illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot

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Why won't the mermaids sing to the speaker and what does this say about him in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

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Prufrock exists—if that's the right word—in a kind of hell. He's cut off, not just from the social world around him, but also the world of the imagination. The mermaids' song could be interpreted as a possible invitation to a deeper, more fulfilling experience of life, the kind of experience that only great art can provide. But Prufrock is chronically unable or unwilling to respond to such an invitation, even if it were made.

His whole life is devoid of meaning and purpose, to the point where he is incapable of escaping his present malaise, even through the seductive power of art. Prufrock's tragedy is compounded by the fact that he's caught between a rock and a hard place. He cannot properly function in the enervated social world in which he moves so awkwardly. But nor can he leave that world behind and retreat into a richer, deeper life of the imagination. In other words, the mermaids' voices mean as little to him as the endless chatter of all those middle-aged ladies who "come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."

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Throughout the poem, Prufrock has been yearning for an escape from his social isolation, preferably through a romantic relationship. Yet beautiful women terrify him, and even more so, he fears rejection due to his lack of hair and youth. He is awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin.

Mermaids are traditionally depicted as mysterious, seductive creatures, beautiful but also potentially cruel (think of sirens drowning unwary sailors). This is an apt reflection of Prufrock's conception of women. He imagines the mermaids will not sing to him because he views himself as a pathetic weakling unworthy of female attention or love. When he says the mermaids will not sing to him, he is basically saying he has no hope that he will ever escape his loneliness.

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This question is referencing a passage late in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." To put it in context, I've listed the passage in full:

I shall wear flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me (123-5).

To understand this passage, which is one of the most important parts of the poem, you also have to understand the underlying themes of the piece. Like much of Eliot's most famous work, "Prufrock" depicts the emptiness and hollow isolation of modern life. The narrator appears to be a middle-aged man struggling to find meaning and purpose in the crushing context of the modern world. Moreover, if one reads between the lines, it seems the speaker is particularly lonely and longs for a romantic relationship (or at least female companionship). He lacks the courage or assertiveness to actively connect to another person, however, so he seems doomed to a life of isolation.

In many ways, the mermaids' refusal to sing to Prufrock encompasses this theme of isolation. Cut off from romance and meaningful human relationships, Prufrock encapsulates his loneliness by imagining singing mermaids, seductive beings and potential allusions to the sirens in The Odyssey. Based on the context of the poem, we can assume the mermaids do not sing for Prufrock because he lacks the confidence or ability to develop meaningful human relationships. Moreover, by asserting that the mermaids do not sing for him, Prufrock displays his belief that he is a completely uninteresting, hopeless, and undesirable individual. It's a sad image, and one that neatly encapsulates Eliot's gloomy vision of modern life.

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