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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In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," what is the major conflict presented in the poem?

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The major conflict of the poem is an internal one for the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock: character versus self. Prufrock is ambivalent about posing a significant question to a woman. It is perhaps a proposal of marriage that he is considering, or maybe he just wants to ask her out—it is impossible to know. He wonders, "'Do I dare?'" several times, while describing his appearance. He tries to seem put together with his "morning coat, [his] collar mounting firmly to the chin / [His] necktie rich and modest but asserted by a simple pin." However, he is conscious of the things that other people will say about him: that his hair is thinning, that his arms and legs are also thin, and so on. He doesn't even know how to begin to ask his question.  

Prufrock seems to feel that everything going on around him at this party is shallow and meaningless. The "women come and go talking of Michelangelo," there are "tea and cakes and ices," and "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare," while he feels himself to be "sprawling on a pin . . . pinned and wriggling on the wall." How can he possibly find the strength to make himself so vulnerable to another person when it is entirely possible that she will say, "'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all'"?  The question is "overwhelming" and it does overwhelm him. He wonders if it would have been worth it to ask, though he knows he is no hero. If anything he feels "the Fool."  

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The central conflict of this poem seems to be encapsulated in the figure of J. Alfred Prufrock himself, and in particular in the indecision that he is plagued by and the choice of whether to act or not. He is a curious character to focus on as the protagonist of what appears to be from the title a romantic poem, as we see him venture towards an undisclosed destination where he will meet a woman and ask an important question. Nowhere more clearly is this conflict captured than in the following stanza:

And indeeed there will be time

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

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!")

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--

(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Note how this stanza presents J. Alfred Prufrock. He is desperately insecure about his appearance, and imagines how others will criticise him about his baldness and thinness. Also, he is incredibly indecisive and cannot bring himself to make a decision on anything. He says there "will be time / To wonder "Do I dare?" but then immediately qualifies that by saying there will be time to turn around and go back down the stairs from where he was going to. The stanza ends by focusing on how even in a minute there "is time / For decisions and revisions" which can reverse what we have decided before. It is rather ironic that perhaps one of the most famous quotes of this poem: "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" is uttered by a man who actually "dares" to do nothing. Thus the central conflict of this poem concerns the character of J. Alfred Prufrock and his inability to make a decision and his own lack of self-security.

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The major conflict of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is an internal conflict for the narrator. In the poem, he is speaking to a desired lover, and it is clear that he wishes to move the relationship to another level, to "force the moment to its crisis." The problem is that life has caused him to believe he is inadequate. He has heard, in his mind, the negative comments of others, and he argues in his mind whether he is capable of an emotional relationship.

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