In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot, why is the speaker so confused?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Regarding T.S. Eliot's work in general, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one source notes:

His early poetry, including "Prufrock," deals with spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city.

When I read the poem, if the speaker is confused, I believe it is a result of fear: the fear of not fully living or feeling one's life, and/or of challenging the norms of society. For instance, at the beginning of the poem, Eliot writes:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table...

One under the influence of anaesthetic cannot feel the world or be aware of what goes only around him. Perhaps what confuses the speaker is that people around him seem to be living meaningful lives —going through the motions—like the women who drink tea and read novels, who speak of famous artists —seemingly meaningful things:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

However, the speaker talks to his companion ("you"), comforting [I assume] her that there will be plenty of time...but not for meaningful experiences, but to put on the face of acceptability:

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet...

How is it possible, then, that while they look to congregate with those they know, that they cannot seem to find something or someone of substance with which to spend their time? In the third full paragraph, the speaker lists things there will be time for; this list seems to echo the Biblical passage taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1, which begins: "To everything there is a season..."

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke...

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face...

There will be time to murder...

Time for you and time for me...

And as the poem continues, we get the sense that this "going out" may not represent simply one night, but perhaps many nights—even a lifetime, as the signs of aging appear:

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--

[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]

In that the two go out to mingle with others, and because Eliot wrote specifically about "spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city," I can imagine that the confusion for the speaker is what path to follow. Do we follow the masses of these "spiritually exhausted people," forever searching for meaning in an environment that doesn't have the wherewithal to inspire because it is "impersonal" in its modern-context?

Or do we find ourselves to be individualists that do not follow the masses, but "march to the beat of a different drummer?" Do we defy convention:

To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"...

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

The speaker notes that he could be like Lazurus, to seemingly return from the "dead"—from a life of "spiritual exhaustion"—to tell his truth, to share what he has realized about life, and "disturb the universe." He alludes also to Hamlet, seeing himself not as a "procrastinator" but a man of action.

The speaker may be confused about whether he wants to shake up the world around him by being different: what is the right way to live? However, I get a sense from the poem that he is thinking things through here, and will ultimately have to speak his truth, regardless of how those around him feel.




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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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