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A Walk with Prufrock

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T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the story a man contemplating emergence from his solitude into the world, a man capsized by the fear of being misunderstood. In this poem Eliot employs the quest motif in an ironic fashion to explore one man’s internal struggle in an “etherized” society. Through a variety of obscure metonymic images Eliot sends Prufrock on the quest for the answer to a question never articulated, much in the sense that Prufrock can not articulate what he thinks. This is not the quintessential literary quest of the Romantics; it is a jarred fragmented quest of an isolated mind with no spatial alteration. This is reflective of the disintegrated broken world following World War I.

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The first indication of the solitary nature of this expedition is the epigraph from Dante. This excerpt is Guido de Montefeltro speaking from the fiery pits of hell without trepidation of any human ever knowing his sin because he believes Dante cannot relay it. This insinuates that Prufrock is a similar character, speaking without fear of becoming known. One can intimate that the reason for this is that the context of this tale occurs within his own mind. Another indication that this is not a literal quest is the nature of tense in this poem, implying the passage of time. Eliot jumps from the present “Let us go (line 1),” to the future, “there will be time,” (line 26) to the past, “I have measured” (line51). Furthermore, in contemplating action, Prufrock moves from speaking of the future: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/ Have the strength…,” (lines 79 80) to speaking as though this has already occurred: “And would it have been worth it, after all.” (line 99) This shows that he is merely pondering what he should do, and this is his quest.

Eliot uses the symbols of a house and rooms to show the encapsulated existence of society. In the beginning of the poem Prufrock is considering going out into “certain half-deserted streets,” (line 4) suggesting he is inside. People as a collective whole share a house; a house that is in serious danger of being consumed by the “yellow fog.” This yellow fog is another symbol suggesting the pervasive nature of the evil consuming the world and, unlike what these people choose to believe, it is among them as well; it is “[curling] about the house”(line 22). The people in the house are each sheltered in his or her own room. Eliot makes use of metonymy here to allude to the room via the frequent mention of windows in lines 15,16,25,72, and 108. He refers to an actual room only in the instance of the women; “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (lines 12 13). This house and these rooms serve as protection from facing the real world, or having to force oneself to ask the overwhelming question. When Prufrock is considering inciting change he talks of “[descending] the stair,” (line 39) or, in other words, leaving this comfortable isolation of his mind where he is in control of what exists or does not, and venturing into reality.

The true nature of reality is also illustrated. Prufrock exists among people who are dulled to the horrors that exist in their world. Moreover, because, like Prufrock, they can retreat to their own minds and rationalize their existence, they do nothing. Prufrock suggests going out “when the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table”(lines 2, 3). Evening becomes representative of various ideas in this poem. Here it is the culmination of what has been building and building regarding the way people are existing. It is the end, the absolute hour of decision when something must be done. By creating a simile that compares the evening to an etherized patient, Eliot conveys that society, which has become dulled and incognizant to reality, is in need of healing; he casts Prufrock as the would be doctor. References to sleep later express a sense of peace, whether real or believed. The yellow fog for instance is able to fall asleep about the house because it knows no one in there is brave enough to harm its existence. Later “the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully, “(line 75) it is “asleep…tired… or it malingers”(line 77). This last word, malingers, suggests that the afternoon, the evening (here symbolic of Prufrock in his contented aging years) is not truly enjoying a serene life in his feigned ignorance of what is surrounding him; he is pretending to “sleep” because he is afraid to take action. This fear retarding Prufrock from action is exemplified in the woman whose reaction represents anyone who can, and will in Prufrock’s mind, reject him as a fool. She is “settling a pillow by her head”( line 96). This indicates that she too, who repeatedly insists Prufrock doesn’t understand what she means, chooses to ignore reality by retreating into her fantasy world. She has windows in her room; she simply chooses to disregard what she sees.

When considering Prufrock’s realization of the nature of reality the question becomes why is he unable to extend his quest outside of his head and turn his ideas into action. The answer is, quite simply, fear. Ironically, Prufrock, who himself admits he is not a prophet, had figured out exactly how his disruption of the universe will unfold. He will “know the evening, the mornings, the afternoons,”(line49) he knows the end, the beginning, and the middle of it all. He knows the “eyes that will fix you in a formulated phrase”(line 55). Though he would be brave enough to leave his room in his “morning coat” (line 41) which suggests he is full of possibility, in a “necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin”(line 43), it is his knowledge of the eyes (another metonymy) that will destroy him and leave him “sprawling on a pin”, the only thing that defended his departure to begin with, and pinned against the wall, that keeps him from action. And even though he can see what his eternity has in store for him, he can do nothing because he is a nobody. He is not “Prince Hamlet” (line 111), but an “attendant lord” (line 112). He is simply not fit to ponder the universe, or the important questions. He is too average, too human, and too weak. He cannot even begin his journey without concern for his balding, he can not defend his thoughts in the face of opposition, the simple perfume of a dress or wish for things now and here and easy. He has heard better men try to accomplish change and fail; “I know the voices dying with a dying fall”(line 52). A man such as he would fare better with “ragged claws”(line 73) in “silent seas”(line 74). So why should he presume? J. Alfred Prufrock is better to consider questions of how to part his hair or whether he should eat a peach, and ultimately these are the questions he will end his days with.

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The title of this poem “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock” is ironic in that it is the story of a tragedy; the story of a man’s quest that was never able to begin. T.S. Eliot uses this quest motif in a most interesting manner making it so useful because it is in reality completely absent. J. Alfred Prufrock is the largest metonymy in this work because he, like a room in a house, is a part of our whole society. As an average man he is indicative of everyone, and perhaps so is his fear. By using Prufrock’s mental quest, Eliot provides us with an image of a lazy, self indulgent society dulled to the state of mankind. They exist in one-night cheap hotels that offer than no stability, thet eat in saw dust restaurants with oyster shells that offer them no pearls, and they measure their lives out in coffee spoons which do not offer them life but existence for just a little longer. Furthermore, this sea is not silent and because it chooses the quick fix; it results in a tumultuous, jarring sea. The chambers of this sea, like the rooms of the house, are diversions from reality, filled with illogical mermaid answers that can solve nothing. Only human voices can wake this patient from its human-induced ether.

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