The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Themes

The main themes in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" are the overwhelming question, the condition of modernity, and the crisis of mortality.

  • The overwhelming question: Prufrock nods to an "overwhelming question" that haunts his thoughts but never explicitly names it.
  • The condition of modernity: Eliot traces the differences between early modernity, as represented by Shakespeare's character Hamlet, and late modernity, as represented by Prufrock. Prufrock's existence is shown to be banal by comparison.
  • The crisis of mortality: Prufrock feels his own mortality looming over him. He longs for more time but cannot say precisely why.

All Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

Although T. S. Eliot is one of the most influential English-language poet of the 20th century, his work has from the start held a reputation for being obtuse, fussily erudite, and even downright bizarre. For all of these qualities, T. S. Eliot’s poetry always explores deep thematic terrain. Therefore, readers...

(The entire section contains 1499 words.)

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Although T. S. Eliot is one of the most influential English-language poet of the 20th century, his work has from the start held a reputation for being obtuse, fussily erudite, and even downright bizarre. For all of these qualities, T. S. Eliot’s poetry always explores deep thematic terrain. Therefore, readers can grasp “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by analyzing the themes explored in the poem, namely the condition of modernity, the tension between mundanity and meaning, and the crisis of mortality.

The “Overwhelming Question”

Perhaps the central thematic and tonal tension in the poem is between the mundane, day-to-day world Prufrock inhabits and the internal world in which his spiritual crisis unfolds. The mundane world is London, both seedy and dainty, full of “one-night cheap hotels,” “the soot that falls from chimneys,” and “the cups, the marmalade, the tea.” The internal world is where Prufrock reflects on his experiences and considers daring to ask the “overwhelming question” that looms over his thoughts... (Read more on The "Overwhelming Question.")

The Condition of Modernity

As both a poet and critic, T. S. Eliot investigated Western cultural history. Eliot was particularly interested in modern history, which begins with the Renaissance in the 15th century. From his 20th-century vantage point, Eliot was of the opinion that Western culture is in a state of decline and therefore that early modernity (the 15th through 18th centuries) surpasses late modernity (the 18th century onward). “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflects Eliot’s views on these cultural and historical trends... (Read more on The Condition of Modernity.)

The Crisis of Mortality

Prufrock faces the threat and mystery of time. In the poem’s early passages, Prufrock repeats to himself the reassuring refrain, “And indeed there will be time.” Yet beneath Prufrock’s attempted calm, he understands that time is an antagonist, a force that will draw him closer to his ultimate destiny. The menace of mortality first rears its head when Prufrock claims to have “Time to turn back and descend the stair, / With a bald spot in the middle of my hair…” The statement is nominally true but essentially false; with his hair thinning, Prufrock does not have a great deal of time... (Read more on The Crisis of Mortality.)

The Overwhelming Question

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Last Updated on February 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310

Perhaps the central thematic and tonal tension in the poem is between the mundane, day-to-day world Prufrock inhabits and the internal world in which his spiritual crisis unfolds. The mundane world is London, both seedy and dainty, full of “one-night cheap hotels,” “the soot that falls from chimneys,” and “the cups, the marmalade, the tea.” The internal world is where Prufrock reflects on his experiences and considers daring to ask the “overwhelming question” that looms over his thoughts. 

The division between the physical and metaphysical dimensions of Prufrock’s life is significant for several reasons. It marks Prufrock’s detachment from his surroundings, which float through his awareness, dreamlike and disordered, altered as they are by his imagination. The division is important, too, in the way it produces a contrast that accentuates his spiritual angst, such as when Prufrock wonders,

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question…

The contrast between the bric-a-brac of tea and porcelain and the “overwhelming question” produces a note of comedic lightness while underlining the fundamental gravity of Prufrock’s situation. Finally, the gulf between Prufrock’s inner and outer worlds creates a problem of communication. He finds that “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Given the intensity of his inner crisis and the frivolity of the social world around him, Prufrock remains trapped in his condition of solitary questioning and yearning. His “overwhelming question” is left unmasked and unasked, and the mundane world rolls onward in its everyday course. This central tension—between meaning and mundanity, between inner and outer experience—is never resolved.

