Questioning the Self and Identity in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The world is constantly changing and there is nothing one can do about it. Literature changes along with the rest of the world. Writers and artists dedicate what they do to show us what the world was like at a certain point in the world through their eyes. Modernism was the movement that came after Romantic era where the emphasis on imagination, emotions, the sublime, the transcendence, nature, and the natural. Modernism on the other hand rejected all that the Romantics believed in and threw it all away. Modernist believed in the quality of thought, expression, and technique. The author uses free verse, and irregular rhyming that focus on the movement that the Modernist era has taken. The poem is about a middle-aged man who cannot make a progress in life and dare to approach women due to his shyness. One of the characteristics of modernism is that era questioned the self and their identity. J. Alfred Prufrock throughout the poem gives a sense of irony because he never talks about his feelings of love. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot uses his Modernist way of thinking to show how not only the way the characters are being portrayed as a modern dilemma caused by questing, and the alienation that is brought upon by the setting of modern urban civilization.
Questioning the self, and the world around was a big part of the modern movement which was most often used within the plot or the characters of the story. T.S. Elliot’s character J. Alfred Prufrock is a man that expresses no feelings at all that struggles with knowing himself and his true identity, and questions it, he says, “To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descend the stair” (Elliot lines 38-39). Here Prufrock’s question shows hesitance to make a meaningful movement and the physical act. The repetition of the phrase “Do I dare” shows the reader the confusion that this man has within himself. He is unable to feel content with any progression in his life and isn’t able to allow himself to love anyone, not even himself. Elliot’s character has similarities as those of James Joyce’s character Gabriel, from his short story “The Dead,” is unable to socialize or dare make a conversation with others do to interact with others in a modern society that leads him to feel alienated and have a desire for solitude. Just like Prufrock’s indecisiveness is also caused by self-isolation from the society as a modern man who lacks self-esteem. His character questions if he dares go back and talk to whom he has fallen for and keeps questioning by saying
Do I dare
Disturb the Universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse (Elliot 45-48)
He even questions what time or in this minute can do but Prufrock is questioning existence itself. The narrator brings an objectivity to the questions making them not only a subjective experience but a universal one. He doesn’t know how to proceed in a world that is so different than him. The experience of the overwhelming questions falls short of that kind of grandeur for Prufrock due to his indecisiveness.
Not only is J. Alfred Prufrock questioning himself and the universe, but he disconnected from it. Like any other modernist work there is a sense of alienation which seems to be one of the central themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” His status as a social outcast in his society creates our character to feel isolated and lonely searching to fill that void but doesn’t know how to do so. Prufrock finds himself in a society that is not different from a hell for him, so Elliot portrays the complexities of the modern world vividly through the inconsistent psychology from Prufrock that even measure out his own life and says,
For I have known them all already, known them all –
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, (Elliot 49-56)
Prufrock is aware of “the eyes” that are looking at him and is intimidated which leads him to not want to be a part of this society. He estranges himself from the crowd by finding life to be uninteresting and unimportant when he asserts that he has “measured out his life with coffee spoons” which is sad but that was the reality of his life. It is clear that this character is lonely which results in alienating himself from everything even love itself.
The setting in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” it isn’t our typical romanticized setting that we are used to. T.S. Elliot gives us a great visual of how this society isn’t full of emotion just like our dear Prufrock. Our narrator describes it and says, “For the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes / … / Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” (Elliot 15-17). Here the narrator gives us a sense of what the neighborhood he is in looks like or at least how the fog does. There is no beauty in how it is described which would indicate how the writer wanted to modernize the setting as well. He uses the “yellow fog” as a sort of metaphor the describe the society that has a more realist view to it since modernist writers did reject nature. The smoky evening that he finds himself in a bleak city that is almost miserable to live in. It also is metaphorical because the fog is being described like a timid cat that is trying to avoid anyone from getting to it. Prufrock also uses his own life and the lives of others to see only the negative side of the setting which our dear Prufrock says, “Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of the windows?” (Elliot 70-72). Not only is Prufrock lonely but he it also seems like the whole society as a whole is as miserable in his eyes. These “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” are also looking upon the scenery of the city that they live in but do not become a part of it just as Prufrock does. Again, in this part he mentions the smoke which indicated this almost secret and timid Prufrock in a setting where he feels like he does not belong.
Overall J. Alfred Prufrock is a modern man that seems to not fit in his society. This man struggled with questions of the self and his identity, and the setting is as if it is describing Prufrock’s life. The narrator brought up objectivity to the questions making them not only a subjective experience but a universal one to the life of Prufrock. Prufrock is constantly questioning himself and the universe, but he disconnected from it and asking the “overwhelming question”. Like any other modernist work there is a sense of alienation, questioning the self and identity, and the setting where our protagonist lives in seem to be many of the central themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The tone throughout the poem seems to be as Prufrock being an outsider, which he is, watching everything that is happening around him but not feeling a part of it. Elliot portrays the complexities of the modern world vividly through the inconsistent psychology from Prufrock that even measure out his own life as coffee spoons. Elliot sets this speakers journey as an analyzation of the modern man’s perception of life. The sense of questioning and hopelessness are implications of the modernism that brings a new way to look and appreciate life and its components.
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