The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
Analysis of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Being translated, it says: “If I thought that I was speaking/ to someone who would go back to the world,/ this flame would shake no more./ But since nobody has ever/ gone back alive from this place, if what I hear is true,/ I answer you without fear of infamy.” The speaker, in this case, will only tell his story with the knowledge that living ears will never hear it. Eliot’s Prufrock faces the same situation; he has a story to tell – a love song to sing – that he didn’t dare to declare among the living. Only now, where nobody can hear him, can Prufrock finally declare what cannot be said. He has been condemned to a kind of hell by his inaction.
This hell is cast in a yellow light. Images of yellow overwhelming the landscape abound: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (15-16). Yellow is a color associated with cowardice. Fittingly, Prufrock’s world is cast in this yellow light because his world is a world of cowardice. His inability to speak his feelings and the fear of what implications that would hold have confined him to where he is. Essentially, Prufrock has proved himself to be a coward. This prison is a coward’s prison. Had Prufrock sung the song he meant to sing, he would not be in hell.
Yet it seems Prufrock had been planning to make his declaration. He always meant to say what had been plaguing him. He seemed to feel that he had all of the time in the world to act on his feelings:
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street…
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face for the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands…
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. (22-34)
Prufrock’s time to act was limited, but he didn’t know it. He thought that time would be limitless (“There will be time, there will be time”), and he found that it wasn’t. The tragedy is now that Prufrock is finally speaking his mind, his words will nevertheless remain unheard. He has all the time he needs now, yet his true time has passed. He cannot speak to the woman he loves. He can only speak to a great void, certain that he will not be heard.
The stanza mentioned in the previous paragraph illustrates Prufrock’s constant internal turmoil. He must “prepare a face to meet the faces” that he meets, for he cannot simply be who he is. The simple “taking of a toast and tea” requires “a hundred indecisions” and “a hundred visions and revisions.” He is so repressed that tea is a major trial. It is clear that the actions of everyday life bring great turmoil to Prufrock. He does not know how to act and does not know how to say what he wants to say. Every utterance is thought out and analyzed in his mind a hundred times. He is paralyzed by the fear of social criticism:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume? (54-61)
The image of Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall” creates an image of him being totally exposed and on display. He is much like a specimen being primed for dissection. When on display, he is vulnerable to the criticism of his peers. The eyes that Prufrock speaks of are their eyes. Thus, one can see that simply functioning in the social world puts Prufrock in a state of extreme distress. He does not know how to act and fears being exposed. It is no wonder that he has difficulty declaring his feelings of love to a woman.
This is the question that ultimately overwhelms Prufrock – the question of love. This question is presented in the first stanza: “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question…/Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (8-10). This “overwhelming question” haunts the rest of the poem. The way that the sentence trails off after “To lead you to an overwhelming question…” implies that it is a loaded question, and one that will not be answered easily. Love could have served as a paradise for Prufrock, even a type of heaven. Yet he chose to forsake heaven for hell. Why anyone would do such a thing is a question that cannot possibly be answered easily. Prufrock spends the entire poem trying to explain this.
Aside from the question of why Prufrock let love get away from him, there is the question of what could have happened if he had, in fact, spoken his feelings. That question is what ultimately kept Prufrock from ever acting. The fear of what could have happened was simply too great. “And would it have been worth it, after all?” (86) Prufrock asks repeatedly. He does not know how to eloquently express himself – “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104). He imagines the possible outcomes of his declaration of love:
Would it have been worth while
If one, setting a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.” (106-110)
Prufrock harbors a fear that if he was to really express what he feels, he would be misunderstood, or, worse, rejected. That is the fear expressed in “That is not what I meant, at all.” He runs the risk of loving this woman and not being loved in return. Would it be worth risking this by declaring his love – “Would it have been worth while?” Prufrock will never truly know the answer to that question.
The poem reaches somewhat of a climax at the stanza discussed in the previous paragraph. Up to that point, the poem focuses on Prufrock’s deliberations and hypothetical questions. He contemplates what could have been: “Would it have been worth while,/ To have bitten off the matter with a smile,/ To have squeezed the universe into a ball…” (90-92). He also rationalizes his current situation: “For I have known them all already, known them all-/ Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/ I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (49-51). All of these musings lead up to his ultimate question – the question of love. The poem climaxes with Prufrock’s greatest fear: that he should speak his mind to the woman he loves, and she replies, “That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all” (109-110). In a sense, Prufrock has justified his cowardice up to this point. He has presented all of his reasons for not making his declaration. He has shown the reader all of the parts of himself that he was too afraid to show the world. Basically, up until this climax, Prufrock has been preparing himself for making his declaration.
Naturally, the letdown comes after the climax. Prufrock acknowledges his inabilities and begrudgingly realizes who he is:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…
At times indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool. (111-113; 118-119)
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, much like Prufrock, falls victim to great internal conflict and does not know how to act upon his feelings. They are both victims of indecision. However, in the end, Hamlet does act – which Prufrock never does. Prufrock acknowledges that he is simply not who he is – “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” This is his rationalization for not acting on his emotions – that is simply not who he is. The role he is destined to play, instead, is that of “the Fool.” This is the great letdown. He will never be the person he wishes to be.
