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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What does Prufrock know about "the eyes" and "the arms" in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

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In the middle of T. S. Eliot's famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the speaker notes that he has "known the eyes" and "the arms." Prior to these two stanzas, each of which concentrates on one of those body parts, Prufrock has claimed to also know all about "evenings, mornings, afternoons" and "the voices ... from a farther room." In that stanza, his knowledge of the parts of the day reflects the monotony of his lifestyle, while his mastery of "the voices" suggests that he feels unheard because the voices are drowned out by music. He ends the stanza by asking a rhetorical question: "So how should I presume?" He wonders why he should bother or think he is worth listening to when he already knows the outcome will be that he will ignored or not heard (or, to take the point further, understood). These comments reveal that Prufrock has most likely faced rejection in the past and has come to expect it.

As he begins to talk about "the eyes," he again claims that he has "known them all" and describes them as "fix[ing] you in a formulated phrase." The speaker seems to feel judged by the eyes and believes that the impression the eyes have of him cannot be changed by future behavior or correction. He then metaphorically compares himself to a bug "sprawling on a pin / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall." His sense of being stuck or "fixed" by the judgment of these eyes is unbearable to him, and no matter what he does to try to escape, he cannot avoid their gaze. This leads Prufrock to again ask himself why he would bother trying to communicate or interact with these other people who seem to already have a set idea of who he is (and it is not positive).

In the subsequent stanza, Prufrock turns to "the arms [he has] already known." He describes them as covered in bracelets but otherwise "bare." He mentions perfume, a dress, and "light brown hair." The accumlated details seem to suggest a female character who represents all of the women Prufrock desires or has interacted with; like those who judged them with their eyes, these women, symbolized through their disembodied arms, have apparently rejected the speaker so that he does not know how he would move beyond this rejection or try again to appeal to them. He asks more rhetorical questions, like "And how should I begin?" Both of the stanzas about the eyes and arms suggest that Prufrock at least thinks he knows or claims to know what to expect from every social interaction; it is enough to make him question whether he will again risk conversation.

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