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 three questions that Prufrock asks himself? Why are they significant?

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a dramatic monologue that occurs in the thoughts of the title character. Over the course of his reflections about his date (whether they take place in real time during the date or in anticipation of the date isn't quite clear), Prufrock poses multiple questions to himself. Some are inconsequential queries or procedural questions that refer to specific actions he might or might not take. These include "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" and "Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?" These questions serve mainly to enhance the characterization of Prufrock as an insecure man who doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin.

However, Prufrock also asks insightful, metaphysical questions that advance the thematic impact of the poem. In the first stanza, these queries are foreshadowed by the enigmatic reference to "an overwhelming question."

One question Prufrock asks that falls into this latter category is, "How should I begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? And how should I presume?" With this question, Prufrock touches on a dilemma most human beings have: How can we explain who we are to another person? How can we begin to share the innermost regions of our soul with someone else? And if we do, will that person even care or understand? This question reveals the isolation that is part of the human condition for those who dare to contemplate it.

A bit later, Prufrock wonders, "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" This echoes another question asked previously: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" When our companions seem content to discuss inconsequential matters and carry on surface-level conversations, should we steer the topic toward weightier subjects? And if we don't, won't we be guilty of "measuring out [our lives] with coffee spoons?" This question relates to the desire to live intentionally rather than to let life slip away in meaningless activities.

Finally, Prufrock asks himself, "And would it have been worth it, after all, would it have been worth while . . . ?" This question is twice begun and never quite finished. But the implication is there. If the listener spurns our attempt to turn the conversation toward the metaphysical, toward issues of consequence, would it be worth being embarrassed? Finding a person whom you can trust to take your deepest thoughts seriously is daunting. It could make a relationship awkward thereafter or even end the relationship. Prufrock seems to answer this question with an emphatic, "No!" He does not seem to be willing to risk rejection for the chance of a deeper type of relationship.

Prufrock's questions reveal not just his lack of self-confidence but also the isolation and alienation that often characterize the human condition.

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