T. S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by Brandon Colas
For more on T S Eliot see The T S Eliot Page >
C. S. Lewis once stated, "Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one. To love is to be vulnerable." Throughout T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a man's characterization explains why he hides his true self behind an impenetrable shell, unintentionally stunting his personality. This poem uses J. Alfred Prufrock, a nervous and obsessively introspective man, to show readers that only open vulnerability, not fantasy and dreams, can serve as a bridge to meet emotional needs and provide meaning to life.  

The epigraph alluded to from Dante's Inferno is a response to the question, "Who are you?" This question is a major theme of the poem. Guido da Montefeltro, a corrupt Franciscan, identifies himself to Dante, basing his self-revelation on confidence that no one else will discover his identity. Montefeltro will conditionally answer the question, "Who are you?," but to this "overwhelming question," Prufrock will only snap, "do not ask, 'What is it?'" (11-12).

Prufrock's characterization explains his fear that his true self will be revealed to the ladies at the tea party he is about to attend. No master of small talk, he repeatedly wonders how-and why-he should begin to talk about his unexciting life (54, 60, 61, 68, 69). He wants to sound important, but what will he say if a lady expects him to talk about himself? Any revelation about him could bring indifferent rejection. He is certain that the ladies will not care about "the butt-ends of my days and ways," fearing that when he shares part of himself with another, she will be uninterested in his life (60).

The introspective Prufrock is afraid of being exposed at the tea party because he does not see himself as a worthwhile individual. He fears that the ladies will mock his thin hair (symbolizing an unimpressive mind) and his thin arms and legs (symbolizing an unimpressive body). His self-focus is pathetically ironic because he is mostly unnoticed by the ladies at the tea party. He wonders if he will dare "disturb the universe" and show his true self, but twice a brisk couplet slices his monologues (47). The women "come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14; 35-36), and miss Prufrock's moment of greatness, which was, sadly, only a "flicker" (84). As he describes how he sees himself-and how he thinks others see him-he succinctly sums up his feelings towards self-revelation, "[a]nd in short, I was afraid" (86).

Admittedly, Eliot's vivid imagery reveals that Prufrock's life is not a heroic epic. He recognizes that his "days and ways" are only "butt-ends," like wasted cigarettes (60). Prufrock admits that he has "measured out my life with coffee spoons," implying that in his small world, tea parties are his only sort of entertainment (53). He has "seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker." A footman is a servant, but because of the word "eternal," as well as the capitalization of "Footman," Prufrock implies that even Jesus, the Servant of man, finds his petty life without meaning (85). He choppily describes his life, revealing that he is an unimportant man, someone small. He will "[a]dvise the prince" because he is "an easy tool" to be used by others (115). He confesses that he is, "[a]lmost, at times, the Fool" (119).

Eliot also utilizes different character allusions to contrast meaningful lives with the insignificant life of J. Alfred Prufrock. The women in the poem talk of Michelangelo, a genius whose varied masterpieces have earned him immortality. Ironically, these women do not notice Prufrock, although he is alive and present. Eliot alludes to John the Baptist when Prufrock mentions that "I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter/ I am no prophet" (82-83). John the Baptist was murdered because he had the courage to tell a king that he was living corruptly. He died because he spoke the truth. But Prufrock imagines that revealing his true self to others would kill him, so he will not. He is "no prophet" because he has not the courage (83). Prufrock also snaps, at the end of the poem, that "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Prufrock is a tragedy of sorts, but he is no one great.

Prufrock's characterization shows that he is a shallow person, which is why he has developed a method to keep his true personality hidden from those around him. He shields himself within a protective shell that seems harmless to the casual reader and himself. His nervous response to the "overwhelming question" at the start of the poem is contrasted by the peaceful yellow smoke that in the next stanza acts like a cat in the "soft October night," surrounding the "house" (symbolizing Prufrock) and resting there (21-22). The tone of these twelve lines is rhythmic and peaceful, with soft sounds repeating. This smooth smoke seems out of place compared to the nervous, introspective tone of Prufrock's monologues. However, the yellow smoke is not harmless as it appears. Symbolizing how Prufrock engulfs his true self with a shell of pretense, his protective façade is deadly. It seems calm, but is more like a cloud of mustard gas that chokes life.

