How would you analyze the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" from a feminist and psychoanalytic perspective?
American-born British writer T.S. Eliot’s poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was first published in 1915. This work is widely seen as heralding a cultural shift from Romanticism to Modernism.
The school of feminist criticism analyzes literature through the lens of feminist theory, exploring how literature responds to and reinforces aspects of our male-dominated society. Reading “Prufrock” from a feminist perspective, some critics have pointed to signs of misogyny. The refrain, “women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” reveals the speaker does not view women as individuals but as nameless “others,” who come and go, speaking of trivial matters. The reference to Michelangelo may also show the speaker’s insecurity, that he can never live up to the male ideal represented in Michelangelo’s art. The speaker also refers to women as disembodied parts: “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare,” “perfume from a dress,” “skirts that trail along the floor.” These details also point to the narrator’s view of women not as equal individuals but as mysterious, anxiety-inducing creatures. Similarly, the poem concludes with mermaid imagery, a symbol of alien and even dangerous female sexuality.
Psychoanalytic literary criticism is influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and posits that literature may reveal unconscious desires or anxieties of the author. “Prufrock” lends itself to psychoanalytic criticism because of its dream-like, stream-of-consciousness style. Viewed from this lens, the speaker of the poem reveals anxieties about himself and sexuality. The speaker brings up “an overwhelming question” that he is too afraid to ask. He refers to “the eyes” that he feels must be judging him. He imagines his failure to connect emotionally and a woman’s disappointment with the repeated words, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” The speaker frets about his physical shortcomings—getting older, losing his hair, being too thin.
The feminist and psychoanalytic schools of criticism do not compete but complement each other in interpreting this poem. The speaker reveals himself to be a man preoccupied with himself, seeking emotional connection with a woman, but too fearful to truly connect.
See links below for more analysis of the poem and to hear a recording of T.S. Eliot reading the poem.