The action is prefaced by a quotation in Italian from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In it, a character in Hell agrees to tell his story, assuming that no one will be able to return from Hell and tell it to others. As the poem proper begins, J. Alfred Prufrock and his companion are about to depart for a social event, some sort of tea party or reception, that will feature a great deal of intellectual pretension and inflated talk about art.
Prufrock tells his companion it is time to go but then lapses into a reverie (which may not be spoken) about the streets they are to pass through, streets that Prufrock finds depressing. His reverie is interrupted by his companion, whose “What is it?” seems to be about his thoughts. Prufrock brushes the the question aside in annoyance, and repeats “Let us go. . . . ” In lines 13 and 14, a kind of chorus interrupts the dialogue, as Prufrock imagines the women in the “room” where they are going. The women are talking, in Prufrock’s mind, about the Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
The chorus is interrupted by another reverie about the “yellow fog” of the city, which finally curls up like a cat and goes to sleep. Prufrock replays his anxieties, imaged by disembodied faces, hands, and finally questions in the next paragraph (lines 23-34), which is followed by the repeated chorus imagining the destined room with its women and their talk about Michaelangelo. The next four paragraphs (lines 37-69) review Prufrock’s fears of how others will see him—will they notice, despite his proper dress, that he is going bald, that he is “thin?” Will he be able to speak? He has been to gatherings like this before, and although he is somewhat sexually excited as he imagines the women’s bare arms and remembers the smell of perfume, he is not sure he can “presume” to join the conversation, an act that he imagines in overly grandiose terms. He imagines the women will see him as he does not want to be seen, expressing this in an image of an insect pinned to a collector’s board.
The next few paragraphs (lines 70-98) fantasize about what Prufrock might say. He again grandiosely imagines himself as John the Baptist or Lazarus but then lapses into self-denigrating images of frightened little crabs in the ocean, finally admitting that he is “afraid,” that he might be dismissed as having entirely misunderstood the subject of the conversation. In a following paragraph (lines 99-110), he wonders if it would be worth risking such a disaster.
At last, Prufrock admits to himself that he is not an attractive figure, declaring that he is not Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare’s tragedy by the same name, but rather a figure like Polonius, a busybody old man who talks entirely too much and is a figure of ridicule. The poem ends with a fantasy of mermaids in the ocean, who might sing, but not to Prufrock.