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 valid song, he would be achieving a victory of sorts, but he lacks the capacity to express his situation. “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” he exclaims at one point. The meaning emerges not from what he says but from what Eliot, through the images, the ironic quotations, and the obsessive repetitions, shows. The eloquence is Eliot’s.
Prufrock lives in a world that is no better than he is. It is happier than he is, however, because of its capacity to avoid reflection—especially self-reflection—by busying itself superficially with culture (the chatter about Michelangelo), gossip, and social amenities. Lacking the talent for such unself-conscious distractions, he attempts to take refuge in literature and dreams, but they solace him only fitfully, and he must awaken to the oppressive reality of his life.
Prufrock’s failure engages sympathy for him as a human being who must live with a residual sense of inadequacy. In his mediocrity, he is a more representative figure than Hamlet. Although he understands the mediocrity of his surroundings and of the society he frequents, he cannot rise above them. His plight raises the question of whether it is better to be a Prufrock than one of the presumably more well-adjusted people whom he so dreads confronting: Is disillusionment better than illusion?
To be a reader of Eliot’s poem is not exactly to be a Prufrock or, for that matter, to become disillusioned. It is, however, to be greeted with what Herman Melville called a “shock of recognition” that forcefully counters the temptation to exist in a condition of complacent insensibility. It is difficult afterward to slip into the guise of one of those women “Talking of Michelangelo.”