Introduction

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Last Updated on September 2, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

T.S. Eliot brought an intense visual imagination to bear in his poetry, and so his use of symbols and motifs is worth careful consideration. Though the images in “Prufrock” may appear to serve as scene-setting or whimsical diversions, many are suggestive of larger themes and patterns. In a poem as long as “Prufrock,” the tracking of symbols across the piece deepens our sense of the poem’s structure and meaning.

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Baldness | Smoke | Teatime

Baldness

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

The chief symbol for J. Alfred Prufrock’s advancing age is the “bald spot in the middle of [his] hair.” The evidence of his aging offers him frequent reminders of his looming mortality, in turn compounding his spiritual anxieties. After all, his “bald spot” is the preliminary work of the “eternal Footman” of death, and such reflections reliably guide Prufrock back to his spiritual crisis. The specter of mortality looms largest in the poem’s final lines, which begin as Prufrock chants “I grow old… I grow old…” and wonders, “Shall I part my hair behind?” 

Prufrock’s baldness also bears social significance. One of the poem’s narrative threads follows Prufrock’s encounters with women, who often snub, censure, and baffle him. Prufrock worries about his physical presentation, expressed in speculative asides in the voices of women who “will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’”

Smoke

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

In the poem’s third stanza, a yellow smoke or fog appears, figured as an animal with a muzzle (perhaps a cat) skulking around in the London evening. The clearest resonance of the symbol is its color, which connotes the cowardice or timidity which Prufrock (and, in Eliot’s view, his contemporary society) suffers from. Thus the smoke is a projected symbol of Prufrock’s own sensibility: he sees himself as a cowardly animal lingering in the streets. It seems the cat has some desire to get indoors—it rubs its back and muzzle upon the windowpanes—and yet it doesn’t seem to make any effort to act on that desire. 

In British literature, urban smog is often a symbol of industrialization. Charles Dickens, amongst others, described the smog that literally blackened the buildings of many British cities. Eliot’s yellow smoke is not necessarily that of the industrial chimneys, but it allows that other sooty symbol to fall on its back, perhaps suggesting the feline yellow smoke moves through an environment shaped by industrialization, but is passive and docile in the face of it.

Teatime

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Last Updated on September 2, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 142

Perhaps the most the most recurrent set of symbols in the poem is that of “the taking of a toast and tea.” The accoutrements of teatime undergird the wandering thoughts of Prufrock, allowing the parlors of cosmopolitan London to sustain as an anchor of physical reality. More importantly, the “tea and cakes and ices” stand as a bastion of polite banality that Eliot sets against Prufrock’s “crisis,” which unfolds inwardly, swelling along the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of Prufrock’s consciousness.

Compared to his “overwhelming question,” the image of Prufrock sitting down to tea is laughable—indeed, the symbols of teatime dish up frequent quaffs of comic relief in the face of the poem’s underlying seriousness. And yet teatime offers no lasting relief to Prufrock, who, yearning for greater meaning, laments, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

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