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An analysis of T.S. Eliot's"The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock"

by Tony Pellum

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is not a song, nor is it about love. This seemingly off-target title is actually a well-crafted example of verbal irony. J. Alfred Prufrock, with an unromantic name itself, describes in this interior monologue his fanciful view of love and discovers his cowardice and timidity along the way. T. S. Eliot employs numerous rhetorical devices to illustrate Prufrock's helpless and inferior view of himself. His insecurity and cowardice heighten until he accepts his death of any effort towards romantic action.

The speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock, is an aging man who is very self-conscious about his appearance. He is afraid that women won't find him attractive because he is thin and balding. He is speaking to his physical body ("you"), and from his mind ("I"). He first speaks of himself as looking in a mirror, contemplating visiting a "room" where "women come and go" on a late afternoon. Here, Prufrock falls into multiple daydreams in which he avoids the "overwhelming question" of whether or not to confront these women. He becomes more aware of his timidity as he concludes that confrontation of the "overwhelming question" would not have changed the outcome of nothingness. He recedes into a final reverie in which he follows mermaids out to sea and drowns, passively accepting his death of action.

This inaction is due to Prufrock's self-image of helplessness and insecurity. Prufrock indirectly alludes to his helplessness by comparing himself to an etherized patient. This metaphor illustrates how helpless Prufrock feels by making this subconscious comparison. This helpless attitude relates to the torture he feels through his inaction. He also uses a metaphor, comparing himself to an insect "pinned" down. These helpless images suggest Prufrock's view of his inability to change his numbness. This helpless attitude relates to the torture he feels through this inaction. The allusion made to Dante's Inferno suggests this torture. The sin Prufrock is suffering from is "like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent". This simile illustrates his wasted energy on this pointless fantasy (Kaplan 19). These unsatisfied desires are demonstrated in the images of "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels". Just as the hotels suggest a lack of contentment, Prufrock's desires are not met. Prufrock understands his helplessness and dissatisfaction and can not deal with it.

These desires are a result of Prufrock's self-imposed inferiority. When the women are "talking of Michaelangelo", Prufrock is quick to distract himself by focusing on the yellow fog. The allusion to Michaelangelo and Prufrock's reaction suggest he feels inferior to a man with great talent. His inferiority is confronted again in his physical description. Although his dress is "rich and modest", he fears he will be seen as unattractive for his thin arms and thin hair. Synecdoche is used as he sees "eyes" judging him, reiterating Prufrock's self-consciousness. His timidity and inferiority are made more apparent through Prufrock's view of time. Anaphora is employed in Prufrock's comfort in it. The repetition of the statement, "There will be time", shows he plans to continue his immobility through his comfort in time. He understands his "indecisions" and knows he will make "a hundred visions and revisions". However, these fantasies will continue regardless of his realization.

His doubt leads to distaste and inaction. Prufrock becomes angry when he realizes he has "measured out [his] life with coffee spoons". This metaphor suggests the monotony of his life. Everyday he continues these pointless fantasies, hence the repetition associated with coffee spoons. Inaction is also apparent in that only a coffee spoon could measure how little he has accomplished. The anaphora of "How should I presume?" implies this inaction as Prufrock repeats this question, but avoids an answer. He is also afraid of being misunderstood as he repeats; "This is not what I meant at all". The "overwhelming question" is no longer addressed as Prufrock realizes that he will stay inactive. The numbness increases as Prufrock discovers more about his cowardice. The allusion of John the Baptist's beheading explains Prufrock's fear of being stripped of bravery. This suggestion of being unmanned is quickly denied by Prufrock as he responds, "I am no prophet." Although he is angered by this unconscious comparison, he can not deny it and admits he has seen his "greatness flicker". This metaphor, comparing his eminence to a dying flame, expresses Prufrock's understanding of his cowardice. He follows this comparison with an allusion to Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Prufrock is indecisive and doesn't know how to deal with situations. He again denies the comparison he has made and proclaims he is not like Hamlet, but more like Polonius (Hieatt). Lines 111-119 describe the comparison Prufrock makes in naming himself a "Fool". This cognition of his cowardice and timidity causes him to surrender. He admits the foolishness of his reveries but cannot see a way to change them. An extended metaphor is used as Prufrock compares this death of action to drowning. Like the mermaids that tempted the Greeks, Prufrock follows the mermaids in a final reverie, drowning and accepting the death in his inaction.

Prufrock's cowardice and hesitance illustrate his inaction. The conscious and subconscious comparisons Prufrock makes about himself explain the reason for his timidity. His poor self-confidence and feeling of inferiority are represented in the devices Eliot uses and help the reader understand Prufrock's refusal to change. His self-image causes his perversion of reality, making him afraid of confrontation as he helplessly retreats into unsatisfying daydreams.