneliness while in Boston combined to influence this poem. Stylistically, the French symbolists were monumentally important to Eliot’s development as a writer. In order to attain a complete understanding of this poem, one must consider all of the various facets which comprise the poem. Eliot does a brilliant job of establishing the setting, and then begins to develop his protagonist through a series of important comparisons. Ultimately, the poem ends with a sense of frustration and futility, as the death image at the end of the poem confirms. Further complicating matters is the fact that one must always remember the tremendous intellect of the author, and the complexity of the protagonist. Bearing these things in mind dictates that one must, at all times, consider the multiple levels upon which one might interpret the poem. Whatever interpretation one chooses, this unarguably is a remarkable achievement for the first major poem of one of this century’s greatest poets.
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