The social world is simply a world that Prufrock cannot be comfortable in. Who he feels he should be socially and who he truly is do not match up. He wishes to be able to assimilate flawlessly into the social world. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each” (124), Prufrock observes. These mermaids are figures of women, precisely the figures that Prufrock cannot communicate with. He wishes for them to sing their song to him. However, “I do not think that they will sing to me” (125), Prufrock contends, accepting his life’s position. The mermaids can only exist as visions in Prufrock’s dreams. He has “lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (128-130). He can dream of existing with these creatures until the reality hits him. “Human voices wake us,” bringing Prufrock to the real world, the human world, where he drowns. This is a world where he cannot exist. Only in his hell can he speak, asking himself the nagging question: “Would it have been worth it, after all?”
The Self Esteem of J. Alfred Prufrock
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot, depicts the thoughts of a modern day Hamlet. It follows, what seems like, the typical evening with Mr. Prufrock. He is a man that often loses himself in his own mind, efficiently losing his ability to commit to any action, out of the fear of judgement, rejection, and assumption. This horrible anxiety prevents him from truly experiencing, truly living. He lives an inactive life, constantly assuring himself that he has nothing to worry about since he has an endless amount of time. He lives by constantly shielding himself, separating himself from society. The philosopher, Francis Herbert Bradley’s quote, “No experience can lie open to inspection from outside” fully embodies Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock; Prufrock has a habit of not acting therefore not being able to experience a situation but rather just create scenarios in his mind of what might actually occur so that he may avoid any form of judgement or bad thought. It is as if Prufrock has placed a glass divider between him and the world, to protect himself from any harm.
Prufrock regularly pulls himself away from other people. He tends to wander on his own during the evening, wandering the empty, abandoned area of town, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells…” He finds these moments are calming, “like a patient etherized upon a table,” to go through these “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent,” and never having to come in contact with any human. When going on these walks Prufrock simply observes the world, completely separating himself from it, acting like he is simply observing a painting, “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 windows…” He will never interact but he will always watch, never having an experience but always having assumptions about said experience.
Prufrock prefers to keep to himself since he believes that everyone will reject him by just a mere glance of his appearance, “And I have known the eyes already, known them all- the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, and when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall…” He assumes that everyone else will make assumptions about him, dissect him like a scientific experiment with their own eyes without ever getting to know him (a bit of irony since he does the same with other people, refusing to interact since he “already knows” what they will think of him). He thinks he knows fully what women say behind his back, “how his hair is growing thin!…But how his arms and legs are thin!” when in reality he has never even interacted with these women, “the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo.” Without interacting with these women, he loses the truth. He will never know of their opinions of him, if he never talks to them. He regularly observes these cultured women by standing back during social gatherings. He has done this so often, keeping his head low to the ground during these parties, that he is now familiar with these ladies by their arms, not their mind, “And I have known the arms already, known them all- arms that are braceleted and white and bare…” He consistently assumes that he knows of their gossip behind his back, preventing him from every acting upon them. If Prufrock simply interacts with these various women, he could be surprised on the outcome, perhaps they would like him or perhaps his suspicions were correct but he would then know for certain and fully experience the situation.
This fear of judgement is due to his low self esteem, the way he constantly degrades himself and does not allow himself to feel confident enough to act. Throughout the work, Prufrock shows his swing of emotions ranging from prideful of himself to once again being reminded that he is not as great as he believes he is. He refers to himself as the great John the Baptist, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter…” but then flips around and states that he is actually not as great, “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter…” In addition, he refers to his clothes, the physical objects he owns, as wonderful but he views himself as the opposite:
“With a bald spot in the middle of my hair- (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!” My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin. My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin- (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)”
Furthermore, his age really does play a role in the way he acts. Most of his self esteem issues stem from the fact that he is now physically aging to the point where it’s quite noticeable. It is as if he is reaching a midlife crisis, realizing that he has only a few more good years before he is bed bound, only a few more years until he is just like any other elderly man. Prufrock formerly believed that his life was full of lavish and pride but now, when “…the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker…”, he realizes that his time is short. He has not done all that he could have done, only contributing to his self destructive nature, preventing him from ever putting himself in the crowd and living in the moment.
Prufrock’s self loathing mindset has undoubtedly aided in his inability to socially interact but coupled with his philosophy of never ending time, it is made apparent that he will always observe and never have the experience. In an odd way, Prufrock is aware that he’s time is short but he forces himself to believe that there will always be time to act, a bit of self comfort,”And indeed there will be time…There will be time, there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces you meet; there will be time to murder and create, and time for all the works and days of hands…” He tries to believe that he has all the time in the world to complete anything he has yet to complete. This belief has caused him to delay further action. Prufrock states that he has time but yet knows he does not, and furthermore, to add insult to injury, he doesn’t commit to any action. His inability to act is seen throughout the poem with this unknown question. This question is mentioned in various stanzas ranging from the first stanza, “…of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question…oh, do not, ask, ‘What is it?’” to the end of the poem, “…to have squeezed the universe into a ball to roll it towards some overwhelming question…” It is followed by his own assumption that if he does ask this question, he will be reject vehemently by the asked, “And would it have been worth it, after all. Would it have been worthwhile…If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, and turning toward the window, should say: “That is not it at all, that is not what I meant, at all.” His constant over thinking of situations and his constant procrastination contribute to his lack of experience, the lack of truth he holds. If he does not overcome both of these, he will only be able to assume that these women do not like him, that he will be rejected, that they will hate him but he will never know if this rings true.
