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A Prisoner of Insecurity
Indecision is the destroyer of dreams and aspirations. It plows seeds of doubt into every venture and corrodes the belief of even the strongest of men. It is an insidious force that works quietly to undermine confidence and conviction. However, such hesitation and irresolution can be curbed with the assistance of strong willpower and self-assurance. Unfortunately, J. Alfred Prufrock possesses neither of these qualities. Instead, he is hindered by mental barriers. In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the author draws upon personal experience and allusion to reveal how Prufrock’s crippling insecurity and shame cause his alienation from a superficial society.
The poem begins with an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno, which serves as an introduction to the themes of the poem. The epitaph declares:
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. (Eliot, P.1)
An interpretation of this in first person would be: If I were speaking to a man who could return to society or disclose my secrets in any way possible, I would stop narrating this tale at once. But, I feel safe in this environment because no one has ever escaped or even returned alive. Thus, I can speak without fear of the stigma of society and I can answer with confidence (Princeton Dante Project, P.1).
In the context of the poem, the excerpt is spoken from the view of the narrator of the poem who is a frustrated and secretive man. He is ashamed of his life but yearns to reveal his fears and hopes to the world. However, he fears that such revelations will result in unimaginable shame and misery. The man is in a limbo akin to the deepest depths of Hell, thus the reference to Dante's "Inferno" (Gradesaver, P.1). By using this passage, Eliot creates a parallel between the Guido Da Montefeltro’s torment and Prufrock’s isolation. Guido is encased in a flame and condemned to a lonely eternity. Prufrock too is imprisoned, but his incarceration is self-imposed. He is plagued by uncertainty and can only express his emotions through this poem (Masters, P.1).
The speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock, is a middle aged, insecure man who wallows in self-doubt and is plagued by indecision. His mentality is a crippling ailment which forces him to believe that he is unwanted and insignificant in society, and in the company of others. The narrator is ashamed of himself and feels uncomfortable in his body. These lingering feelings of self-hatred are omnipresent (Walker, P.1). In the form of repeated questions, they manifest themselves. Prufrock repeatedly declares: "Do I dare?” (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock struggles to find the courage to reveal to others his true emotions and aspirations.
Because he has insulated himself from the outside world, Prufrock suffers from severe self-deprecation. He imagines that his peers will see only his faults such as "How his hair is growing thin!” (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock fears that if he reveals himself, he will "disturb the universe" (Eliot, P.1) and become vulnerable emotionally. He believes that such a decision could severely disrupt his life. Consequently, Prufrock is unwilling to disclose his personal thoughts to the vast majority of his peers (Ames, P.1).
Though the audience is not clearly identified, it is clearly a select group consisting of only a few, explicitly trusted members, or perhaps even one person. Prufrock is an introvert who conceals from the outside world, his deep pain and dissatisfaction. He is troubled by his insecurities and is unwilling to reveal to society his inner self. Thus, the audience must be someone or a group of individuals who have earned his trust through years of experience (Napierkowski, P.1). The audience understands the flaws and disappointments of the narrator and accepts him for who he is. The audience is familiar enough with Prufrock to “lie stretched out on the floor” (Eliot, P.1) with the reclusive narrator. Prufrock may be speaking to a loved one or a potential lover. He is exposing his innermost thoughts through the poem.
By exposing his hidden emotions, Prufrock attempts to release his inner doubts. This is the situation of the poem. The narrator is not pressed for time, but this factor allows for his doubts to proliferate and his “bald spot” (Eliot, P.1) and insecurities to grow further. Prufrock uses this time to ruminate over his past. However, these thoughts make him even more melancholic, as he declares: “For I have known them all already, known them all— / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons" (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock believes that nothing can provide catharsis for his failures. He cannot achieve inner peace because he is haunted by not only the stigmas of the past and the derision of current day society, but also by fear of what the future might hold for him (Sparknotes, P.1).
Prufrock’s musings and unsettlement are reflected in his portrayal of various locales. London is described as a tawdry and sleazy place where “one night cheap hotels/ and sawdust restaurants...” (Eliot, P.1) abound. This description is typical of Prufrock, who perceives his surroundings in glum and unsatisfied fashion. Soon, yellow fog covers even these decadent displays of humanity, hinting at the obscured and befuddled mind of the narrator. Prufrock later focuses on the sea in an attempt to express his feelings. This culminates in a wistful desire to become “ a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock desires to become a bottom-dweller, an insignificant being that can live in the shadows. He finds no satisfaction in nature or in public (Ames, P.1).
