What is Prufrock’s (and more importantly, Eliot's) attitude towards taking risks in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The repeating phrase "there is time" is where I would look for an answer to the question of Prufrock's (and Eliot's) attitude toward taking risks.

The narrator speaks of the unending cycles that seem to pervade each day.  He starts by saying that "we" should move along like "a patient etherized," unaware, following the same meaningless paths, participating in the same cheap methods of entertainment.  However, I do not believe he means this.  He is writing satirically: saying one thing, meaning the opposite.  He points these things out, the movement of people no more aware than the movement of fog on a window pane.  And always there is consistency in what is done: "the women....talking of Michelangelo."

The narrator warns not to ask any questions, but especially those like "What is it?" or "Do I dare?"  In truth, Eliot wants the reader to dare.  In continually repeating there is time, he leads us to the inevitable, asking "Do I dare?" while getting old, hair sparse on the head, limbs thinning, trousers rolled up as age robs one of his height.  And "we" keep telling ourselves, "There is time."

The narrator has had all meaningless experiences and all the emptiness life has to offer, measured in taking tea, listening to the music in another room (not where he is), following the swishing path of the hem of a skirt across the floor, and having no more impact on or interaction with life than "a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," in other words, a crab on the ocean's floor.

With several wonderful allusions, Eliot makes his point. He notes that he is not Prince Hamlet: Hamlet's tragic flaw is that he is too indecisive and fails to take action when he has the opportunity.  This is not an accidental comparison he makes.

He also wonders looking back, if he should have taken the universe on (rather than asking, "Do I dare disturb the universe?") in order to be like Lazarus (another famous allusion) returning from the dead to tell others what being dead was like.  He could have done so--talked about what life was really about, IF he had taken chances, dared to take risks.

So when Eliot speaks to us through the narrator (Prufrock), he is telling us to take the risks and not count on "there will be time." Time has a way of slipping through our fingers, though it is more valuable than gold. Time passes and somehow we never have the chance to do the things we have promised ourselves to do over the years, until, too late, we can no longer do them.  Or, even more tragically, life flashes before one's eyes in that moment before premature death, when it is sadly apparent that there will be no more "time" left to use.

Eliot's poem says: Carpe diem! (Seize the day!)

Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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