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!)

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prufrock is a remarkably timid man who does not like to take risks. When he thinks, as he heads for his party at the beginning of the poem, that the London evening looks like a patient etherized upon a table, he might be describing himself. He regrets that he has "measured out his life in coffee spoons," meaning wasted it at afternoon teas saying the same things over and over to other people who also keep repeating the same conversations:

The women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.

Prufrock repeatedly asks "Do I dare?" He wonders if he should dare to disturb the universe or dare to eat a peach, suggesting he is timid about matters both large and small. He worries about his bald spot. He observes he is getting older. He has never done anything grand, romantic, or heroic, but he nervously reassures himself that he still has time. All the same, he seems to do nothing to change his life.

Eliot is critiquing the alienation, paralysis and timidity of the modern intellectual in the early years of the twentieth century. He is urging greater boldness and risk taking. He doesn't want people to be like Prufrock.

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

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