This mustard gas clarifies Prufrock's panicked arrangements for the tea party. He readies his mask, repeating again and again, that there is time to prepare. His preparation, however, is not physical, but psychological. His small life, revealed throughout the poem, will not be exposed. There is time for the "yellow smoke" to arrive and shield him (25). There is time to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" (27). This face, this persona, is not the true Prufrock. The real person (or the previous persona) has been "murder[ed]," and this new face is something that he must "create" (28). Prufrock will make hundreds of "indecisions" and "revisions" before this "taking of a toast and tea" (32-34). He will firmly implement his protective shield, making him safe, secure, and invulnerable.

Ironically, Prufrock's protective shield that hides his flaws prevents any realization of his emotional needs, especially the need for love. His shell means that he cannot find love and acceptance at this tea party or anywhere else. In the past, he has unsuccessfully attempted to meet desires for intimacy by sexual excursions. He mentions "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels," implying time spent with prostitutes (7). His tone is fearful as he describes the women's eyes that pin him to the wall like a collector's butterfly, but his tone is dreamy as he desirously describes their arms. This shift in tone is because he has "known the arms already" (62) and has seen them "in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair" (65). "Knowing" their arms, and his sensual description of them, implies a sexual experience.

His mostly fearful fantasies, however, show that impersonal sex has not met his emotional needs. He needs to be able to share his true self with someone who will accept him as he is, but is afraid to do so, fearing that physical intimacy with a lady at the tea party will not bring emotional intimacy, and wondering if she will, as she is "settling a pillow by her head," causally reject him (96). He anticipates her turning towards the window, away from him. Prufrock regretfully states, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (73-74). This imagery shows Prufrock admitting that he should have been a lobster or a crab. Like a crustacean, he is trapped in a protective shell, and lives in a "silent," lonely world. But a crab does not recognize its loneliness. Prufrock does.

Prufrock's unmet desires for emotional acceptance are tied to the beginning and ending of the poem. The title claims to be a love song, yet Prufrock does not seem to be singing to anyone but himself, except at the end. This "love song," shares his life desire, emotional satisfaction derived from love that he cannot achieve because of his frightened aloofness towards others. At the end of the poem, Prufrock says that he has "heard the mermaids singing, each to each" (123-124). After a pause, he wistfully states, in the only isolated line of the poem, "I do not think that they will sing to me," again explaining his legitimate fear that no one will notice him or care for him (125). Prufrock is an island to himself, and this isolation is the greatest factor making him an insignificant person.

Throughout "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T. S. Eliot uncovers a man who will not embrace his greatest need. The irony of Prufrock refusing to share himself, stunting emotional growth, is especially bitter at the ending of the poem. Prufrock abruptly states his vision of himself and shows the reader the ultimate results of life in a shell. He wearily states, "I grow old. I grow old." (120) and asks himself ludicrous, irrelevant questions, "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" (123). He has become so concerned with anyone seeing a glimpse of the self behind his prepared face that he worries about trivialities.

The last three lines, in particular, show the reader the dangerous results of living in a safe fantasy world without ever sharing one's true person with others. Prufrock states that "[w]e have lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown," implying that we, as humans, often live in fantasy worlds, in environments where we cannot properly exist (129-130). Eliot's diction in using "we" implies that the reader is being equated with Prufrock. Just as a human cannot live in the sea, we cannot truly live without revealing ourselves to others, even though it means others notice our faults and flaws. The "chambers of the sea" are no place for real people. When "human voices wake us" and shatter our fantasies, "we drown" (131). When a life spent in a sterile fantasy world crashes into solid reality, only a shriveled carcass remains.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a dirge, wherein T. S. Eliot exposes Prufrock's protected, pathetic life to show readers that they should embrace openness and vulnerability to meet their intimate emotional needs. An obsessive concern over appearances, and not reality, leads to a shrunken self. The character of J. Alfred Prufrock warns readers against the protection of a stifling shell holding no possibility of growth. Possible pains of open vulnerability far outweigh the cramped confines of a wasted life.

© Brandon Colas, October 2006


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