3 of 5 stars to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, specifically, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Poems.
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, a man confronts his physical sexuality during an elite social gathering. The man, J. Alfred Prufrock, breathes in his surroundings and then uses them to define his own appearance as the antithesis of what he sees. The man has no self-esteem and therefore constantly dwells on his negative attributes and less-than-perfect features. In the poem, Prufrock recites a long monologue that is characteristic of almost every other human being. T. S. Eliot uses Prufrock as a symbol, for humanity in general, to show how all persons are doubtful at times of their attractiveness.
Prufrock is a man of uncertain age. (Spender 31) Therefore, he can be portrayed as a teenager, a middle-aged man, or a person of any other age very easily. If one looks at Prufrock through the eyes of a teenager, he can easily be seen as a seventeen-year-old. While Prufrock is “like a patient etherized upon a table” (line 3), teenagers roam the halls at school like puppy dogs with their mouths open, dazed and lost in space. Both are in love with some beautiful woman and wander the paths practically drooling. While Prufrock is busy finding time “for a hundred indecisions, and a hundred visions and revision” (lines 32-33), teenagers are occupied thinking of ways to approach the person they want. Both seem to put facades on to make themselves sound better so that they will get the person they want to get. While Prufrock is worrying “with a bald spot in the middle of his hair – (How they will say his hair is growing thin!)” (lines 41-42), teenagers constantly, in vain, check their own hair in the mirror to see if it is just perfect! There are several similarities between young people like teenagers and Prufrock. However, not only does Prufrock resemble teenagers, but he also resembles middle-aged men who are hitting a mid-life crisis. They worry about their hair balding or becoming gray and whether they are attractive enough. They go out and try to reinvent themselves as different people just as Prufrock does with his revisions, decisions, and visions. Prufrock has characteristics of several different people of all ages. Eliot is showing that all men (women included) have doubts and occasional low self-esteem. Whether you are 17, 37, or 57, you are capable of having no confidence occasionally. This is Eliot’s generalization of all men.
Prufrock’s worries concerning his sexuality and appearance not only show his resemblance to all men, but they also stop him from continuing on with his life as a happy, caring, and normal man. “He is Eliot’s archetype of the great refusal, the man who fears to dare and so misses life… …Prufrock initiates Eliot’s obsession with the lost opportunity and the missed life.” (Mayer 127) Prufrock is so busy concentrating on his less-than-perfect features and supposed negative attributes that he lets life pass him by. “I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” (Line 120-121) Prufrock loses the future by concentrating on the present. His inhibitions about the opposite sex hold him back. “‘Prufrock’ is built around the arid, timid, conventional persona of a man sexual enough to admit desire, but insufficiently sexual to do anything about it.” (Raffel 24) In every person’s life they feel like this occasionally. They love someone, but they hold themselves back because of some fear, etc. Eliot uses Prufrock as a symbol for all men again.
“Prufrock is inhibited, self-conscious, obsessed with image, self-possessed, and afraid… Fear is in the way – the fear to dare, to live honestly, to tell all, to be the Fool. The mermaids will not sing to Prufrock because he will not sing to anyone. His “love song” to himself is a cry of anguish…” (Mayer 128-129) While Prufrock sings to himself, men everywhere are busy talking outlook to the stars, the sky, and the moon about how much they wish they could get the girl they loved or be more handsome, more intelligent, or more loved. Some of these men will cry out in anguish and they will not tell anyone how they feel because of inhibitions. The mermaids (women) therefore will not sing to him if he will not sing to them! All men are afraid to tell a woman how they feel about them often in reality. They will stutter and beat around the bush. Besides the mermaids, there are several other minor characters who can support this theory. Prufrock talks about Prince Hamlet, Lazarus, the Footman, and an attendant lord. He has characteristics of all these men. He attends to others and never pleases himself like the attendant lord. “Hamlet embodies Prufrock’s aspirations to live – that is, to be or not to be”. (Mayer 117) All men have asked themselves that question; Should I do it or shouldn’t I? (Referring to asking someone out) All of these people have traits in common with Prufrock, moreover with every other man. Once again, Prufrock is shown to be a symbol for all men.
In the middle of the poem, Prufrock talks of other men and the effect of the yellow smoke that curled around the windows. “…And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.” (lines 71-72) Prufrock obviously identifies with the lonely men (despite their shirt-sleeves), and perhaps sees their leaning out of the windows as symbolic of his own desire for contact with the world. (Spurr 7) Since Prufrock identifies with the lonely men, therefore, that is proof that others have felt this way. Prufrock, like all others often in their lives, back away from pursuing love from a paralyzing fear that results in the ultimate loss of the object he desires. “Prufrock watches his possible moment of greatness flicker because of his anxiety over his looks.” (Spurr 56) All men seem to follow in his footsteps.
If one looks at a few words specifically in the poem, like “let us go then, you and I” (line 1), one can see why Prufrock really is a symbol for all men in general. “The “you” and “I” of the first line present greater difficulties. Critics have commonly interpreted them as referring to two parts of Prufrock, carrying on a conversation with himself.” (Headings 24) Many times Prufrock seems to be having a conversation with someone else, perhaps another man, or even his object of love. However, the poem is really one long monologue. Prufrock is speaking to himself. Men in reality will often do the same when trying to make a decision. They will ask themselves whether they really love the woman, or want to marry her, or want to kiss her, etc. Talking to oneself is a common practice to make a decision.
J. Alfred Prufrock is a man who is in love with a certain woman, but he is somehow held back from approaching her. He feels unworthy of her, he feels unattractive, and for some reason he is sexually inhibited. At one time in their life, whether it be as a teenager, a middle-aged man, or an older person, men have felt like Prufrock. They have doubts, fears, and inhibitions. Prufrock is truly a symbol for all of humanity in general.
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