The Love Song of the Lonely J. Alfred Prufrock: A Closer Look
T.S. Eliot constructs a sympathetic character named J. Alfred Prufrock through imagery and language that symbolize how Prufrock alienates himself from the rest of his decaying world. Eliot is successful in not only telling Prufrock’s unfortunate story but also conveys basic human truths about isolation and unmet expectations.
Prufrock is a character paralyzed by his fear of rejection to the point of isolating himself from his neighbors. Eliot uses the descriptions of a modern city as a metaphor for the loneliness felt by its members.
The poem begins with lines from Dante’s Inferno. This suggests that Prufrock is in a sort of hell on earth. To him, hell is the modern city with its yellow fog and smoke that obscures interactions creating an impersonal atmosphere for inhabitants.
Eliot compares the evening to “a patient etherized upon a table” (Eliot 3). The language used in the poem shows how glum and uninviting the city can be. He describes the city as having “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question” (8-10). Just when we think he is going to ask us the “overwhelming question” he tells us not to ask and leads us right out the door.
Alfred Prufrock seems to be anxious and at times obsessive with carefully thought-out scenarios and imagined interactions with others. The way he imagines interactions playing out causes him to be indecisive due to fears that the worst outcomes will occur in every situation. This further perpetuates his feelings of isolation and inadequacy. Prufrock feels like an old fool that no one would be able or willing to understand. These characteristics prove that he is spiritually exhausted and not willing to live his life to its fullest capacity.
There are moments throughout the poem that make the reader question if Alfred Prufrock might already be dead or in a state of reliving his life’s regrets. He alludes to death when he says “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid” (85-6). It could also be that he is simply reaching an old age and fears the end of his life. He is a man who has wasted his opportunity who does not “dare / Disturb the universe” (45-6) for a life that is so insignificant as his. He claims that he would have made a better sea creature than a man when he says he would have been better suited to “have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (73-4). Sea imagery is used again later in the poem: “[he had] heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / [and he does not] think that they will sing to [him]” (Eliot 124-5). This passage once again shows his self-imposed inadequacy.
Prufrock shows how predictable and unvaried his life has been when he claims “I have known them all already, known them all / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (49-51). He also contemplates the uselessness of taking different courses of action and decides that it would not make a difference in the long run. At any moment in his life “there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47-8). So even if he does want to break his routine he chooses not to because he knows he will go back on what he said falling back into his rhythm of avoiding people and not being an active participant in his own life.
There are other important moments in the speech where he imagines himself as a much different person but he always puts himself down in the end saying that he is growing older and he feels that people are constantly judging him. He feels that even if he were to indulge in his impulsive nature he would only be disappointed. Prufrock is a character who is forced into isolation because of his own fears of how he is viewed by others. He imagines defending himself by saying “That is not what I meant at all” (97).
The final image tells a lot about Alfred Prufrock’s mindset. He is old and running out of options for happiness and fulfillment. He would much rather remain quiet than disturb anyone with his problems. He becomes increasingly disconnected from the rest of the world. When he does finally realize that a voice is trying to penetrate his thoughts he is so shocked that the voices cause him to “drown” (131). Prufrock is the character in a new kind of “love song”, one in which characters can only dream of love and the yellow smog of the city casts its spell on an old man and all the faults he finds in himself.