What is the theme of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

The themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” include the alienation in modern life, the desire for love, and the isolation and loneliness of the individual.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ,” explores many complex and important ideas, but I think it would be especially interesting to discuss the theme of love, given the poem’s title. Additionally, the theme of love intersects with and highlights other important tropes in the poem, such as...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” explores many complex and important ideas, but I think it would be especially interesting to discuss the theme of love, given the poem’s title. Additionally, the theme of love intersects with and highlights other important tropes in the poem, such as alienation and loss of empathy in modern society.

T.S. Eliot’s treatment of love in the poem is ironic, beginning from its non-heroic, balding protagonist to its lack of a beloved. Love is present in the love song more because of its absence. We aren’t very sure to whom Prufrock addresses his song, or if he even wants to find love with a flesh and blood human being.

Even before we delve into Prufrock’s “love song,” the epigraph, which alludes to Dante’s Inferno, sets the anti-romantic tone of the poem. In the epigraph, Dante converses with Guido, a soul in purgatory. The inference we can draw is that like Guido, Prufrock too is in a state of inaction and stasis. Unlike Dante, who has Beatrice—his true love and spiritual teacher—to guide him to Paradise, Prufrock has no one. Instead of Dante’s pure, impassioned love, the poem begins with Prufrock’s empty offer to a vague “you.”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table … (Lines 1–3)

Not only is the evening described in sterile metaphors, Prufrock further imagines that his date will progress to "one-night cheap hotels /
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells," alluding to the tawdriness of petty, short-lived lust. Clearly, Prufrock looks down upon what he imagines is common love and wants to find a transforming passion that will rescue his dull life. To this extent, he often tries to initiate conversations and connections with women, but these tend to shrivel up and die, with the women saying:

That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all. (Lines 97–98)

However, Prufrock seems to mostly ignore the fact that his attitudes towards women may be playing into his lonely existence. His attitude towards women is problematic, with the women appearing interchangeable to him, as evidenced by the following lines:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (Lines 13–14)

He tends to imagines that women mock and deride him, and he gives up on human connection very easily. Thus, Prufrock represents contemporary man, who is too caught up in his own insecurities to risk love. Under these circumstances, his love song is bound to ring hollow. After all, he is no Dante or romantic hero of the past, or even a "Prince Hamlet," but just the eternal fool. Here, Prufrock’s failure to find love intersects with the poem’s prominent theme of the alienation inherent in modern society. Eliot suggests that wholesome, passionate love is incompatible with the spiritual emptiness of modern life, and Prufrock is emblematic of that dilemma.

Towards the end of the poem, Prufrock has a poetic, beautiful vision of “mermaids,” which can be said to represent perfect and unattainable women. Although he is convinced “they won’t sing” to him, he does allow himself to daydream about such women briefly.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (Lines 126-131)

But “human voices,” signifying reality, disturb Prufrock’s dream of co-existing with the “sea-girls.” Ironically, Prufrock does not realize that until he undergoes a spiritual transformation and attempts to forge a more meaningful connection with his own self and others around him, he will continue in his state of self-induced, loveless purgatory.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to the enotes Study Guide on Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," three themes exist in the poem:

  1. Alienation and Loneliness
  2. Time
  3. 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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team