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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Depiction of Modern Urban Society in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" depicts modern urban society as fragmented and alienating. The poem portrays a world filled with superficial social interactions, isolation, and indecision, reflecting the protagonist's inner turmoil and existential angst. The imagery of the cityscape underscores the sense of disconnection and the impersonal nature of contemporary life.

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How do the technical aspects of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" describe society?

The opening line of Eliot's poem is an exercise of figurative language, seeking to articulate what might or should be in a context hopelessly locked into what actually is. The implications of "Let us go then, you and I," is a reminder as the poem develops that the narrator lives in a world of alienating loneliness and isolation as opposed to unity.  The image of being "spread out against the evening sky" is breathtaking in its coherency, until it becomes evident that there is only isolation within the speaker's world.  Society is described in an idealistic construct, undercut with what is actually experienced.

The speaker's inability to bridge the world of what is and what might be haunts Prufrock and the reader.  This can be seen in the meter of specific lines.  For example, "In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo" is a line that links rhyme and meter with a superficial and transitory condition of being.  The world that "spreads out" to the narrator is one where lightness and the transitory can be seen. This world is one where both how higher elements of "culture" are simply exchanged with no real and substantive meaning.  Even the manner of speaking where the inauthentic "come and go" seems to merge with "Michelangelo" is reflective of this condition of being.  Society is shown in a superficial light, in contrast to the gravity with which the speaker appropriates the world and his disjointed place in it.

The descent which is intrinsic to the poem's epigraph can be seen in the structure of the stanzas.  Stanza one presents a conditional view of the world, an almost hopeful image of what can be, only to be undercut by the women in stanza two.  There is a polluted condition of the world in the third stanza of the poem.  The pollution of the world around the speaker is evident, something conveyed through the poem's structure:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
The structure in which the pollution of the world is one where the speaker descends into a social world is tainted.  The image of the cat lurking around that which exists communicates this through figurative language.  
Such a structure helps to convey a world that has descended into isolation and alienation, experiences that lie within the speaker's heart. This structure continues into its descent as seen in how Purfrock's own mind becomes infested with doubt and self- criticism.  The world exists in one domain and Prufrock is hopelessly divided against it.  Through this structure of descent, Prufock is able to communicate base ideas about his own condition in the world.  This is evident in lines such as "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of the silent seas."   The structure of the poem along with its use of technical elements such as meter and figurative language communicate a society where there are clear "insiders" and "outsiders."  It is a world predicated upon alienation and division, one where individuals are marginalized both by self and the structures that envelop them. The repetition of people who "come and go" is a reflection of a society where connection and authentic communication have been supplanted.
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What image of modern life does the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock present?

"Prufrock" gives a picture of modern life as a disconnected, somewhat despairing, existential ramble. Modern life is alienation, and petty alienation at that.

To illustrate that a bit, look at how much hesitation and back and forth there is in the poem. Look at how the narrator frets over things. They talk, but they reach no conclusion. He walks through the streets, but there isn't a sense of being part of a unified community. Instead, it's a world of fog and indecision. Look at how the narrator frets over his lack of daring, over growing old, and ultimately over small things like eating a peach. It is a life, as the poem says, measured "with coffee spoons." There is no connection with the divine or the supernatural; think of how the mermaids sing, but not for the narrator.


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How does "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" portray urban life?

The loneliness of the narrator helps to underscore the loneliness portrayed in the description of the city scenes.  The narrator is unsure and isolated, feeling like a bug "pinned and wriggling on the wall."  He wishes he were only a "pair of ragged claws" and not a member of society.  He worries about his fashion and about his appearance, particularly as he ages.  He talks of the room "where women come and go" and implies he has spent much time in this room - "I have measured my life in coffee spoons."  However, he doesn't really know this people.  He can't be sure that he is understanding anyone, which is why he won't speak up, afraid that the lady will say "that is not what I meant at all." 

By first describing the city scenes, and then the feelings of the narrator, Eliot makes it clear that the loneliness of his narrator is the loneliness of the city.

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How does "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" portray urban life?

An interesting question. We might rephrase it slightly, and ask, what elements of urban life are represented? If we ask it that way, we see things like "half-deserted streets," and "one-night cheap hotels." We see people talking idly—but not to the narrator—and lonely men. We see dirt. The result? Urban life is portrayed as isolated and isolating, the sight of alienation. There's little sense of community, or of the richness of the city, but rather, lonely vice and only limited connections among people.

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How does Eliot depict modern life in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

This poem is often compared to Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquey in that it expresses the speaker's alienation and lonlieness and confusion. In fact, Prufrock refers to this in the poem:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

In this poem, the speaker is carrying on the same type of self dialogue and analysis. He is overwhelmed by his situation, the plight of the so-called modern man who is full of doubts about the meaning of life and his place in it. He continually questions himself, expresses doubts (do I dare? and do I dare?), and finds himself socially alienated and incapable of the human contact that he so desires.

He not only expresses these self-doubts about his present situation, but also fears the future -

I grow old, I grow old

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

The pessimism of modern society permeates this poem - the same pessimism Eliot expresses in most of his works -- look at some of the titles: The Waste Land, The Hollow Men. Even this poem is just the opposite of a "lovesong".

There is so much more to say about it, but this will get you started. Read the excellent analysis of the theme of modernism here on eNotes.

And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

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