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

Start Free Trial

What do the mermaids symbolize in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

Quick answer:

The mermaids in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” symbolize women, who for the eponymous character are always out of reach. Women are so unattainable that they are framed in mythical terms as mermaids who sing to each other but not to him.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

J. Alfred Prufrock is drawn to women but is unable to connect with them. At a social gathering, he observes "the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo." But he remains at a distance, perhaps worrying that he will be judged and imagining that they will remark on his thinning hair and slender limbs. That being the case, Prufrock is forced to retreat into a world of the imagination.

Women still remain hopelessly out of reach for Prufrock, even in his imagination. In a surreal scene at the end of the poem, they are represented by mermaids, who sing to each other ("each to each") but notably not to him. The mermaids thus represent the unattainable feminine, as well as perhaps the imagination itself, in which everything is idealized and beautiful yet still in its own way unattainable.

The workings of Prufrock's vivid imagination, which conjure up an image of mermaids singing beautifully to each other but not to him, only serve to remind Prufrock of his inadequacies with regards to the opposite sex and of how much women terrify him. This is shown by the implicit allusion to the sirens of Greek mythology, who trick sailors into drowning with their beautiful singing. Prufrock imagines that he has "lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls," until "human voices wake" him and he "drown[s]." These final lines further underscoring the extent to which Prufrock has entered the depths of his own imagination and suggest a desire not to be awakened by "human voices"—that is, drawn back to reality.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" who/what do the mermaids represent, and why does Prufrock not think that they will sing to him?

The protagonist of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a middle-aged man, socially awkward and somewhat shy, who is attracted to younger, beautiful women. He is very conventional and afraid of violating social rules.

The mermaids in the poem represent the unattainable women to whom he is attracted. The fact that they are mermaids, fantastic creatures who inhabit the ocean, emphasizes that they are objects of fantasy rather than realistic aspirations.

I agree with the other educators that the obvious reference is to the Sirens, beautiful and fatal women in Homer's Odyssey who lure men to death with their songs. 

The stanzas also strike me as echoing Matthew Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman," a poem that would have been known to Eliot. Although the genders are different, much of the imagery is similar. In particular, Eliot's description of the undersea world evokes the Arnoldian one:

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,

Where the winds are all asleep;

Where the spent lights quiver and gleam . . .

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" who/what do the mermaids represent, and why does Prufrock not think that they will sing to him?

I think that, in some ways, the mermaids Prufrock describes at the end of the poem are also representative of the women at the party.  He has said, many times, "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."  The women seem to take no notice of him, and they enter and exit the room as though he is not even present.  Prufrock seems to idolize and idealize these women—"Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)"—and he wonders, "Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?"  There is already such a dreamy, detached mood to the poem that the women seem to float like fantasies.

Then Prufrock says, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," suggesting that he ought to have been a crab, with a hard and insulated shell.  Later, when he starts to talk about mermaids, he is likely still thinking of himself as crablike, namely, on the seafloor and alone. Those mermaids, then, would be the women who surround him but do not notice him.  

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" who/what do the mermaids represent, and why does Prufrock not think that they will sing to him?

The answers to your question lie, in part, directly in the context of the lines you refer to in Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  Here are the lines:

Shall I part my hair behind [to cover a bald spot?]?  Do I dare to eat a peach [because he wears dentures?]?

I shall wear white 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.  (lines 122-125)

First, the mermaids will not sing to him because he's old.  He is not socially gifted, and his prime, if he ever had one, is long past.

The mermaids can probably be identified by other lines that follow those above:

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.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.  (126-131)

The mermaids are an allusion to the sirens of Ancient Greek myth, who would sing to lure sailors to their underwater caves, then stop singing (breaking their spell), thereby drowning the sailors.  The sense here is that the speaker daydreams, and then is awakened from his daydreams by someone talking, since the voices are "human voices."  This, of course, connects the mermaids/sirens to the women with, or, I should say, in the room, with Prufrock.

But neither the women, nor the sirens, who are not particularly picky about the men they drown, will sing to Prufrock.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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"?

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."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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"?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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"?

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on