What are the signs of Prufrock's alienation from society?

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ariel-mcgavock eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prufrock distances himself from people both physically and mentally. He has extensive knowledge of the streets and establishments of the red-light district, indicating that he has wandered the area frequently; and when pondering how he might declare himself to a woman, he thinks:

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow

    streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of

    windows? ...

Prufrock wanders extensively, never settling yet never acting. He rarely allows himself to get close to people, and appears to feel more kinship with the "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" than with his peers. At a party of his peers, he retreats to his imagination and dreads interacting with the women:

[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]

He is self-conscious in their presence—he assesses his physical appearance only to find it lacking, what with his bald spot and thin limbs, and assumes that the women will judge him. He believes them to be superficial, speaking only of Michelangelo even as they “come and go.” The contrast between their unchanging conversation about art and the squalor of the city Eliot evokes is striking, and helps the reader to understand Prufrock’s frustration. Yet he belongs to neither world and so rests in his own in-between place—his imagination. He prefers to imagine mermaids singing on a beach rather than participate in the conversations that are taking place all around him.

discussion | Student

The most obvious signs of his alienation do come in the form of his physical self-critique. He feels insecure about his thin arms and legs as well as his bald spot.

But he also feels unable to express himself well or communicate clearly:

"How should I begin/To spit out the butt-ends of my days and ways?"(60).

"It is impossible to say just what I mean!" (104).

Prufrock worries about people misunderstanding him:

"Would it have been worthwhile..if one...should say:

That is not it at all/That is not what I meant, at all"(109-110).

He worries that if he really tries to reach out, his efforts will be misunderstood or in vain. Not to mention, the girl may not even be worth it...because he has "known them all already, known them all" (49). He tries to convince himself that he has had plenty of experiences and that he still has plenty of time to have more: "There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet"(26-27).

He feels inadequate as the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. He does not feel special, talented, or famous. In fact, he admits he is "a bit obtuse....at times, the Fool"(117, 119).

Prufrock openly questions, "Do I dare disturb the universe?"(46). In short, he is paralyzed by fear.

Really, the whole "love song" is his internal voyage through his own alienation. Most agree he is not really talking to the girl, but talking to himself...At the end, he decides he will continue to "grow old, grow old" (120). Even in his daydream of walking along the beach, he pouts that the mermaids will not sing to him (125). He realizes he should have been a crab at the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in his shell (73-74).

Prufrock admits his feelings of inadequacy about his looks, his age, his ability to communicate, and his intelligence.

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

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