Discuss the character of Prufrock and what his dilemma is in T. S. Eliot`s `The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Prufrock, the main character of T. S. Eliot`s `The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', is, from Eliot's point of view, the prototypical 'modern man'. Urbanization, social change, secularism, and the fragmentation of the sensibility have left Prufrock unable to have firm convictions or relations. He is, like Hamlet, indecisive, but has no social or religious framework of certainty to help him make decisions, and most of the things he needs to decide are fundamentally trivial. Thus he proves as vacillating in minor dilemmas (whether he should eat a peach, if he should have cuffs on his trousers, hairstyle) as in the major one of whether he should attempt to make sexual overtures to the woman of the poem.

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appletrees | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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One aspect of Prufrock's character that stands out in T. S. Eliot's iconic poem is his attitude towards aging and mortality. This theme is found in imagery throughout the poem, including the first stanza after the epigraph from Dante's poem "The Inferno." "The Inferno" conjures images of hellfire, but the poem ends with images of drowning. This suggests an attempt by Eliot to let his poem come full circle and show life as a cycle, or a series of cycles, that repeat endlessly with death being an inevitable part of that cycle.

One passage in particular speaks to the narrator's ambivalence and possible fear of growing old: 

"I grow old ... I grow old ... 
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. 

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? 

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 
I do not think that they will sing to me."
Prufrock believes doing things to make him appear youthful (rolling his trousers, or eating peaches, which is a euphemism for being with young women) may stave off his feelings of dread about aging. But the mermaids, ancient mythical beings who represent the temptation of sex and adventure, do not "sing" to him, meaning they are not interested in tempting him, or that he cannot recognize their appeal. Either way, this is a forlorn and cynical view of love and romance. Despite analysis of this poem that says it is, in part, about Eliot's relatively late entry to the world of sex, this passage suggests he thinks he will move beyond this realm of human activity and grow too old for it, or be rejected by the women he wants.
In the next stanza, the final one, Eliot then says he sees the mermaids. The final lines repeat the theme of fear of death: 
"We have lingered in the chambers of the sea 
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown 
Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
Prufrock now speaks as part of a "We" and it is unclear if he means himself and one other (e.g. a lover) or perhaps himself and all humanity. This  final sentence could be seen as a way of saying that life's experiences are illusory and fleeting, and that it is easy to deny the reality of aging (lingering "in the chambers of the sea" meaning letting events flow around us and carry us along). When "human voices wake us" we realize we are part of the same human experience as all of humanity, i.e. we will age and die. The drowning image is a way of saying the overwhelming realization of our mortality may in and of itself lead to death.
Despite its humor and seemingly light-hearted descriptions, the poem does seem to be a fairly existential meditation on life and death, with its title of "love song" being somewhat misleading, for the narrator's thoughts of love lead inevitably to the realization this his life is passing him by, love being merely a fleeting distraction.


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