Thomas Sterns Eliot wrote the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock over a period of six years and published it circa 1917 at the ripe old age of twenty-nine. As his first published poem, Prufrock revealed Eliots original and highly developed style. Its startling jumps from rhetorical language to clich, its indirect literary references, and its simultaneous humor and pessimism were quite new in English literature. (World Book, 236) Prufrocks quest for a life he cannot live and a question he has difficulty confronting is intriguingly played out in various aspects of his humanity.
He is doing battle in all aspects of his personality, which establishes him as a neurotic character. Neurosis, as defined by the Thorndike/Barnhart World Book Dictionary, is: any one of various mental or emotional disorders characterized by depression, (I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. ) anxiety, (So how should I presume? / And how should I presume? / And how should I begin? / And should I then presume? ) and abnormal fears, (Do I dare disturb the universe? ).
The personality of Prufrock embodies these characteristics. The physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of his life are governed by this ailment. Its fingers entwine about his very soul, affecting every area of his consciousness. Physically aging, this thin, balding male is aware of his decaying image, thus more self-conscious and less confident. This cannot be more clearly stated than in lines 40-45:
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair (They will say: How his hair is growing thin! ) My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin (They will say: But how his arms and legs are thin! ) These physical insecurities prevent him from living the life he longs for by distracting him from the things that have real meaning, i. e. , Shall I part my hair behind and Do I dare to eat a peach? These are petty questions that he asks to avoid the Overwhelming question. Prufrock is consumed with these insignificant details of his life. Prufrock avoids life not only through trite physical worries, but through numerous mental labors as well.
These mental labors range from imagining himself as being completely vulnerable Like a patient etherized upon a table to Prufrock looking at the superficiality of his life. The lines I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, setting a pillow or throwing off a shawl, and I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled show the shallowness of thought he uses to avoid coming to terms with his old age. Prufrock is a lonely man. In the poem, there is no evidence of any relationship outside of the one he has with himself.
He makes references to restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and women [that] come and go. He desires intimate relationships, yet lacks the courage and self-confidence to even begin to pursue love. His humanity and dignity cannot fully be realized without it. Prufrock fancies himself to be someone who has known it all the evenings, the mornings, the afternoons, the eyes, the arms. His pride leads him to believe that he someone that he is not. Prufrock believes that life is superficial, but he alone is deep. He may not be Prince Hamlet, yet he is still advisor to the Prince.
This is not a lowly job. He speaks highly of himself when he states Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous. Proud as he is, however, Prufrock eventually states the inevitable. He admits to being Almost, at times, the Fool. With this confession, his pride crumbles and he surrenders to the realization of his mortality. The very next lines emphasize the gravity of this new awareness, I grow old I grow old Here lies the turning point of his worldview. Prufrock once had Time to turn back and descend the stair, but now time is running out.
Throughout the poem, Prufrocks concept of time changes. Initially, he takes time for granted: There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea. There are two significant incidents in the poem that cause Prufrock to alter his view on time.
The first is when he asks the question Do I dare / Disturb the universe? Immediately after posing this question there is time [only] For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse, implying that he realizes his time is limited. Second, he comes to the understanding that he plays the part of the Fool, which arouses the realization that he is almost out of time. This awareness leads him to the Overwhelming question: What happens after time runs out? Fingers entwining about his very soul, Prufrocks neurosis leads him again and again to peer into the face of death.
He has seen the eternal Footman hold [his] coat, and snicker. In short, he was afraid. The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase are the eyes of God calling him to account for his life; Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? The mental image of being pinned and wriggling on the wall suggests that Prufrock is terrified of the time when he will be held accountable. (Although at the earliest reading these lines may not appear to have any profound meaning, in light of the overall context of the poem this interpretation has sufficient validity.
His neurosis makes him the master of his own hell. As unorthodox as these views on Prufrock may be, there are credible sources that substantiate the above theories. Prufrocks concentration on physical concerns is highlighted in several quotes: Wanting nothing less than the ability to fully articulate and control an image of himself, Prufrock is afraid of both himself and others. (McNamara, 203), Prufrock is bothered by the womens opinion of his appearancehe is merely hoping that by conforming to the standards expected by society he may be able to keep the backbiting women at bay.
Bagshee, 192) Literary support for Prufrocks mental state of both anxiety and emotional denial is overwhelming. There is the real sense of isolation, of loneliness, that exists under the surface. (Bagchee, 187) The quotes It is as if his mind were gradually convulsed with spasms of suffering and then were intermittently rallied with a mythology of self-esteem, only to succumb each time to more rational despair. (Smith, 220) and this sinister, slithering, and self-willed street is an active agent of the anxiety that haunts the protagonist.
Bagshee, 191) paint the dark picture of a disconsolate man. The self and the self-image can never coincide and the result is an interminable anxiety which can only increase. (Ayers, 212) Robert McNamara describes Prufrocks pathology perfectly when he asserts: Prufrock treats the disease in the only way Eliot acknowledged it could be treated: the only cure for Romanticism is to analyze it. Rhetoric is pathological, in Eliots view, when it becomes vehicle for evading feeling [and] for creating self-satisfying illusions. This is exactly what Prufrock does.
His over-analysis of every minute detail is a vain attempt to shirk the question. Surely the overwhelming question is there in the poem (Dyson, 184) In his absurd and pointless life the encounter with this question is likely to be the only significant thing to happen to Prufrock The point of the intersection between time and eternity So far his life has been far from remarkable and he knows that Prufrock needs something that is infinite. (Bagshee, 192) The fear of being accountable for a wasted, superficial life is the reason he has difficulty confronting the ultimate question.