Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Unlike the principal characters of most previous poets and storytellers, Prufrock is neither hero nor villain—he is simply a failure. Even heroes destined to fail normally begin with hopes and possibilities, but not far into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one senses the impossibility of this man fulfilling his aspirations. He is already middle-aged, set in his ways, and hopelessly irresolute; he is more like someone resigned to reading about heroes than someone who will ever take action.
Thus Eliot permits the reader no vicarious successful experience. Prufrock is a figure to be pitied, but he is also a disturbing presence because his weaknesses, his mediocrity, and his sense of isolation are all too common in the modern world. When an optimist such as Walt Whitman insisted that all people are potential heroes, he meant that they chiefly lacked recognition. The stuff of heroism abounds, Whitman would say, especially in a democratic society that permits the individual to develop a sense of personal worth. For the most part, these heroes remain anonymous; collectively, they constitute the strength of society.
Prufrock has something that Whitman’s heroes lacked—a name—but he has precious little else. He has done nothing constructive with his freedom, and his keen awareness of his shortcomings destroys the self-esteem that theoretically ought to flourish in a free society. If Prufrock could compose a real love song, or any...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
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Alienation and Loneliness
In this poem, the speaker's poor ability to relate to other people, especially women, has him playing out a long dialogue in his mind, consisting of fragments of his past that are so intensely personal that he does not bother to connect them into a logical flow. The "us" he refers to in the first stanza is himself, which tells us that he is a person who is accustomed to being alone, to addressing another part of his mind in the way a more social person would talk to a friend. One of the strongest indications of his loneliness is the repeated use of questions to himself: he is so desperately alone in his thought that he examines every little aspect about his behavior, so curious about what people will think of him that he asks the only person he can talk to about it, the one person who knows no more than himself. This is a sign of social inexperience. In the eighth stanza, he imagines that the stares of others will pin him to the wall for inspection, the way an insect is held in place, "pinned and wiggling." He is so deeply immersed in his loneliness, so tragically alienated, that he fears even the first basic action that would bridge the gap between another person and himself: eye contact.
The main cause of his alienation is his low self-esteem, causing him to shrink in embarrassment from other people at the same time that he is wondering if he might not deserve better, if he is not setting his aims too low. Critics...
(The entire section is 913 words.)