The Condition of Modernity

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Last Updated on May 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

As both a poet and critic, T. S. Eliot investigated Western cultural history. Eliot was particularly interested in modern history, which begins with the Renaissance in the 15th century. From his 20th-century vantage point, Eliot was of the opinion that Western culture is in a state of decline and therefore that early modernity (the 15th through 18th centuries) surpasses late modernity (the 18th century onward). “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflects Eliot’s views on these cultural and historical trends.

One window into Eliot’s diagnosis of 20th-century Western culture is the explicit contrast J. Alfred Prufrock draws between himself and the eponymous character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written three centuries earlier. Eliot suggests that Prufrock’s feeble, self-conscious, unheroic character is the product of a superficial contemporary culture. After all, in his view, 20th-century modernity is a degraded version of the early modern era that produced Prince Hamlet.

Still, Hamlet and Prufrock have certain issues in common. Both are indecisive and struggle to take action, both feel alienated from the people around them, and both express discontent with the capacity of language to “say just what [they] mean.” Yet Hamlet is an exemplar of grand internal drama who wrestles with life’s enormous questions, whereas the self-conscious Prufrock is reduced to discussing trivialities such as whether to part his hair at the back. While Prufrock also struggles with questions of greater meaning, he cannot muster the certainty or boldness to even state the questions.

Eliot implies that the difference between Hamlet and Prufrock is largely one of social context. Something has been lost in the three-hundred years between the two characters. When he says, “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” Prufrock is also speaking as the voice of modernity itself. It’s not just Prufrock but 20th-century modernity that is “cautious, meticulous… [and] a bit obtuse.” Hamlet can’t decide whether or not to avenge his father’s murder; more broadly, he struggles to discern the worth and purpose of human life. By comparison, Prufrock can’t decide whether it’s even worth it to ask such questions, nor can he articulate them. Eliot argues that later modernity is one that discourages heroism and the genuine gravitas of the prince, forcing the contemporary individual to stoop to the superficial “high sentence” and mocking irony of the fool.

The Crisis of Mortality

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Last Updated on February 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

Prufrock faces the threat and mystery of time. In the poem’s early passages, Prufrock repeats to himself the reassuring refrain, “And indeed there will be time.” Yet beneath Prufrock’s attempted calm, he understands that time is an antagonist, a force that will draw him closer to his ultimate destiny. The menace of mortality first rears its head when Prufrock claims to have “Time to turn back and descend the stair, / With a bald spot in the middle of my hair.” The statement is nominally true but essentially false; with his hair thinning, Prufrock does not have a great deal of time.

Prufrock eventually confronts time and mortality when he claims to “have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.” With his illusions no longer supportable, Prufrock acknowledges the truth: that the “eternal Footman” of death is waiting for him, and that he is afraid of it.

By the end of the poem, Prufrock seems to have nearly embraced the fact of his coming death. He even makes a song of it, turning his mortality into a refrain—“I grow old… I grow old…”—to mirror his prior refrain of denial—“there will be time.” One might argue that the final lines of the poem depict the fulfillment of Prufrock’s inevitable death:

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.

The final image of drowning, however, most likely occurs in Prufrock’s imagination, as does the sirenic scene that surrounds it. Thus the mystery concerns who, or what, drowns. Whereas most of the poem takes the shape of a first-person monologue, Prufrock expands the scope of subjecthood to “we” in these final three lines. Eliot—via Prufrock—may be involving readers here, suggesting that the reading of the poem is a dreamlike activity akin to “linger[ing] in the chambers of the sea.” 

To arrive at the end of the poem is to be woken up and thus to “drown” in the ensuing return to reality. In this light, Prufrock is not the only figure in the poem to suffer a kind of mortality. The ending broadens the subject of death to include and implicate readers as well. Even though the poem is an individual portrait of Prufrock, everyone can recognize his crisis of mortality because everyone is subject to the passage of time. 

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