What is the theme of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of the first modernist poems, has at its center a modernist theme: the alienation, paralysis, and timidity of the early 20th-century man. Prufrock, whose interior, stream of consciousness monologue is the poem, represents the impotent intellectual of the pre-World War I period. The poem was begun in 1910, before the war began, and published in 1915, after the war had started.
Prufrock might possibly like to do daring things, asking "Do I dare?"—but in reality, he doesn't dare. Instead, he fritters away his time at pointless parties, all the while knowing he is wasting his powers. He complains that he "[has] measured out my life with coffee spoons," yet he is so paralyzed that he continually turns away from the "overwhelming question" he seems to want to ask. Instead, he focuses on petty issues: his bald spot, his thinning hair, whether to eat a peach or not. Rather than feeling powerful, he feels like an insect pinned to a wall. He projects this sense of impotence onto all of London; and describes it as a patient etherized upon a table.
At the end, he mourns the poetic time embodied in Greek myths of mermaid on the sea, but he doesn't think the imagined mermaids (symbols of inspiration) will sing to him. We can rest assured that they probably won't.
One of the main themes throughout the poem concerns a lack of self-esteem. Prufrock is obsessed with his own sense of inadequacy and insecurity. The speaker is extremely self-conscious and considers himself a failure. Prufrock is concerned about what others, particularly women, will think of him. Upon entering the room where women are discussing Michelangelo, Prufrock begins to worry about the bald spot in the middle of his hair. He also expresses his concern that the women will ridicule him for his thin arms and legs. The speaker does not dare confess his desires or express himself in front of these women because he fears being judged. Prufrock's lack of self-esteem creates a dilemma where he cannot ask a certain question. Throughout the poem, Prufrock is continually questioning himself and is filled with a sense of anxiety because he is self-conscious. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker expresses his pathetic existence by comparing himself to a crab crawling on the silent ocean floor. Prufrock admits that he is "not Prince Hamlet" and compares himself to Polonius. Prufrock's inadequate perception of himself leaves him powerless and unable to act upon his emotions.
According to the enotes Study Guide on Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," three themes exist in the poem:
- Alienation and Loneliness
- Doubt and Ambiguity
The speaker is so alone and lonely that most likely, the "you and I" in the poem represents a dialogue with himself. He is inept socially, and worries that he will feel "pinned and wriggling on the wall," like an insect being studied, simply from making eye contact with others.
First, he knows there's time, then he knows that time is running out. He worries that he will grow old with time and he will be a clown. And magic and beauty and mermaids will never be for him.
The speaker is filled with doubt and ambiguity (as is the poem, of course). He is like Hamlet, unable to overcome doubts and questions and indecision and actually do something. He questions his own existence.
This peom is extremely complex, but this short breakdown of the poem's themes should help you get a handle them.