With T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," it's important to identify the concept of "modern" during the early 20th Century. The modernist literary movement addressed the...
...idea of individualism, mistrust of institutions (government, religion), and the disbelief of any absolute truths.
Things which were considered traditional were now viewed as outdated. By some, T.S. Eliot's poem is considered the first of the modernist literary movement; it...
...explore[s] the peculiarly Modernist alienation of the individual in society to a point where internal emotional alienation occurs...
Georg Simmel, a sociologist, summarizes societal concerns during this time:
The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.
Eliot's image of "a patient etherized" gives the reader a sense that as this man and his companion go out, they are like sheep, moving along passively as if they had been anesthetized. The two pass through a dingy part of town with "cheap one-night hotels," perhaps alluding to clandestine rendezvous—where things are done in secret, e.g., meetings, conversations, etc.
As the two continue, they enter a place where women are having discussions about sophisticated topics such as Michelangelo, and later we learn there is tea and talk of novels—modern women?
Prufrock compares how he sees himself to how others might see him. He is uncertain as to how he should proceed: "Do I dare?" Can he move forward in this unfamiliar territory or should he turn back?
The end of the poem reflects Prufrock's feelings as he prepares to meet a woman for tea; the images of coffee spoons may hint that Prufrock has been in many of these situations before: cups of coffee over extremely awkward, socially painful conversations. Without getting over this discomfiture, Prufrock may be destined forever to be alienated from society and the company of a woman—a wife and marriage...a "modern" life.
In this poem, I see in Prufrock a struggle between individualism and a sense of alienation. Some people are strong enough to be individuals and to fight against the tide of humanity to find their own unique place in the world. However, for the person that does not thrive being alone—who feels more comfortable with life in a "pre-modernist" society—the sense of loneliness must be overwhelming. I find that Prufrock is trying to walk the line between what society has become (where he is extremely uncomfortable) and the old world which was comfortable for him, but makes him feel like an outcast.
One source notes:
[Eliot's] early poetry, including "Prufrock," deals with spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city.
Prufrock seems spiritually exhausted. This "modern man" is only that because of the time in which he lives. He does not feel at ease in this "impersonal modern city" where people defy the norms of the past and look to isolation brought about by a new to be one's own person and a "mistrust of [government and religion]." Prufrock is uncomfortable in trying to be a "modern" man.
Prufrock is a representative character who cannot reconcile his thoughts and understanding with his feelings and will.