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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Where are the themes of alienation and urbanization in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

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In the first grouping of lines, the speaker describes the evening "spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table." This seems to signify a kind of fuzziness, as though the colors in the sky are diffuse and hazy, possibly the effects of air pollution. Further, he describes the "half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats . . . / Streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent . . . " The speaker certainly doesn't describe this urban setting in a positive way. He uses a simile to describe the streets as being like an argument that goes on and on without really going anywhere, and yet they are treacherous, as though they will entrap a traveler who attempts to follow them.  

Moreover, the speaker describes the "yellow fog" just outside all of the windows, referring to it, also, as "yellow smoke." The color choice, yellow, seems to imply some kind of decay or disease—perhaps in the moral fabric of society, referring to society's diminished values. Further, he describes this mist as having a back and muzzle to rub up against the window, and a tongue to lick the evening, and he says that it leaps and looks and then curls around the house to go to sleep. This sounds a great deal like a dog, but, again, it is not positive. The fog or smoke is a dirty, sordid color, and it obscures vision. The dog sounds like a nuisance, licking and laying where it is not wanted, where it is in the way. It also closes in the house, seeming almost to trap those within (like the streets).  

Thus, Eliot explores the theme of urbanization by characterizing the urban setting as an overwhelmingly negative one; it's as though he gives it life and the intention to trap and suffocate. He describes the sky as someone who is drugged, the streets as though they are a ridiculous but menacing argument, the fog as a miasma of yellow that wraps around the house and blocks the windows. The overwhelming mood, then, makes us sense the vulnerability one might feel and informs us of the isolation the narrator expresses. Therefore, it is understood that urbanization, though it may draw people physically closer, only contributes to the sense of alienation Prufrock knows.

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Theme is a main message that tends to come through in a piece of writing.  It is the underlying point, meaning, or focus of the entire poem.  So, that is how you can explain what theme is; I also provided a link to a discussion of the themes in this poem. That should be helpful.   The theme of alienation is especially present, as the main character, Prufrock, feels totally alienated from the crowds that he finds himself with at these tea parties that he goes to.  He even feels himself alienated from the woman with whom he wants to have a serious discussion with.  There are too many instances of alienation in the poem to include them all, but think about these passages.  Consider the passage where he compares himself to a crab:

"I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

He shows his alienation here because he would feel more comfortable as a crab, scuttling across the sea floor; it is an image that he is more at ease with than actually being in a room socializing easily with people.  He feels conspicious (look to the passage where he imagines them scrutinizing his appearances as he leaves the room ), lonely (look to the passage where he compares himself to lonely men smoking their pipes), and as ugly and unlikable as a crab.  He fears being misunderstood, and having awkward conversations; he says he fears the woman sighing with irritation and stating, "That is not what I meant at all" in response to some misinterpretation of her intentions.  And, at the end, he describes the fact that he hears beautiful mermaids singing (possibly symbolic of the women he so admires) but that he does "not think that they will sing to" him.  Again, he feels alienated, that there are people out there living life, enjoying themselves, but that he isn't a part of all of that.

Because of the guidelines of the website, I suggest submitting the urbanization theme in a separate question, as one question is allowed a day.  I hope that those thoughts on alienation help a bit; good luck!

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