In conclusion, the philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley’s quote, “No experience can lie open to inspection from outside” fully embodies Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock; Prufrock has a habit of not acting therefore not being able to experience a situation but rather just create scenarios in his mind of what might actually occur so that he may avoid any form of judgement or bad thought. He separates himself from the reality he lives in, would rather be alone to avoid being loathed by others and yet he loathes himself by simply assuming what others think of him. His low self esteem and lack of motivation has contributed to his self destructive nature; he can not fully experience, to uncover the truth of his reputation, if he is merely observing and avoiding it. He views the world through a glass window, wishing he could desperately be part of it but is too scared to act. Prufrock will continue to live in this dream like state, an observer state, “till human voices wake us, and we drown,” returning to reality.
Imagery in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
When it came to modernist poetry, imagery was important to flesh out the lavish artistic style said poets loved to express, which in turn allowed them to declare themes and concepts clearer. T.S. Eliot, consider among the great poetic modernists, masterfully utilizes imagery through his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to illustrate the superficiality and weakness of its protagonist representative of society as a whole, and serve as a warning to any potential male readers of Eliot to not make a Prufrock of themselves.
T.S. Eliot uses imagery in his modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” throughout the poem in a strange and unconventional way. Rather than build meaning, as typical with imagery, Eliot sets out to utilize imagery to take real meaning away. Over the course of the poem, the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, struggles to tell the reader his overwhelming question. He instead diverts attention to images or ideas that are ultimately meaningless to the grand scheme promised in the poem. One of the most left field and significant of these is when he remarks he “should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” This line has no real meaning and does not connect to anything going on in the rest of it. The reason for his diversion is to deflect focus from his serious thoughts into empty wonders. Ragged claws suggest a crustacean creature, which is significant for Prufrock’s character as these creatures are built around self-defense and keeping their sensitive being hidden away through a hard exterior. Prufrock wants to keep to himself and shed off any serious concerns with his defense of a wandering and unfocused mind. This stream of consciousness, while revealing of who Prufrock is on the inside to a degree, does nothing with its promise of some sort of life-altering overarching theme or question. Prufrock is afraid to reveal anything that could be taken as not as grand as he wants to be, so he keeps it inside of his shell. The thought of him wanting to be a crab may be random, but the image of a crab is significant, even if for the wrong reasons.
Prufock’s self-image is also crucial for understanding what the poem offers to say about the emasculation and growing pessimism that plagues men as Eliot saw. This comes from the imagery of Prufrock himself.
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair – [They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”] My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin – [They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”] (Eliot 40-44)
Prufrock is a self-deprecator, a man afraid and unaccepting of his own masculinity. On multiple occasions, he draws attention to his bald spot. Balding in men is caused due to the male hormone dihydrotestosterone and while it is tough to say that this knowledge was common sense in Eliot’s time, it is still interesting to note with a contemporary perspective that Prufrock is, in a way, afraid of his own masculinity through his balding. Prufrock’s fickleness regarding his being makes him appear more as a feline than a man, obsessively grooming. It is important to note that no one in the poem actually says to his face that his limbs are thin and weak. Prufrock hypothesizes that people will say that, showing his low self-esteem and image. His necktie is simultaneously “rich and modest” and this juxtaposition compliments Prufrock’s scatterbrained and unfocused state of being; he cannot make up his own mind as to whether he is well off or just standard. Prufrock can be related to many males reading this poem, so Eliot uses him as an example of what a man should not be. In his own poem, Prufrock is a weak and spineless man who is too afraid of any notion of accepting responsibility or venturing out of his comfort zone, too afraid that he will instead insult and then be insulted in retaliation. Again, Prufrock further signals his alienation and insecurities with those around him with the line “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” which implies that he is afraid of showing his true self to people that he does not hold close to him, writing them all off as simply faces one meets (line 27). This idea of wearing a face is perhaps a direct allusion to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his idea of a “persona.” Jung describes a persona as being “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual” (Jung, 190). This perfectly falls in line with what Prufrock is setting out to accomplish through this line. He is being self-defensive about his true self, hiding his real thoughts and weak personality behind a façade to not come off as cowardly, to make a more desirable impression on those around him, and those he feels attraction towards. After all, what sort of man is one worth taking notice of when he measures his life with coffee spoons, an image that signifies that he does not think far into the future and is more concerned with the materialistic entities surrounding him.
He projects this fear of commitment to his real world and those living within it and his favoring of nonsensical nothings outwards when he states he has known the arms already, known them all” of the people he always passes by (Eliot, line 62). His life is so mundane and his mind so single focused that he does not view the people around him as whole, just body parts. This image of floating body parts adds to his isolation and is rooted in Prufrock’s fear of women, or rather, of making any sort of impression on a woman. There is a brief moment in like 64 where he sees an arm “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” (line 64) The exclamation mark following this observation builds an image that Prufrock is fascinated by this woman, and her presence has left an impact on him so great that he truly emotes in the poem, and it is the only time than an exclamation in the poem is delivered due to the action of someone outside of Prufrock. However, this is not enough for him to come out of his emasculated shell, as he immediately forgets about this and slips back into his sterile monotonous tone describing the various objects about him.
