October 30, 2002

The Misery of J. Alfred Prufrock

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Thus declares J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In this passage, Prufrock accurately describes how Eliot and numerous other individuals in the beginning of the twentieth century viewed existence—as utterly absurd and meaningless. In the poem, Prufrock paints his life as one of misery; he finds himself alienated from others, physically battered, and quickly approaching a much to be dreaded death. Although Eliot believed that all of us face miserable existences, just as Prufrock did, he also believed that Prufrock was partially to blame for his misery.

That Prufrock believes himself to be alienated from others is evidenced by his frequent reminders that he does not have any meaningful relationships. Prufrock believes himself to be intellectually superior to others, as can be seen in his reference to himself as “the Fool.” In literature, the fool, although he speaks in riddles, is generally a person of great wisdom. Although Prufrock views himself as a highbrow, he is surrounded by people who can only engage in trivial conversations: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” Thus, Prufrock can find no one to have a meaningful conversation, and thus meaningful relationship, with. Prufrock is tempted to try to engage someone in meaningful conversation, but he fears that such an attempt will result in failure. He fears that he will be misunderstood; thus, he imagines himself saying, “That is not what I meant at all/ That is not it, at all.” Unable to have a meaningful relationship with another, Prufrock feels himself to be alone in the world—one of the many “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.”

That Prufrock believes himself to be physically battered is evidenced by his references to aging and lethargy. First, Prufrock frequently reminds us that he is growing old. For instance, throughout the play he mentions that he is balding: “They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” Additionally, he speaks of himself as having shrunken, as people do when they grow older. As he writes, “I grow old…I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Prufrock also speaks of his body as being frail: “They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’” While there are many positive things that come from growing old (such as gaining more wisdom and having children and grandchildren to delight in), Prufrock only focuses on the negative fact that our bodies physically deteriorate as we grow old. Thus, the aging process is seen, not as a gift from heaven, but as a curse of nature.

That Prufrock is lethargic is shown by a number of illustrations throughout the poem. For instance, he writes of the evening being “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” An etherised patient reminds of, among other things, of a sedated individual. Prufrock also writes of himself walking through “Streets that follow like a tedious argument.” A tedious argument, of course, is something that drains us of energy. Prufrock later speaks of the fog as curling “about the house” and falling asleep, and then of the afternoon and evening sleeping “so peacefully.” These latter images, like the first two, remind us of fatigue. The frequency of these images of lethargy gives us the impression that Prufrock is himself tired. This world is beating down on Prufrock; no one loves him, his body is deteriorating, and, as a result, he has grown exhausted.

With old age, of course, comes death, and Prufrock looks at his approaching death with fear. As he writes, “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/ And in short, I was afraid.” Such poets as John Donne believe a loving God rules the universe and, therefore, that eventually death “shalt die” and we will “wake eternally” (“Death Be Not Proud”). The fact that Prufrock, on the other hand, fears death, reveals that he does not believe the cosmos is governed by a loving God who has conquered death. Rather, Prufrock believes the universe does not care about his life. Therefore, he believes his life will end at the grave and, as a result, is struck with fear.

Because of his alienation, physical deterioration, and fear of death, Prufrock believes his life is completely miserable. He feels that his life is no better than that of a crustacean “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Not only does Prufrock believe his life is miserable, but he also believes this misery was forced upon him; he believes he is a victim of life; he is like a fly “pinned and wriggling on the wall”; he is like John the Baptist, whose he is “brought in upon a/ platter.” Prufrock wants a meaningful relationship, but none can be found; he is unable to prevent the deterioration of his body; he cannot postpone his nearing death. Although Eliot believed that Prufrock was not responsible for much of his misery, he believed that some of his misery is self-induced.

Proof that some of Prufrock’s misery is self-induced is that he never attempts to have a relationship with another. Yes, Prufrock constantly runs into people who only engage in trivial conversation, but he never explores the possibility that people might exist who desire something deeper. He frequently wonders whether he should take a risk and discover whether a deeper relationship can be found. For example, he wonders whether he should attempt to start a meaningful conversation and asks, “Do I dare?” and “And should I then presume?/ And how should I begin?” and “Should I…/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” In the end, however, Prufrock does not start such a conversation for fear of failure. “Would it have been worth while,” he asks himself, “If one, settling a pillow by her head,/ Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all/ That is not it, at all”? By the poem’s end, then, although we feel sorry that Prufrock lives such a miserable life, we cannot help but wonder whether he should have lived so timidly, whether he should have “forced the moment to its crisis” and at least tried to escape his alienation.

Of course, Eliot did not believe that merely being less timid would have enabled Prufrock to escape his life of misery. For, as many of his later poems reveal, Eliot believed every person’s life to be so meaningless that no amount of human effort could significantly change things. Through his conversation to Christianity, however, Eliot found meaning in life and his misery was replaced with hope. If only poor Prufrock could have found this answer.