illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot
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"I have measured out my life in coffee spoons,” says Elliot (from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). How might other writers in the modernist time period react to his line? Specifically think about Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects" or Rebecca West's "Indissoluble Matrimony."

Using Woolf's "Solid Objects" as a starting point, one can imagine she would react with sadness to Prufrock's coffee spoons line. Unlike Prufrock, her protagonist John finds beauty all around him in the world. Prufrock can see only misery. Eliot and Woolf would both agree, as their works show, that our subjective consciousnesses or states of mind determine how we perceive reality.

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Choosing to focus on Woolf's "Solid Objects," one can surmise that Woolf would find both truth and profound sadness in Prufrock's line.

Modernists find truth in how characters, in their interiority, react to the minutiae of life. In Woolf's story, John's artistic temperament comes clear through his sensitive reactions to...

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Choosing to focus on Woolf's "Solid Objects," one can surmise that Woolf would find both truth and profound sadness in Prufrock's line.

Modernists find truth in how characters, in their interiority, react to the minutiae of life. In Woolf's story, John's artistic temperament comes clear through his sensitive reactions to beauty. He can discern a beauty that others miss in life's simple objects, such as a smooth piece of glass or a broken piece of china that looks like a starfish. The truth of John's life can be found in these random objects placed on his mantlepiece.

Likewise, the truth of Prufrock's life can be found in the dull repetition, hateful to him, of a life measured out in coffee spoons. These coffee spoons represent the endless parties he attends and the endless cups of coffee he drinks at them.

The sadness that Woolf might experience as a reaction comes in the contrast between Prufrock and John. While Prufrock longs for the life of imagination and art, symbolized for him by the mermaids that elude him, John has found imaginative fulfillment in the life around him. John can gaze with happiness on his mantle:

The contrast between the china so vivid and alert, and the glass so mute and contemplative, fascinated him, and wondering and amazed he asked himself how the two came to exist in the same world.

We have to imagine that such beauty exists all around Prufrock as well, but he does not focus on it. In both works, therefore, it is the character's consciousness that determine how we feel about the world. John's ability to see, reach out to, and enjoy life's many beauties is a contrast to Prufrock's self-absorbed self-pity and misery. Woolf would probably say that if Prufrock could get over himself, he might find some happiness lying hidden in plain sight.

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