J. Alfred Prufrock is a man who, in his modern times, has become complacent and passive, letting himself go to be taken by the powers that be through a trivial life on no true substance. Prufrock makes a point in saying there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions” and this line perfectly sums up Prufrock’s decision making, or rather lack thereof (lines 22-23). Prufrock values his time, but only when it’s spent, ironically, doing nothing. Throughout the whole poem, Prufrock is making indecisions and is constantly revising his own vision of himself through preparing “masks” for others. This is a man who does not take action, but rather action takes him to nowhere in particular. Prufrock is afraid to make any real decisions that could remotely leave an unsatisfactory impact on the world, so he attempts to justify himself on multiple occasions at holding out on asking his important question by question how he should presume. (line 54). This is a man who has been emotionally castrated, and with that comes the associated post-complacency with the theoretical removal of the primary source of testosterone. Prufrock is too afraid to make any significant contact with a female because he’s afraid he will somehow offend her with his presence accidentally. Prufrock’s refusal of action and passivity is signaled most clearly when he declares he is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (line 111). Hamlet is, of course, the protagonist of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and he is a character whose sole defining trait is his inability to act. The entire play is Hamlet musing over whether he should or should not commit various acts, most significantly murder his uncle. By saying that he is not deserving to be Hamlet, Prufrock is affirming himself as even less decisive than a character whose sole purpose is to be indecisive. It also shows that Prufrock believes that he should never be considered the protagonist of even his own poem, and as such the poem does not really follow him but rather he follows various occurrences around him. Prufrock as a character does not really grow or change and him not wanting to be a protagonist and rather be a minor role who starts a couple of scenes ties into how he dresses moderately and wishes to not be noticed. Prufrock is so complacent that he describes mermaids as ignoring to sing to him. The singing of mermaids is often associated with using femininity to draw masculine men seeking pleasure to their dooms, but Prufrock is so emotionally sterile that his lack of masculinity offers nothing to the mermaids; he is not even worthy of being killed. Prufrock will remain walking through the fog, ever so passive and disregarding anything around him. At the end of the poem, Prufrock completely slips away into the ocean imagery that he had been alluding to for the whole poem. It appears he finally got his wish of becoming a crab, at least in his mind, which represents that he has successfully shelled himself away from the world. He ends the poem by saying that he, and the reader, have both drowned together, that Prufrock’s toxic self-pitying has gone on to infect the reader, and he is pulling the reader down into the dark ocean with him. This is what happens when we indulge in the life of someone as worthless as Prufrock, Eliot says.
Overall, T.S. Eliot utilizes all sorts of various images and descriptions to develop his character of J. Alfred Prufrock, who actually is not much of a character at all. Rather than develop Prufrock to be a compelling and interesting figure, Eliot does the exact opposite and draws him as pathetic and unremarkable through Purfrock’s own personal self-image and the way he views the world around him. Eliot’s purpose for doing this to poor Prufrock is to set him up as a figure representative of the detrimental effect that the modern age to Eliot has had on men such as Prufrock. Prufrock is an extreme case of emasculation and complacency, showing the weakening of pompous men and their crippling self-doubting that causes them to be weak and engage in inaction, bringing down the world and people around them in an ill fog of depression and unsureness. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” on the surface is a run of the mill stream of consciousness about a man going for a walk, but Eliot fleshes the world and subject through rich imagery to deliver a point about superficiality in his modern day, delivering a cautionary tale to his male contemporary reader to not fall into the same pitfalls that Prufrock has vested onto himself.