Eliot portrays the frustration of a hesitant, fearful man who yearns to fit into society, as the major theme of the poem, but he also seeks to criticize the very same society for its superficiality. The initial excerpt from Dante’s “Inferno” provides dark and ominous imagery of hell, and Prufrock experiences similar feelings of depression and isolation. His inner conflict and confusion is reflected in the fragmented nature of the poem, which recounts various experiences throughout his life in a disjointed and gloomy manner. It lacks a clear progression and is very melancholy in tone. He embodies those whom he describes as “lonely men, in shirt sleeves, leaning out of windows” (Eliot, P.1) because he lacks purpose and clarity.
Prufrock’s desire to seek acceptance in society is tempered by his caustic evaluations of its shallowness. He repeatedly utters the phrase:” In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot, P.1). in order to imply that these women only value beauty and speak of little else. These observations cause Prufrock to feel even more alienated in a society that stresses the importance of conformity and aesthetics. Prufrock cannot adapt to this superficial environment (Sunlime Press, P.1).
Prufrock yearns for meaning and for intimacy, but he is consumed by self-deprecation and fear, which prevent him from integrating into society. Although Prufrock can imagine the completeness that he desires, he cannot achieve it. He is estranged from himself because he desires to be someone who he is not. Also, his alienation extends to others. Those to whom he attempts to communicate his true feelings, respond repeatedly: “That is not what I meant at all” (Eliot, P.2). Prufrock fears that his peers in society will belittle his doubts and ignore his plight. He believes that they will be too shallow and callous to sympathize with him (Bennett, P.1).
Because he dreads its scrutiny and its hostility, Prufrock is further alienated from society. He declares: “The eyes that fit you in a formulated phrase/And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin” (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock imagines that he will be pierced and skewered by the relentless and unmerciful gaze of his peers if he were to expose himself. He is fearful of their intolerance and their insensitivity. In consequence, he turns away from companionship and insulates himself with his isolation (Napierkowski, P.1).
For Prufrock, neither nature nor religion provides solace. Although the poem begins on a “Soft October night” (Eliot, P.1) when the “evening is spread out against the sky” (Eliot, P.1), the only metaphor Prufrock offers is that of “a patient etherized upon a table” (Eliot, P.1). Prufrock is numb to the allures of nature because he is enshrouded in misery. His unhappiness is also evident in his experiences with religion. Prufrock compares himself to John the Baptist of the Bible, when he declares: “ Though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed/ Though I have seen my head brought in upon a platter/ I am no prophet” (Eliot, P.1). Unlike this famed figure who spread the message of Christ, Prufrock has no important message to convey. He has no meaning to share with his peers and thus cannot connect to anyone (Gradesaver, P.1).
Eliot uses several allusions to contrast the plight of Prufrock with that of other, well known characters in history and in literature. Prufrock refers, not only to Homer’s Odyssey, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but also to the life of Michelangelo and to Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” in order to highlight Prufrock’s alienation. Michelangelo represents the antithesis of Prufrock. This man was at the vanguard of the Renaissance and his achievements and works of art are unparalleled. He was a vibrant and prolific artist who transcended borders and embodied the spirit of his era. He was as dynamic as Prufrock is prosaic.
By referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Eliot highlights Prufrock’s indecision and insecurities, through a comparison with the decisions of Prince Hamlet. Hamlet is faced with a dilemma of terrible proportions after his father is murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s Uncle, who then ascends the throne. Hamlet is compelled to seek vengeance for this crime but he has to struggle to overcome his troubling principles and contemplations. However, unlike the irresolute Prufrock, the prince commits regicide and accomplishes his goal. Prufrock acknowledges that he is “No Prince Hamlet” (Eliot, P.2) but rather “an easy tool/ Deferential, glad to be of use” (Eliot, P.2). Hamlet masters his emotions and his doubts, while Prufrock wallows in his predicament (Choutari, P.1).
