The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary
The city bred speaker of this ironic dramatic monologue, Prufrock, is like most other of his type in that age. They suffer from a sense of loneliness and isolation and have difficulty in making decisions. The title itself is ironical as the poem is not like the usual love song. Prufrock wishes to talk of love to a woman but he is not bold enough to do so.
The prologue to the poem is a passage from Dante’s Inferno which implies that Prufrock is akin to the dammed and he ventures to speak only because he is certain that none will overhear him. As the reader is expected to hear his words, the poem appears to lack clarity on first reading. But Prufrock reiterates some phrases and gets back to some central notions as the poem develops. “You and I” in the opening line may include the reader, suggesting that one can realize the significance of Prufrock’s problems only by moving along with him. The words could also mean the speaker and his other self which would mean that the poet contemplates over his pathetic plight.
The speaker and his other self move out in the evening, when all is calm like the unconscious patient lying on a table, on whom surgery is to be conducted. The streets they walk through are half deserted because the day’s work is over. There are cheap hotels where rooms are available for rent on a daily night basis. Poor people who take refuge there spend sleepless nights, muttering in their sleep. In “one-night cheap hotels Eliot refers to unfulfilled sexual relationship in the past. The cheap restaurants use sawdust on the floor instead of carpets and contain shell ashtrays. The winding streets through which they traverse are as boring and tiresome as the arguments in his mind about the intimidating purpose. The argument within leads to the irresistible question which he does not want to speak of at that time. So he says, Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” The speaker suggests that they pay their visit to the room where posh women of high society meet and speak of the artist Michelangelo because it is fashionable to do so.
As the evening progresses the yellow smoke like the collecting mist intrudes into the corners of the room from the window-panes. Gradually it spreads further and stays behind in the pools formed in the drains. It gets darker and the black powdery soot falls on it from the chimneys. The image of the fog cat progresses and sliding by the terrace it moved to the terrace, jumped up suddenly and noticing the weather of October, drowsily went round the house and curled itself to sleep.
The speaker returns to his plight and avers that there will be plenty of time for the yellow smoke that slithers through the length of the street chafing its back against the windowpanes, and for him too there will be enough time to get made up and ready in the green room to encounter the faces of the women in the drawing room. He repeats the phrase “There will be time” several times in the poem revealing his timidity and inability to act. He will have time to make plans and unmake them. There will be time to work hard through the day as the farmer’s life is depicted in Hesiod’s poem. However, this is apparently a parallelism but in fact it is a contrast because Prufrock never works strenuously like the farmers. All his efforts end in the overwhelming question. There is time for all and yet there will be time for wavering a hundred times, for deciding and revising the decision before he gets into the posh room to take toast and tea.
The scene of the drawing room gets repeated with the same condition of women who enter and leave and talk of Michelangelo. There will still be time for him to ask himself whether he dare voice his intention to the lady of his choice, whether he has the guts to do so. There is still time for him to retrace his steps, get down the steps, to leave the place. But he still ruminates over his condition. The women will comment on his baldness in the middle and the thinning hair. He may get down with his morning coat, with his collar rising stiffly up to his chin and an expensive but unpretentious tie secured with a plain pin. They will comment on his arms and legs growing thin. He wonders whether he has the courage to disturb the world there as it exists. Again he brings in time and decisions. In one minute one can decide on things and make changes or adjustments in them. The very next minute the indecisive Prufrock may revoke his decision.
The speaker has known about these women and their activities during evenings, mornings and afternoons. He has spent time with his friends in those places, just preparing and drinking coffee. His life can easily he calculated by the number of times he has lifted his spoon to drink coffee. His life has been a long stretch of monotony, drinking coffee with the same set of people day in and day out. He is nauseated with such frivolities in life. He is also familiar with the music heard from a distance and the tempo of the dying cadence. He wonders how he could possibly take the liberty of expressing his love to a woman there.
He remembers the powerful eyes of the women which would just pin him down as though he were a grasshopper on the dissection table, forced to give up his life. He feels he is like a vulnerable worm struggling to get free. He hesitates to speak out his love under these circumstances, because he has put out his life like cigarette ends. The lady of his choice was not new to him for he has seen her braceleted, white arms looking different with light brown hair in the lamplight. He has looked at them with longing. Perhaps it is her perfume that distracts him. He has noticed the arms lying along a table or draped in a shawl. He could not ever bring himself to make an effort to speak or strengthen his relationship with her. How should he do it? Should he give an account of his trip to this room through shady haunts? He would commence then saying he saw lonely men in shirt sleeves when he walked in the narrow streets at dusk.
- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Complete Analysis
- Symbolism and Imagery in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Appalled by his tendency to be scrupulous, he feels it would be better for him to be a simple living thing with natural instincts, under the sea. He resents his own wavering nature and prefers to remain engulfed by water under the sea and escape from the disgrace of being refused by the woman of his choice. He wishes to be a creature in the sea with jagged claws moving fast.
He feels that the drowsy afternoon and evening are in peaceful slumber. The evening is also equated with a cat by the fireplace that is lulled to sleep or pretends to sleep, smoothed by long fingers. Perhaps the cat would recline between the lady and himself. After having tea, cakes and ice cream, he wonders whether he will have the courage to bring himself to give words to the long overdue, overwhelming question. He prepared himself carefully for success in the effort by weeping, fasting and praying hard. He imagines his partly bald head brought on a tray like that of John the Baptist. But he is not a prophet like John the Baptist. Sometimes his facade of a self-composed gentleman would break due to his cowardice, making him fear as if he was dying. He was frightened.
He wonders whether it will be worth the trouble to drink tea, have marmalade and such snacks among porcelain crockery, that is, make small talk about each other, and gossip, to open his heart and speak of his love. Would he have succeeded if he had adopted this method? Again he feels that the Himalayan effort he puts forth to make himself get over his inhibitions, and proceed with propriety observing all the appropriate actions associated with reference to love, is like squeezing the universe into a ball. Yet he does not succeed and just stops short of proposing his love for the lady. He likens himself to Lazarus whom his tormentor Dives wanted to sent to earth from heaven to warn his brothers about the tortures of hell. Prufrock deems himself as the representative of perhaps, the dead unsuccessful lovers like himself. If he talks of it to the lady, she may, placing the pillow on her lap, recoil saying she meant only to be civil in her behaviour and not to encourage his fervent love at all.
He considers the problem once again. After all the formalities of the tea party are over he may very well open his heart to the lady like the X-ray of his nervous system flung on the screen. The lady may settle a pillow or throw off a shawl and looking at the window may say that she did not mean love at all and disappoint him. He seems to have concluded that a tea party is not the right occasion to reveal one’s love.
His vacillation, he realizes, cannot be a reason for comparing himself with Shakespeare’s Hamlet just because the tragic hero did propose to Ophelia but the speaker is unable to do even that. Perhaps he could juxtapose his lot with the attendant lord Polonius in Hamlet, who counsels the king Polonius attends on the prince, adds to the number in a procession, takes the lead in small issues, and is an easy, compliant person. He is pleased to serve the prince and is polite, scrupulous and courteous. He speaks a bombastic style though he is rather dim-witted in intellect and emotion. Sometimes he behave almost like the court fool.
Prufrock becomes self-conscious about his growing age and wants to sport a youthful look by wearing his trousers cuffed, a turned-up fold at the bottom of the pant leg. He wonders whether he should wear his hair parted behind like a daring young bohemian in that age. The next step would be to eat a fruit, the peach, while walking. And Prufrock has his own doubt whether he will have the courage to set aside his sense of decorum and his ideal of a gentleman and eat a fruit while walking. He should then walk to the beach swiftly, wearing his woolen clothes, to indulge in romantic dreams. This description would fit the typical fashionable youngster of his age.
The ageing Prufrock stands on the seashore with a yearning tinged with melancholy, watching the girls who don’t even notice him. His mood changes to one of a vision or a dream. The girls who ignored him appear to be mermaids now. They ride on the waves singing, as the mermaids do. They ride on the foam when the tempestuous wind blows giving a black and white picture. In his reverie he goes to the world of mermaids with his partner. The use of “we” suggests this idea. He enjoyed the company of the mermaids for a while. He felt that he had been welcomed and garlanded with seaweeds. Soon the vision disappears with the call of this world in the voices of the drawing room. Grover Smith observes, “His vision of them (mermaids) has been a delusion into whose waters he has sunk deeper and deeper until, recalled to the intolerable real world by human voices in the drawing room, he has walked and drowned in his subjective world of dreams. Like the legendary sailor lulled asleep by the mermaids or sirens and then dragged down to perish in the sea, Prufrock has wakened too late.” He is not any better than a crab to face the challenges of the world. The poem ends in a note of disappointment. Prufrock is left alone depressed and disturbed.