Jung, Carl, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (London 1953) p. 190
Analysis of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Translated, it reads: “If I thought that I was speaking/ to someone who would go back to the world,/ this flame would shake no more./ But since nobody has ever/ gone back alive from this place, if what I hear is true,/ I answer you without fear of infamy.” The speaker in this case will only tell his story with the knowledge that living ears will never hear it. Eliot’s Prufrock faces the same situation; he has a story to tell – a love song to sing – that he didn’t have the courage to declare among the living. Only now, where nobody can hear him, can Prufrock finally say what cannot be said. He has been condemned to a kind of hell by his inaction.This hell is cast in a yellow light. Images of yellow overwhelming the landscape abound: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (15-16). Yellow is a color associated with cowardice. Fittingly, Prufrock’s world is cast in this yellow light because his world is a world of cowardice. His inability to speak his feelings and the fear of what implications that would hold have confined him to where he is. Essentially, Prufrock has proved himself to be a coward. This prison is a coward’s prison. Had Prufrock sung the song he meant to sing, he would not be in hell.Yet it seems Prufrock had been planning to make his declaration. He always meant to say what had been plaguing him. He seemed to feel that he had all of the time in the world to act on his feelings:And indeed there will be timeFor the yellow smoke that slides along the street…There will be time, there will be timeTo prepare a face for the faces that you meet;There will be time to murder and create,And time for all the works and days of hands…Time for you and time for me,And time yet for a hundred indecisions,And for a hundred visions and revisions,Before the taking of a toast and tea. (22-34)Prufrock’s time to act was limited, but he didn’t know it. He thought that time would be limitless (“There will be time, there will be time”), and he found that it wasn’t. The tragedy is now that Prufrock is finally speaking his mind, his words will nevertheless remain unheard. He has all the time he needs now, yet his true time has passed. He cannot speak to the woman he loves. He can only speak to a great void, certain that he will not be heard.The stanza mentioned in the previous paragraph illustrates Prufrock’s constant internal turmoil. He must “prepare a face to meet the faces” that he meets, for he cannot simply be who he is. The simple “taking of a toast and tea” requires “a hundred indecisions” and “a hundred visions and revisions.” He is so repressed that tea is a major trial. It is clear that the actions of everyday life bring great turmoil to Prufrock. He does not know how to act and does not know how to say what he wants to say. Every utterance is thought out and analyzed in his mind a hundred times. He is paralyzed by the fear of social criticism:And I have known the eyes already, known them all -The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,Then how should I beginTo spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?And how should I presume? (54-61)The image of Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall” creates an image of him being totally exposed and on display. He is much like a specimen being primed for dissection. When on display, he is vulnerable to the criticism of his peers. The eyes that Prufrock speaks of are their eyes. Thus, one can see that simply functioning in the social world puts Prufrock in a state of extreme distress. He does not know how to act and fears being exposed. It is no wonder that he has difficulty declaring his feelings of love to a woman.This is the question that ultimately overwhelms Prufrock – the question of love. This question is presented in the first stanza: “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question…/Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?'” (8-10). This “overwhelming question” haunts the rest of the poem. The way that the sentence trails off after “To lead you to an overwhelming question…” implies that it is a loaded question, and one that will not be answered easily. Love could have served as a paradise for Prufrock, even a type of heaven. Yet he chose to forsake heaven for hell. Why anyone would do such a thing is a question that cannot possibly be answered easily. Prufrock spends the poem trying to explain.Aside from the question of why Prufrock let love get away from him, there is the question of what could have happened if he had in fact spoken his feelings. That question is what ultimately kept Prufrock from ever acting. The fear of what could have happened was simply too great. “And would it have been worth it, after all?” (86) Prufrock asks repeatedly. He does not know how to eloquently express himself – “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104). He imagines the possible outcomes of his declaration of love:Would it have been worth whileIf one, setting a pillow or throwing off a shawl,And turning toward the window, should say:”That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.” (106-110)Prufrock harbors a fear that if he were to really express what he feels, he would be misunderstood, or, worse, rejected. That is the fear expressed in “That is not what I meant, at all.” He runs the risk of loving this woman and not being loved in return. Would it be worth risking this by declaring his love – “Would it have been worth while?” Prufrock will never truly know the answer to that question.The poem reaches somewhat of a climax at the stanza discussed in the previous paragraph. Up to that point, the poem focuses on Prufrock’s deliberations and hypothetical questions. He contemplates what could have been: “Would it have been worth while,/ To have bitten off the matter with a smile,/ To have squeezed the universe into a ball…” (90-92). He also rationalizes his current situation: “For I have known them all already, known them all-/ Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/ I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (49-51). All of these musings lead up to his ultimate question – the question of love. The poem climaxes with Prufrock’s greatest fear: that he should speak his mind to the woman he loves, and she replies, “That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all” (109-110). In a sense, Prufrock has justified his cowardice up to this point. He has presented all of his reasons for not making his declaration. He has shown the reader all of the parts of himself that he was too afraid to show the world. Basically, up until this climax, Prufrock has been preparing himself for making his declaration.Naturally, the letdown comes after the climax. Prufrock acknowledges his inabilities and begrudgingly realizes who he is:No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;Am an attendant lord, one that will doTo swell a progress, start a scene or two…At times indeed, almost ridiculous -Almost, at times, the Fool. (111-113; 118-119)Shakespeare’s Hamlet, much like Prufrock, falls victim to a great internal conflict, and does not know how to act upon his feelings. They are both victims of indecision. However, in the end, Hamlet does act – which Prufrock never does. Prufrock acknowledges that that is simply not who he is – “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” This is his rationalization for not acting on his emotions – that is simply not who he is. The role he is destined to play, instead, is that of “the Fool.” This is the great letdown. He will never be the person he wishes to be.The social world is simply a world that Prufrock cannot be comfortable in. Who he feels he should be socially and who he truly is simply do not match up. He wishes to be able to assimilate flawlessly into the social world. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each” (124), Prufrock observes. These mermaids are figures of women, precisely the figures that Prufrock cannot communicate with. He wishes for them to sing their song to him. However, “I do not think that they will sing to me” (125), Prufrock contends, accepting his life’s position. The mermaids are can only exist as visions in Prufrock’s dreams. He has “lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (128-130). He can dream of existing with these creatures, until the reality of it all hits him. “Human voices wake us,” bringing Prufrock to the real world, the human world, where he drowns. This is a world where he cannot exist. Only in his hell can he speak, asking himself the nagging question: “Would it have been worth it, after all?”
