The Existential Anguish of J. Alfred Prufrock

Patrick Mooney
English 106

Upon reading Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the first question which sprang to my mind was the question of how Eliot, a poet who was in his mid-twenties at the time, was able to write a poem dealing with the problems of aging in such a penetrating manner. Upon closer examination, however, I realized that Prufrock's aging was only incidental to his central problem. Prufrock's major problem is a problem of existential anguish. Prufrock's doubts about aging at a dinner party are merely one example of this anguish, and this party brings his psychology into sharp focus when the reader examines closely the moment in which the poem's events occur.

It is true that Prufrock's overtly expressed fears all seem to stem from his aging. For instance, he mentions the thinning of his hair in lines 40, 41, and 82; and the aging itself is mentioned toward the end of the poem:

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. (lines 120-121)

However, all of Prufrock's problems stem from his insecurity and his inability to reveal his interest in the women at the party. "How should I presume?" he asks several times throughout the poem. (lines 54, 61, and 68) Prufrock is so entranced and frustrated by the women that every detail, including the arms "braceleted and white and bare" (line 63), the "long fingers" that smooth away the afternoon (line 76), and the "skirts that trail along the floor" (line 102) become everything to him in that moment.

These small details so obsess Prufrock and so occupy his mind, in fact, that everything else ceases to exist for him. He does not simply wonder how he should presume; he wonders if he "dare/ Disturb the universe." (lines 45-46). This ultimate solipsism recurs throughout the poem. It is not the universe that Prufrock may disturb by making advances toward a woman; it is his universe. However, in his tightly wound moment of anguish, Prufrock is completely unable to tell the difference.

Prufrock's inability to reveal his interest to the women of the party comes from his conception of himself. He is obsessed with his aging process, for one thing, but this is merely one facet of his self-doubt. His monologue states that he is "no prophet" (line 83) and that he is "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be"; rather, he has "seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker." (lines 111 and 84) Furthermore, Prufrock feels that the party's women would reject him even if he were of monumental importance. He spends twenty-two lines wondering if it would have been worth it

To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all" --
If one, settling a pillow by hear head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all […]" (lines 94-97)

If Lazarus has only a slight chance with these women, Prufrock feels, then he has no chance at all. After wondering if it would have been worth it, and meditating on two possible rejection outcomes for a more impressive person, he decides that it would not have been.

Prufrock's attitude toward the women at the party is highly ambivalent. Although he is completely obsessed by his unfulfilled desire, he also sees little of value in them. Although these women who "come and go/ talking of Michelangelo" (lines 35-36) are the same ones whose details he notes with a painful intensity of awareness, and although he identifies them with "mermaids" (line 124), he feels that he has "known them all already, known them all," and that he has "measured out [his] life with coffee spoons" at similar tea parties. (lines 49-50) The fear that Prufrock has of the women is not simply fear of rejection, but also fear that the women who are the objects of his desire may turn out to be shallow. This is shown in his painful visions of rejection. Prufrock fears that even if Lazarus, with whom he identifies himself slightly in line 82, were to appear with the answers to the mysteries of life, the women would merely lay their heads on pillows and reply "That is not it, at all." (line 98)

All of Prufrock's fears combine to bring his central problem into focus throughout the poem. The section of the poem which, perhaps, best demonstrates this was not written by Eliot. This is the epigraph which opens the poem, a selection from the twenty-seventh canto of Dante's Inferno. In this selection, Montefeltro tells Dante that the secrets revealed to the listener may be revealed only because the listener will never "return to the world." Prufrock, then, pictures himself much like Dostoevsky's underground man, who lives in plain sight of the world of ordinary people, but beneath and separated from it. The wording of the epigraph also suggests that Prufrock, in his monologue, is addressing someone that he believes to be just like him.

Prufrock is also afraid that he will be the object of ridicule when he descends the staircase during the tea party. He also tells us that he has

heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing for me. (lines 124-125)

Prufrock has heard the mermaids, the women of the world, calling to the men. Every man has been chosen by a mermaid, except for Prufrock, who is an object of ridicule "with a bald spot in the middle of [his] hair" (line 40) -- at least, that is how he sees himself. Because the mermaids do not sing for him, because he is unable to express his desire for the party's women, and because he is the object of ridicule, Prufrock feels that he is separated from the rest of humanity.

Prufrock's response is a simple one, but does not solve the problem -- his solution merely entrenches this separation. Because he is unable to form relationships, he retreats into his own solipsistic universe. He declares, "I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach" (line 123) and "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." (line 121). The degree of Prufrock's anguish -- and his fundamental defense against it, solipsism -- has only increased over the course of the poem. Where he wondered before "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?" (lines 45-46), he now uses the same language to obsess not over whether he should press his affections on a woman, but upon his eating habits: "Do I dare to eat a peach?" (line 122).

Prufrock's isolation from the rest of the world has become so acute at this point that he has almost completely lost touch with what we normally call "reality." Prufrock has completely lost touch with anything that could, potentially, give him a firm ground in what really is -- so much so that he begins to think of all life as a dreamlike state. At this point, Eliot begins to use first-person plural pronouns again, something he has not done since line twelve. Eliot's references to the reader, which bracket the main part of the body of the poem, then become clear. In the epigram, he quoted someone directly addressing the reader; in the first twelve lines, he invites us to "make our visit" (line 12); and in the three lines of the poem, Eliot tells us that "We have lingered […] Till human voices wake us, and we drown." (lines 129-131) At this point, Eliot invites us to identify ourselves with the main character of the poem. J. Alfred Prufrock is not simply J. Alfred Prufrock. There is a quite a bit of Prufrock, with his self-doubt and his existential anguish, in all of us. But unlike Dante, we do not return to a normal life: we are merely drowned in "the chambers of the sea," (line 129), which the mermaids ride, uncaring.

References

  1. Eliot, T. S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. DiYanni, Robert, and Kraft Rompf, eds., The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry. New York: Morgan Hill , 1993.

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