How does Alfred Prufrock show the conflict between decision and indecision in ' The love song of J Alfred Prufrock'? 

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huntress eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oh wow. This is a poem I've loved and puzzled over for at least two decades now, but the older I get, the more it means to me. Methinks 'tis a mature poem, meant for mature audiences who understand the confusion that education and experience brings: The more you know, the more know you don't know. 

It's written in the form of the ramblings of an old man who keeps getting distracted. He can't even say he knows how to say what he means. What he said, though, embodies indecision--even while he says he "is no prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be"--a literary figure who is himself the embodiment of indecision--perhaps because Hamlet eventually makes a decision and acts on it. Prufrock, in comparison, seems to have never done this. 

Some examples of indecision, though: 

  • There will be "Time to turn back and descend the stair." He keeps asking himself "Do I dare?" but does not tell us to do what? It is irrelevant, really. He's climbing the stair "to dare," but knows he's just as prone to turn back and descend the stair--and not dare. 
  • He says: 
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Perhaps this is what he thinks confidence and decisiveness will result in: disturbing the universe. But even within the span of a minute, there is time--for him, at least--to change his mind several times. 
  • He has lived and seen and felt much: 
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
               So how should I presume?
He's had a boring life, he says, having "measure out his life with coffee spoons," which lends itself to his sense of his own lack of adequate knowledge to answer even the most basic question with confidence, so "how should [he] presume?"
  • He's no prophet, he says, like John the Baptist, having had his own head brought in upon a platter, which means he cannot tell the future and again, cannot presume to. He doesn't know the answers and he's afraid to even guess. Even the eternal Footman--perhaps St. Peter?--will laugh at him when he dies, because Profrock sees himself and his life as so meaningless, himself such a sad excuse for a man: 
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
  • Even after all these years, he still doesn't understand women, nor does he presume to offer advice regarding them: 
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
               “That is not it at all,
               That is not what I meant, at all.”
  • Instead of being someone meaningful to history or literature--like Prince Hamlet--he is instead a Polonius--an annoying old man who doesn't really have much valuable to offer, but who is ultimately foolish and who dies a meaningless death: 
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.
  • He cannot even decide how to live now, in his dotage: "Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?" Should he even bother trying to cover his bald spot--because what would it matter in the grand scheme of things?--and can his digestive system and old teeth withstand even eating fresh fruit? He cannot even decide such petty and meaningless things as this, so how can he answer any questions with real import? 
Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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