Sum of Parts in The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock
And would it have been worth it, after allAfter the cups, the marmalade, the tea,Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,Would it have been worth whileTo have bitten off the matter with a smile,To have squeezed the universe into a ballTo roll it toward some overwhelming question,To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all-“If one, settling a pillow by her head,Should say: “That is not what I meant at allThat is not it, at all.”These twelve lines capture the essence of all that is phenomenal about the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the author T.S.Eliot. In these lines we see the carefully chosen allusions, repetition, lyricism, and maintenance of ambiguity that distinguishes Eliot from other modernist poets. In addition, the way in which these lines are written leads to a greater understanding of the speaker. This brings the reader closer to his objective: understanding and heeding the warning of Prufrock by not following his example.Like most Eliot poems The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is a collection of smaller, solitary images. When viewed on a larger scale it is Eliot’s craft that makes these smaller parts into a dynamic and cohesive whole. When analyzing The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock it is necessary to analyze the individual parts to gain a greater appreciation for the whole. In doing so we may also better understand why we create any particular larger image or feeling out of the collected parts. We look at these images much the way we look at the paint in a great pointillist artwork.The opening line in the selection, “And would it have been worth it, after all,” captures the nature of the entire poem. The speaker, Prufrock, is questioning his own action, or inaction as the case may be. However if we look closely we can see that not only is Prufrock regretting a decision he has made or is unwilling to make; he is debating whether or not to regret. The repetition of this sentiment three lines later is quite telling. It illustrates the extent to which Prufrock truly doubts himself. It is this self doubt that plaques Prufrock throughout this poem and his life.The first real image in this selection of the poem is the one of, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea,” These images, very sweet, ornate and fanciful bring about a feeling of pomp. We then get a sensation for the world in which Prufrock is living, a society where falsity reigns. Although this is not directly expressed by Eliot, his use of the objective correlative conjures up emotions similar to the ones that Fitzgerald is able to convey in his condemnation of the frivolous upper class in his novel The Great Gatsby. In this first image of frivolity we find the selection’s first allusion. In a typically “Eliotian” fashion, it is an obscure allusion. The allusion is made to a collection of Rubaiyat (quatrains) written by Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1122) and translated from Farsi into English by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883).XXXIIThere was the Door to which I found no Key;There was the Veil through which I might not see:Some little talk awhile of Me and TheeThere was–and then no more of Thee and Me.Though slight and obscure the allusion is incredibly fitting. For in the line that follows the “borrowed” line, we see that the speaker questions his own being. We can see direct parallels between this speaker’s uncertainty of being and Prufrock.A second and equally important allusion comes in the line “To have squeezed the universe into a ball.” The line is a said to allude to the poem To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, specifically Marvell’s line,”Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball,” This line has strong sexual connotation and is meant to illustrate the nature of Prufrock’s desires and regrets. However slightly more subtle is the irony found in the title and content of Marvell’s poem. The poem itself is narrated by a man who is attempting to convince his mistress to engage in sexual relations immediately, for he says, “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;” This attitude is in direct contrast to Prufrock. While Prufrock reminds us “There will be time”, the speaker of the Marvell poem fears there will not be time. The conflicting images raised by the allusion further add to the characterization of Prufrock.The next line , “To roll it toward some overwhelming question” is one of the most ambiguous lines in our passage. The unnamed, “overwhelming question” that Prufrock is too afraid to pose is a source of mystery to the reader. Here we find a hole left by Eliot that we the reader are expected to fill.In contrast to the previous line the next allusion to the Biblical Lazarus is quite elementary. Most readers are familiar with the story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ (John 11:1-44). In actuality the reader’s familiarity with the story is a moot point because Eliot mentions Lazarus’ rise from the dead. The obvious parallel is then drawn between the speaker Prufrock, and the character Lazarus. While Lazarus was biologically dead we can see that Prufrock is emotionally and psychologically dead. Yet as lucid as the allusion and parallel may be, it’s implication is just as mysterious. Prufrock says that he has something to tell the world but he refrains from saying it. In addition to further characterizing Prufrock as timid, this suspended revelation creates more ambiguity within the poem.The final part to our selection is a relative climax. Here we can finally see what Prufrock fears. Until this point we know that Prufrock has feared taking any significant control in his life, but we don’t know from what he is hiding. Finally it becomes apparent through the use of the pronoun “her” that it is specifically rejection by women that Prufrock fears. Yet within this discovery is placed another riddle. This riddle is placed in the last line, ” That is not it, at all’ ” We can see that this “it” is the one thing that Prufrock has dreaded his entire life. However we can only assume what this refers to, and are left guessing as to it’s true identity.As noted before, in Eliot’s poems it is the whole that becomes a construct of the individual, autonomous parts. The same is true for the parts within this selection of the poem. The selection is an excellent example of Eliot’s use of the objective correlative. It is the individual images that draught out the specific innate emotions. By looking at this selection as a conglomeration of all of the images above we get a good characterization of the speaker, Prufrock. Yet at the same time the tremendous amount of ambiguity gives the reader the license and responsibility to construct their own psychological, rational feelings about the poem. The most crucial aspect of the selection is that the reader can see and feel the pathetic state of Prufrock. In doing so Eliot completes his objective, and the reader is richer for having this insight into the plight of an average, timid man..CreditsReferences to the alluded works were found in The Prufrock Papers found on the World Wide Web at: http://www.usask.ca/english/prufrock/index.htm
