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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What are J. Alfred Prufrock’s obsessions? Is there anything redeemable about him? What makes him the quintessential modernist figure?

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J. Alfred Prufrock is self-obsessed not in the commonly understood sense of being egotistical but in the way that he constantly worries about his own inadequacies and timidity. He is always repeating to himself "Do I dare?" and fretting about what others think of him, imagining their disparaging comments on his appearance. Paradoxically, Prufrock's lack of confidence leads to a a rather grandiose way of expressing himself, since the act of expressing his feelings honestly seems to him so impossible that to do so would be to "disturb the universe."

Prufrock, however, is perfectly aware of how ludicrous such comparisons sound. He specifically says that he knows he is not a hero like Prince Hamlet, but a peripheral figure even in his own life. It is this self-knowledge and self-deprecation that make him such a quintessentially Modernist figure. The heroes of Romanticism feel, like Prufrock, despair at the pain of unrequited love, but they ascribe some cosmic significance to their sorrow. Prufock feels a thoroughly modern alienation. He is unhappy, and the universe does not care, for he is entirely alone. This is why Prufrock is not redeemable. He is by no means a bad man. He is not malicious or evil in any way. However, it is his misfortune to live in an era where redemption is no longer possible, since the very concept has become meaningless.

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