What Happens in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?
- J. Alfred Prufrock guides a companion through the smoggy, lurid streets of modern London as he ponders his “overwhelming question” and worries that he is running out of time “for a hundred indecisions.”
- Prufrock visits a party of sophisticated women who “come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” but he feels self-conscious of his slender, balding appearance. Bored at the prospect of engaging in social activity, he wishes to withdraw.
- Prufrock becomes lost in thought, wondering whether he should “force the moment to its crisis” or “squeeze the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question.” However, he feels unable to express the nature of either his crisis or his question.
- He considers himself as a side character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an “attendant lord” or “Fool” who plays an insignificant part in life’s drama. As the poem ends, Prufrock imagines himself strolling down the beach, listening to “mermaids singing, each to each” but not to him. He dreams of lingering “in the chambers of the sea” until “human voices wake us and we drown.”
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno that sets a tone of both despair and candor. The condemned, corrupt statesman Guido da Montefeltro tells Dante that he will divulge his sinful story, for he doubts Dante will ever return to the mortal world. With the opening line, “Let us go then, you and I,” Prufrock invites readers to hear his story, laced as it is with doubt, failure, and ruin. The “you” Prufrock addresses is both an unnamed companion as well as readers of the poem.
Prufrock moves through a London landscape where “the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” As the journey passes through “half-deserted streets,” “one-night cheap hotels,” and “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells,” the bleak atmosphere thickens as Prufrock paints a portrait of a dissolute city. Here Prufrock engages in a mode of projection, using the physical city to reveal aspects of his own psychology. When Prufrock describes
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
he sees echoes of his own mental processes in his urban surroundings. The “overwhelming question” figures as a recurring obsession, one which so lurks over his thoughts that Prufrock imagines that the streets he walks down lead to that very question. The mystery of the question—“‘What is it?’”—gives the poem an added propulsion. Prufrock refuses to tell, diverting with the line “Let us go and make our visit.”
Prufrock briefly brings us to a festive parlor, where “women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” This location seems to be the “visit,” but it proves fleeting, for his attention returns to an outdoor scene in which a yellow, cat-like smog “rubs its back upon the window-panes.”
Prufrock falls into a meditation, reminding himself that “indeed there will be time,” but he does not say why he desires such consolation. Nor is it clear what he desires to do with time, for Prufrock’s aims are scattered and abstract: “time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” “time to murder and create,” and “time yet for a hundred indecisions.” He has limited time to act, but he desires more time to dither and revise.
The scene suddenly shifts back to the parlor of sophisticated women “talking of Michelangelo.” By this point, the narrative structure of the poem is more a series of fragments, connected only by the order in which they pass through Prufrock’s consciousness. Prufrock, ascending the stair (perhaps to the same parlor), deliberates and considers descending, but he fears that “they will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” Prufrock is unsure, both about...
(The entire section is 985 words.)