Sterility and Communion in T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Twenty some years after the death of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot began where Hopkins had left off. In one of his earliest poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot picked up the hopelessness – hopelessness motivated by a sense of isolation – that had pervaded Hopkins later poetry. Both poets battled with their faith in their own importance. Both poets felt at a distance from the world, and as a result felt ineffectual and impotent to impact the world around them. This hopelessness is reflected in their jagged images and verse. With Eliot it is particularly pronounced in his early poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, while the same hopelessness is seen in Hopkins’ later poetry; the so called “terrible sonnets”. But, fortunately, for the poets, these times of hopelessness were not unending. Eliot escaped the hopelessness in his later life, as is particulalry evident in The Four Quartets. Hopkins only dealt with the hopelessness in his later life, and in his earlier poetry such as “The Windhover” and “The Grandeur of God”, Hopkins is in great communion with the world. The period of skepticism was tempered by a time of great hope for each poet, a period that stemmed from their sense of communion with the world around them. From the beginning of his beginning”The Love Song of J .Alfred Prufrock” – Eliot is at odd with the worlds around him. He contrasts himself with his surroundings in the first lines of “The Love Song of J .Alfred Prufrock”:Let us go then, you and IWhen the evening is spread out against the skyLike a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreatsOf restless nights in one-night cheap hotels (1-6)The opening two lines put the sky into motion; has it expand outwards. But in the third line, in contrast to this quick development and movement of his surroundings, Eliot is ‘etherized upon a table.’ He is ‘etherized’, motionless, in contrast to the expanding sky. After the third line Eliot immediately returns to the movement of the world around him: the retreats that mutter, and the nights that restlessly move. This stanza aptly captures the sense that Eliot is paralyzed in the face of the quickly moving world, a sense that pervades the rest of the poem.The people around him are part of the speedy surroundings from which he is isolated. The contrast between himself, and the people around him is apparent when he tries to put into words the apparent thoughts of those around him:And indeed there will be timeTo wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?”Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’) (37-44)Eliot imagines the people quickly thinking and judging him, and Eliot’s recreation of these people’s thoughts grows ever more intense from the four foot first line to the eight foot last lines. This quickly growing space between line breaks serves as a clear direction for crescendo. In the beginning of this stanza he mentions that there will be time to wonder, to ask questions such as ‘Do I dare?’ But there does not appear to be time for thinking in the midst of the racing thoughts of the world around him. This suspicion is confirmed when Eliot demonstrates the speed of his own thinking in the next lines where, in 2 pondering 3 beat lines he wonders:Do I dareDisturb the universe? (45-6)This point when he does come to ‘wonder’ brings the verse to a skidding halt. His ruminations all come as a sharp decrescendo from his perception of the flow of the thoughts and movement in the world around him. The speed of his own thinking in relation to the world around him (the first part of this stanza) marks his isolation from the furiously moving world. This isolation is heightened by the animation and activity of everything around him. The universe is “squeezed . . . into a ball to roll”(92) and a lantern “threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (105). In the most memorable personification, yellow fog “rubs its back upon the windowpanes,” and “licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” (15-6). The flux and activity of everything around him acts to paralyze Eliot. This is explained in the stanza that where Eliot begins by mentioning that “[I] Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons” (50) (By stating these three long time spans so quickly, and in the past tense, Eliot elucidates how quickly the time is flying past.) He gives the speeding times of day, eyes, and says, “I have known the eyes already, known them all – / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase” (55-6). The paralysis into which the quickly moving time formulates him is never more vividly captured than when he says that the capturing eye has made him like a quieted butterfly in a preservative case, “sprawling on a pin” (57).The movement of the world around him has rendered Eliot impotent because the activity and flux of the world makes his own decisions worthless. Eliot’s desire to have some impact on his surroundings is apparent when he slowly asks whether he will “dare to disturb the universe”. But, the activity of his surroundings quickly sweeps over his question. He is unable to make this decision because, as he explains, “in a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47-8). His decisions are futile because of the understanding that any decision that he makes can easily be reversed in the next moment.This futility is reflected by his constant repetition of words and phrases. In “A Game of Chess” from The Wasteland Eliot talks about a place “where the dead men lost their bones,” (116) a place where not even death is dead enough, because then the dead lose even their physical claim to life (i.e. their bones). This description is a response to the words of a woman who chatters away: “‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, Bad. Stay with me./ ‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak./ ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?”