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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In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," why do "human voices" cause drowning?

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In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "human voices" cause Prufrock to feel he is drowning because he is paralyzed and unhappy in his everyday life. It is only when he can escape into his imagination, represented by the mermaids riding the waves, that he feels free.

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At the end of the poem, Prufrock is able to escape his mundane world for a time. He does this by imagining mermaids riding in the waves of the sea:

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. ... ... sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown....
These images of movement, nature, fantasy, and freedom are a creative space Prufrock is able to enter. They take him out of himself and his self-conscious preoccupation with his aging, his clothing, how he parts his hair, how he comes across to other people, and what he dares to say. They also mentally transport him from a party that feels soul-stifling. He has spent much of his time at the party restless and bored. He feels as if he has done this party scene a thousand times before, measuring out his life "with coffee spoons" and hearing the women repeatedly making the same comments. He compares himself to an insect pinned "wriggling" to a wall and wishes he could escape.
He feels it is these everyday "human voices" of the poem's last line—the voices at the party—that are drowning him. As long as he is in the magical world of imagination, he rides free, like a mermaid. But when he is in reality—hearing "human voices"—he feels he would like to "spit out all the butt-ends of [his] days and ways." It is as if his real life is choking and drowning him.
Prufrock is a morose and unhappy man who knows he would be better off if he could change his life, but he seems unable to let go and let his imagination take him in new directions.

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