Prufrock Essay Research Paper Prufrock In his

Prufrock Essay, Research Paper


In his poem Eliot paints the picture of an insecure man looking for his niche in society. Prufrock has fallen in with the times, and places a lot of weight on social status and class to determine his identity. He is ashamed of his personal appearance and looks towards social advancement as a way to assure himself and those around him of his worth and establish who he is. Throughout the poem the reader comes to realize that Prufrock has actually all but given up on himself and now sees his balding head and realizes that he has wasted his life striving for an unattainable goal. The beginning of the poem is pre-empted by an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno which Eliot uses to begin his exploration of Prufrock’s self-consciousness. By inserting this quote, a parallel is created between Prufrock and the speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, who is very aware of his position in “hell” and his inability to escape his fate. Prufrock is also very aware of his current status but doesn’t realize until the end that he is unable to rise above it. The issue of his fate leads Prufrock to an “overwhelming question…”(10) which is never identified, asked, or answered in the poem. This “question” is somehow associated with his social status, but both its ambiguity and Prufrock’s denial to even ask “What is it?”(11) gives some insight into his state of internal turmoil. Prufrock’s dissatisfaction with his personal appearance is evidence of an underlying lack of self-confidence. Not only is he unhappy with the way he looks, having “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” but he is constantly afraid of what others will have to say about him: “(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)”(41) and “(… ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)”(44). Prufrock’s preoccupation with looks shows how much he is caught up in the social scene and how much his identity is rooted in what others think of him. Unfortunately, his lack of confidence isn’t limited to his looks. He’s indecisive and unsuccessful in his attempts to communicate with other people, repeating “visions and revisions”(33) and “decisions and revisions…”(48). Eliot uses repetition here to emphasize Prufrock’s alterations in behavior to please those around him. He wants to speak out and share his thoughts but doesn’t have the courage saying, “‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’”(38). Possibly, he’s asking if he should dare “and drop a question on your plate.”(30) He wants to ask a lady out but again he can’t get up the nerve to take that step. He is a bit melodramatic but he realizes the enormity of the odds stacked against him and he drones, “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”(45-46). In this case Eliot uses hyperbole to show the reader extent of Prufrock’s insecurities. They are his whole “universe.” Once again, Eliot uses the device of ambiguity to reflect the internal struggle in Prufrock and lead the reader to ask himself or herself, “What is the ‘overwhelming question’ that Prufrock is asking?” Unfortunately even Prufrock himself doesn’t exactly have the answer. His declaration that he isn’t a prophet indicates Prufrock’s view on his position in society, which he is as confused about as everything else. He isn’t poor but he doesn’t really fit into the upper class either. Eliot introduces the idea of Prufrock being caught between the two classes in the very beginning of the poem, when he juxtaposes the images of “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”(4-5) with the women who “come and go Talking of Michelangelo.”(13-14). These two images represent two completely different ways of life. The first image is of a dingy lifestyle – living among the “half-deserted streets”(4) while the second is the lifestyle that Prufrock longs to be associated with. It is much like the image of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel where Adam is reaching out to touch God’s finger but can’t quite reach. While Prufrock doesn’t belong to either of these two classes completely, he does have characteristics of both. He claims to be “Full of high sentence; but a bit obtuse” while “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous”(117-118). Being the outsider that he is, Prufrock will not be accepted by either class; even though he can clearly make the distinction between the two and recognize their members: “I know the voices dying with a dying fall/ Beneath the music from a farther room.”(52-53). This Shakespearean suggests that Prufrock is just out of reach of the group of people that he wishes to be associated with in life and love, but most likely his feelings of insignificance prevent him from truly associating with anyone at all. He sees himself as a unique “specimen” of nature, in a class all by himself – “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin/ When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,”(57-58). This image suggests that not only is he an object for speculation, but he is trapped in that role; a situation which he is obviously unhappy with but has no idea how to change. He asks himself, “Then how should I begin”(59). At this point in the poem, Prufrock is beginning to feel especially detached from society and burdened by his awareness of it. He thinks “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Eliot not only uses imagery here to create a picture of a headless crab scuttling around at the bottom of the ocean, but he uses the form of the poem itself to help emphasize his point here. The head is detached from the crab, and the lines are detached from the poem in their own stanza, much like Prufrock wishes his self-consciousness would just “detach” itself. This concept is echoed in the very next stanza when he says, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in/ upon a platter,”(83), an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist. These two headless images represent Prufrock’s desire to be rid of his self-consciousness (obviously in his head) and possibly some suicidal tendencies which can be tied into just about all of the ambiguous questions Prufrock asks of himself throughout the poem. Prufrock’s series of questions can also be tied into his unsuccessful attempts at relationships with women. His insecurities keep him from doing the things he wants to do. He feels inadequate and unable to express his true feelings to women, “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”(79-80). He knows what he wants to say, but doesn’t have the confidence or mental capacity to put his feelings into words. He compares himself to Hamlet, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;”(111), who, in contrast, was able to express his feelings very successfully to his lover, an ability which Prufrock is envious of, characterized by his emphatic “No!” He is also second-guessing himself constantly throughout the poem: “Do I dare?”(38), “So how should I presume?”(54) and “Then how should I begin”(59) are all questions Prufrock repeats to himself during his monologue. His feelings of inadequacy toward women are not only related to his appearance and lack of mental strength, but his lower social status. Throughout the poem, Prufrock struggles with the concept of time. He tries to keep reassuring himself that “indeed there will be time”(23), which suggests that Prufrock fears that he will in fact not have time for love before the prime of his life is over. His obsession with the passage of time is characterized by its repetition throughout the poem, especially near the beginning. Eliot uses time as a tool to shape Prufrock’s complicated, disturbed psyche into the form of a mid-life crisis. Prufrock keeps assuring himself that, “indeed, there will be time” to raise himself socially and thus overcome his insecurities and establish his identity. However, his insecurities are tied in with his aging and the passage of time, so he is truly a tragic, doomed character. This is not to say, however, that Prufrock is unaware of the connection between time, his aging, and his unsuccessful attempt at a social life. On the contrary, he claims that he’s “measured out his life with coffee spoons,”(51) a true testament to the self-proclaimed insignificance of his life. Prufrock claims that “I have known them all already, known them all”(49) referring to the “evenings, mornings, and afternoons”(50) of his life which he has seen pass by, insignificantly and illustrates both his failure with and fear of women. Prufrock even dreams of gaining knowledge from the afterlife on how to deal with women saying, “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/ Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”(94-95) Unfortunately for Prufrock, he pessimistically assumes that even if his dream came true, he still wouldn’t know what to tell them all, or how. Eliot doesn’t give any sense of hope for Prufrock in the poem. He remains a doomed character until the very end. Prufrock even admits that he has “seen the moment of my greatness flicker,”(84) He is a victim of time and natural selection. In the end Prufrock realizes that the life he dreams of is out of his reach. He still imagines attaining his desired position but realizes that he isn’t recognized in that world. “I do not think that they will sing to me.” (125) He is in effect a man with no place in society and no identity. His “overwhelming question” remains unanswered and he can only dream about being part of that society he idolizes, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” (131)


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