Approaching Modernism: “Prufrock” is one of the poems most commonly used to introduce high school students to the concepts of literary modernism—a challenging task. Modernist poets sought to convey the disorientation, alienation, and self-doubt that they saw as products of major shifts in the structure of society during the first decades of the twentieth century. The resulting poetry was distinguished by its fragmentary structure and thematic complexity.
One of the great virtues of “Prufrock” is that it poses the challenges of modernism in a manageable way. A common reaction upon first reading the poem is confusion: Who is the speaker? Where is he? What is he talking about? Why should we care? While Eliot doesn’t answer these questions explicitly, he provides clues that can be discovered through careful reading. Readers’ initial bewilderment is usually followed by a series of “a-ha” moments as they piece together Prufrock’s fragmented thoughts. There is enough information to help readers get their bearings, but there is also enough ambiguity remaining for them to understand that uncertainty and unease are inescapable realities, a fact central to the modernist message. The poem is not supposed to all make sense in the end.
- For discussion: The third line of the poem describes the evening sky as being “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” What kind of a mood does this simile create? What does it tell you about the evening? At the time “Prufrock” was published, many readers found this line shocking. Why might that be?
- For discussion: What basic facts does the poem reveal about Prufrock? What clues are there about where he lives, his age, race, religion, social class, marital status, and education level?
- For discussion: Clarity—of character, of narrative, of theme—is often considered an important element of good writing, but in “Prufrock” Eliot seems at times to be deliberately unclear. Why would he do that?
Comprehending Stream of Consciousness: A key to understanding “Prufrock” is recognizing that Eliot’s primary aim is not to tell a story or depict a setting. Instead, Eliot intends to reveal what goes on inside Prufrock’s head, using a literary technique known as “stream of consciousness” writing. (James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were among the contemporaries of Eliot who also experimented with this style.) The “stream” flows from one thought to another, often triggered by subconscious associations. The meaning of the poem is achieved less by traditional rhetorical or narrative techniques than it is by the associative cascade and juxtaposition of ideas and images.
- For discussion: How much of the poem sounds like it could be a description of actual events, and how much is coming from Prufrock’s imagination? Is it possible to tell the difference? How can you tell?
- For discussion: Who might the “you” be from the opening line, “Let us go then, you and I”? Is it the same “you” who’s mentioned later in the poem?
Discovering Prufrock’s “Overwhelming Question”: In the first stanza, Prufrock refers to an “overwhelming question,” and for the rest of the poem frets about whether he dares “disturb the universe” by asking this question. He never articulates, though, what the question is, and ultimately he declares, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” A central topic for any discussion of “Prufrock” is “What’s his question?”
- For discussion: Prufrock is unable to put his question into words. Ask students to do it for him. What do they think he might be trying to say? Why can’t he say it?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Discuss Prufrock’s views about love. Why do you think Eliot titled this a “love song”? If you were to title it, would you keep it the same or change it? Why?
- Explain what “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” says about the way Prufrock has lived his life.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
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