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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