1. Throughout the poem, the speaker describes how he has wandered about the city, under windows and down avenues, looking at early morning and late evening anthropomorphic fogs, along beaches and other disappointing exteriors. The women in the poem seem confined to drawing rooms, coming and going, "talking of Michelangelo" (ll. 35–36). Think about the various spaces that are accessible to women and men, and then describe the effects of keeping women in such a small space for the speaker and the poem. What does Prufrock's greater physical mobility accomplish for him? 2. Twice in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the speaker leads us to the brink of an "overwhelming question" (ll. 10, 93), but never explicitly clarifies what that question might be. What do you think the question is? What evidence you can find in the poem to support your guess? 3. Much of the city that Prufrock sees and describes is rendered into fragments: "sawdust restaurants and oyster shells" (l. 7), for example, stands for an urban lifestyle without referring to the whole. How do you see this oblique pattern of referring to modernity working within the poem? What is lost in these fragmentations of reality? What is gained?

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Starting with the first part of your question, let’s take a look at how the women are portrayed, where Prufrock encounters them, and what they say to him.

In line 5 of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker refers to

The muttering retreats Of restless...

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Starting with the first part of your question, let’s take a look at how the women are portrayed, where Prufrock encounters them, and what they say to him.

In line 5 of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker refers to

The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells...

He seems to be talking about brothels in the “red light district” by mentioning cheap hotels meant for one-night stays and establishments with sawdust on the floor to absorb spilled drinks. He does not actually describe any women or any encounters, but the location tells us that the women there are prostitutes, confined to the rooms where they entertain their customers. There is no conversation, because that is not what a man goes there for, nor do people pursue these women for their brains.

In the next reference to women, we are no longer in the red light district. Here, we have intelligent, cultured women who hold meaningful conversations in a more upscale setting: a drawing room, a museum, or a dinner party. He starts with a reference to their intellect.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

He then proceeds to a physical description of these sophisticated ladies.

And I have known the arms already, known them all-
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

As attractive as these women are, we see that they intimidate the speaker when he asks, “And should I then presume?” His insecurity in their presence prevents any real connection. In his third description of a woman, he describes the anxiety he feels about trying to share his innermost thoughts with a woman he shares his bed with.

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

The speaker imagines that even a woman with whom he is intimate enough to sleep next to (not just use for sex) will not understand him and will dismiss his attempts to connect.

So women are “confined” to bedrooms and drawing rooms. In one, they are good for sex, and in the other, for intellectual stimulation, but in neither does he achieve a relationship. Does his mobility give him a wider perspective? One of the things he ponders is:

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?

As he never actually shares what he has learned about the world, it does not really help him connect or achieve anything.

I’m not sure what his knowledge “accomplishes” for him, unless it gives him more anxiety, because it results in a gulf between himself and these women.

To discover what the speaker’s “overwhelming question” is, let’s look at the smaller questions he poses throughout the poem, as well as some statements he fantasizes about proclaiming.

"Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

These questions seem to express his insecurity. What does he have to say, and more importantly, how will his ideas and words be received? He seems to feel pigeon-holed by those around him, pinned like a butterfly in someone’s collection, unable to move or control his life. He is just something to be stared at, a curiosity, not someone with the power of action.

Close to the end of the poem, the speaker makes his first and only bold statement.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Ironically, he is boldly stating that he is not meant to be bold. So looking at the nature of the smaller questions he asks and his one proclamation, what can you surmise about his big question? Does it have something to do with his purpose? Does it have something to do with relationships and making connections? Does it have to do with how life passes? It’s your decision.

But on the subject of making connections, let’s look at the third part of your question. Why does the speaker only describe the setting in fragments? We have talked about a feeling of being disconnected, not part of the whole. Not fitting in. How does describing separate fragments rather than the cohesive whole add to that? Do we gain a more intimate knowledge of the speaker’s perspective? But what do we lose? Do we see where he really is? Do we know what is there in reality, or only his perspective?

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