By alluding to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, Eliot contrasts the exuberant and bold narrator of the poem with the desperate sadness of Prufrock. Eliot alters the tone of several lines of Marvell’s poem in order to match the gloomy verse of his poem. While Marvell’s narrator wanted to “Roll all our strength...our sweetness up into one ball” (Marvell, P.1), Prufrock questions whether such an action would be worth doing. He cannot experience the catharsis of love and the lines of “ To His Coy Mistress” help define his indecision (Gradesaver, P.1).
Eliot closes the tale of Prufrock with a reference to the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, to show that society is causing Prufrock’s misery. In his epic, Homer refers to the Sirens as bewitching mermaids, who lure sailors to their deaths through their beauty and their hypnotizing singing. Sailors who hear their call lose control of their senses and are driven to elope with these fanciful creatures. However, the men jump to their deaths as the mermaids envelop them into the sea, where they drown and are consumed. Odysseus knows of these dangers, but he is determined to experience the joy of their voices. He bounds himself to his ship and endures the ecstasy but is not overcome by it.
On the other hand, Prufrock fears that he is so insignificant that the mermaids will not even sing to him. He craves to hear their voices and is hypnotized by his fantasy until “human voices wake us and we drown” (Eliot, P.2). Prufrock’s desire is shattered by reality, which causes him to drown within his own emotions. It is ironic to note that Odysseus returns to reality and safety while for Prufrock, reality itself is his nemesis (Choutari, P.1).
The isolation and frustration evident in the poem stem from the personal experiences of T.S. Eliot, who had experienced a lonely childhood. Eliot was the youngest of seven children in a family in which religion and responsibility were of paramount importance. He was afflicted with congenital double hernia, a condition which restricted his interaction with other children of his age. This lack of communication and social isolation continued to be an impediment in Eliot’s life, and this is reflected in the themes of the poem. His sense of displacement was further exacerbated by his decision to study abroad in France where he had few acquaintances and suffered from terrible loneliness. Eliot’s estrangement from society and his dearth of relationships with his peers colored the experiences of Prufrock (Frenz P.1).
While growing up, Eliot was affectionately treated and nurtured by his mother and four sisters, but these experiences affected his opinions of women’s sexuality. Eliot accepted the role of women as maternal caretakers but he struggled to acclimatize to the sexual conventions of his female peers. This confusion manifested itself in his distrust of the opposite sex, which was also reflected in the poem where women are depicted as superficial and uncaring beings (Bush, P.1).
While Eliot’s life influenced the themes and message of the poem, critics continue to interpret the poem with varied formats of criticism. A major tenet of Deconstructionist criticism is the emphasis on contradiction and the instability of language. J. Hillis Miller claims that the language in the poem is deliberately unclear on the location of the narrator while it distorts the passage of time in order to convey the confusion and dismay within Prufrock. He claims that the difference between reality and imagination is blurred in order to display the lack of coherence within Prufrock’s mind (Miller P.1).
In contrast to the unclear interpretation of the Deconstructionist Critic, the Espresso Stalinist describes the decadence and superficiality in a more forceful manner. He analyzes the Prufrock's criticism of society through a marxist interpretation that equates the shallowness and isolation of Prufrock's life as fundamental flaws with Capitalism itself. The Stalinist describes the "crumbling of bourgeois society" (Espresso Stalinist, P.1) and the "unsavory pillars" (Espresso Stalinist, P.1) that hold this system in place. His insights are exaggerated and are akin to political propaganda because he considers the depictions of Prufrock as a microcosm for the depravity of the Western world (Espresso Stalinist, P.1).
Laurie Stevens interprets Prufrock's discomfort with women as a symbol of his transgender. Prufrock is clearly confused about the sexuality of women because of his isolation from society and from his peers. Stevens believes that his awkwardness stems not from his isolation but rather from his transgender feelings, which clash with social norms and also with his sense of masculinity. This would explain his anxiety and feelings of displacement within early 20th century society. Stevens uses gender criticism to explain the eccentricity and isolation of Prufrock (Stevens, P.1).
In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Prufrock is a prisoner of his indecision because he lacks the conviction to take action against his insecurities. His musings and yearnings amount to nothing. He can neither confront nor resolve his estrangement from society, and so he stagnates, in perpetual misery.