Who is Prufrock speaking to and why?Prufrock is speaking and asking his listener to not ask questions but to listen.  Is Prufrock speaking to himself, going over and over the question he wants...

Who is Prufrock speaking to and why?

Prufrock is speaking and asking his listener to not ask questions but to listen.  Is Prufrock speaking to himself, going over and over the question he wants answered and is afraid of asking?

If it's someone else, who would it be?  It seems that he is not asking to be "formulated in a phrase."  But if he does not want to be "formulated," how does he trust this other person?

Expert Answers
morningvictoria eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a very interesting question and really gets to the heart of the poem.

As Eliot quotes from Dante's Inferno in the epigraph to the poem, it could be argued that the speaker functions as Virgil, the guide in Dante's poem, and the listener is Dante himself being taken on a tour of hell.  There is a clear guiding tone in the opening stanza with the lines, "Let us go then, you and I" and "Let us go and make our visit" which supports this interpretation.  

As the poem gets underway, however, the reader may get the impression that Prufrock is addressing a universal audience in an intimate way.  He acts as a kind of everyman, expressing the common frustrations of life to the reader.  This comes across in the dreamy repetitions, such as "There will be time, there will be time", the pluralisations, such as "evenings, mornings, afternoons" and the use of second person in lines such as "Time for you and time for me."

I also agree with you that Prufrock often seems to be speaking to himself, lost in his own spiralling thoughts and ruminating on his own mortality.  This is especially clear in the distracted way that he interrupts himself and leaves lines unfinished and trailing with ellipses.

I would agree that he seems not to want to be "fix[ed]... in a formulated phrase".  He shows his panic here at being silenced and embarrassed in social situations, unable to be decisive and impressive.  

I would argue, however, that there isn't an issue of trust between Prufrock and the listener as he immediately adopts a fully confessional and intimate tone which suggests that he is trusting.  Perhaps he does not trust the women who "come and go / talking of Michelangelo", but he doesn't seem to be addressing them here.  You can hear the open, trusting tone in lines such as "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be..." and "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

Overall, I think it would be too simple for us to say that there is one listener here.  T. S. Eliot often layers different voices together in his work (see The Waste Land as well) and this poem is no exception.  Within the voices of both the speaker and listener, several voices can be heard.

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

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