What torments Prufrock in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"? What are examples of this torment?

What torments Prufrock in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"? What are examples of this torment?


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ariel-mcgavock eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a particularly apt question due to the epigraph from Dante’s The Divine Comedy that precedes the poem. In the epigraph, a damned soul from Hell hesitatingly agrees to tell his story, because he believes that no one will ever hear it. In this way, Prufrock can be understood to be trapped inside his own piece of Hell. So, then: what torments him?

The answer is quite simple: himself. Prufrock appears to be his own worst enemy in this poem. He despairs of his alienation without taking steps to alleviate it; he is indecisive:

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will


He is consumed by a desire to share his life with a woman, but he dislikes the shallowness of the women he is surrounded by, who “come and go” and yet speak only of Michelangelo. In any case, Prufrock believes that he would be rejected should he propose to a woman:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

         "That is not it at all,

          That is not what I meant, at all."

Wandering the narrow streets of the city, Prufrock finds a kinship with the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” who lean out of windows as they smoke pipes. His fondness for wandering through the worse parts of the city at odd hours speaks to his isolation, but Prufrock does not attempt to solve it—he does not speak to anyone outside of his own mind, and imagines spending his old age alone, with only his imagination as company. In this passage, romance personified as mermaids singing in the distance, who sing “each to each” but not to him. In believing that any attempt to connect to people will be fruitless, Prufrock seals his own fate.

epollock | Student


The speaker in this poem is Prufrock, who engages in an internal monologue that, when first published in 1915, gave voice to the pervasive disillusionment and spiritual estrangement of the modern individual.

Prufrock wants to escape the solitary dreariness of his isolated existence, but is afraid to take action or ask for affection. He instead imagines a tea party that he and the reader will attend, a party where he will remain indecisive, lacking the creative energy of the men they speak of such as Michelangelo.

He recalls how the hero Hamlet finally acted after deliberation and decisiveness, but he ultimately compares his own fear and inaction to that of the old fool, Polonius.

A wonderful an internal monologue in which “I” (the timid self) addresses his own amorous self as “you.” (Not every “you” in this poem, however, refers to Prufrock’s amorous self. Sometimes “you” is equivalent to “one.”) Possibly, too, the “you” is the reader, or even other people who, like Prufrock, are afraid of action.

Among the important points are these: The title proves to be ironic, for we scarcely get a love song: “J. Alfred Prufrock” is a name that, like the speaker, seems to be hiding something (“J.”) and also seems to be somewhat old-fashioned “Prufrock” suggests “prude” and “frock”); the initial description (especially the “patient etherised”) is really less a description of the evening than of Prufrock’s state of mind; mock heroic devices abound (people at a cocktail party talking of Michelangelo, Prufrock gaining strength from his collar and stickpin); the sensuous imagery of women’s arms leads to the men in shirt-sleeves and to Prufrock’s wish to be a pair of ragged claws.

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

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