(111-3). Eliot’s description of the place as deader than dead immediately follows this woman’s short monologue. The description is a reaction to the lifelessness of the woman’s words. She says nothing, and repeats this nothing over and over again. Her inability to say anything is an inability to create, i.e. sterility. Eliot obliquely uses the same technique in “Prufrock” to define his own sterility. In the same way that the woman in “A Game of Chess” repeats the same questions over and over, when he imagines himself asking a question he thinks that he will ask, “‘Do I dare?’ and, Do I dare?'” (38). Later, in three consecutive stanzas he begins by asking “For I have known them all already, known them all” (49) (with slight differences in each stanza) and closes each stanza by asking “So how should I presume” (54) (with slight changes). This technique is particularly effective in “Prufrock” because his own inability to say anything new is contrasted to the constant barrage of new images in his surroundings. In the body of each of these stanzas Eliot describes a different aspect of the world around him, while he is still and asking the same question over and over again.In the last stanzas of “Prufrock” Eliot elucidates and qualifies the depths of his isolation and impotence. Through a theatrical metaphor he returns to the question of whether he will “disturb the universe”. He acknowledges he is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111); recognizing that he is no lead player, but, as consolation, he tells himself that he can at least be an ‘attendant lord’ that will help to ‘swell the progress’ (113). Upon further consideration, though, even this thought of impact on the world around him is stripped as he says that he would probably be ‘almost ridiculous’ and in the last line resigns to the fact that he would probably only be ‘the Fool’ (119). At this point he has realized the fallacy of his self-aggrandizing idea that he could impact the world. But he then comes to question whether he even has power over his own life. He begins by granting that,I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. (120-1)thereby allowing himself the power to decide to ‘roll his trousers’. But even this momentary glimpse of confidence is shattered when in the next line he asks:Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? (122)At this point he wonders if he does have the power to do such benign things as rolling his trousers, and eating peaches. In these 3 stanzas he has taken himself from a consideration of himself on the grandest scale, as Hamlet, to himself on the most pitiful scale. At the end he questions even his power to impact himself. His impotence grows ever more personal, and therefore ever more complete. By the end he has come to see the scale at which he is isolated from his surroundings, and resignedly laments:I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.I do not think that they will sing to me. (124-5)He closes the poem with this slow realization of the sad truth of his situation: that he is not part of his surroundings. He is, to take the argument back to the beginning, a patient on the table, aware that life is going on around him, but unable to take part in that life.While Eliot’s early poetry, such as “Prufrock”, concludes with this somber tone of depression, Hopkins, in his early poetry, harps on the joy that the world around him brings. In the sonnet “Spring”, Hopkins discusses a few marvels of the natural world. He mentions the thrush’s eggs and a peartree, and in the end asks, “What is all this juice and all this joy?” (9). With the ‘and’ Hopkins paratactically places the juices or beauty of nature as parallel and simultaneous with his own joy. And Hopkins sees beauty everywhere; as he mentions in “God’s Grandeur”, “nature is never spent” (9).He is most interested in the dappled beauty of nature. In his discussion of the topic in his poem “Pied Beauty”, he says, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” In the beginning of this poem Hopkins lays down some specific images that reflect this quality:For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings; (2-4)These descriptions of the speckled trout and chestnut leaves provide examples of such dappled beauty. By using the word ‘dappled’ Hopkins draws attention to the irregularity of the coloration of each of these objects. The sprung rhythm that Hopkins uses in most of his early poems discussing nature, is a fitting poetic form for recreating the ‘dappled’ coloring of nature. Sprung rhythm brings the stress down irregularly. Each stress can be seen as a glint of light in the midst of the darker moments of slack around them. When the stresses are irregular the aural sensation becomes more like the irregularity of the coloring of nature. As Hopkins explains in the preface to these poems, “Two licenses are natural to Sprung Rhythm. The one is rests, as in music . . . The other is hangers or outrides, that is one, two or three slack syllables.” Because of all these irregularities the reader must focus particular attention on the sonic details of the poem. Hopkins’ placement of the sonic elements of his poem as equal to the textual elements is displayed in the first line of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”. There he says, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;” (1). The textual simile mirrors the brightness of the bird to the brightness of the insect. But in this line Hopkins also creates a sonic simile, as the two hard k sounds in the first clause are mirrored in the two hard d sounds in the second clause. The sonic metaphor can be seen as merely amplifying the textual metaphor, but it seems that the textual metaphor can just as easily be seen as amplifying the sonic metaphor. In this double metaphor Hopkins’ places great weight on the auditory element of his poem. This is in accordance with his use of sprung rhythm, which he said “is the rhythm of all but the most monotonously regular music, so that in words of choruses and refrains and in songs written closely to music it arises.” In this introduction Hopkins discusses only the auditory value of sprung rhythm, and does not once mention the value of sprung rhythm for more accurately capturing a textual detail. The particular concern that Hopkins displayed for the auditory part of his poems is reflected in the double metaphor.His line breaks show Hopkins’ willingness to subordinate the textual details to the aural atmosphere created. From “The Windhover”:I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his ridingOf the rolling level underneath him steady air, and stridingHigh there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wingIn his ecstasy!No line break until this fifth line provides a break. Hopkins carries phrases over the line breaks, in the second line even breaking up a single word over a line break. This elimination of the tradition point of rest gives the verse an added fluidity. The first line break is especially apparent in its singular concern for sound. By breaking up the word ‘kingdom’ Hopkins dulls the immediate textual impact of the word. But the vowel sound of ‘king’ amplifies the vowel sound of ‘minion’, and the placing of the syllable ‘dom’ in the second line contributes to the alliteration there. In his willingness to dull the textual impact in the interest of the sonic impact Hopkins shows his willingness to subordinate the textual meaning of the word to the fluidity and lyrical quality of the poem. Through meter, word choice, and line breaks Hopkins places more emphasis on the lyrical and auditory quality of the poem, and takes emphasis off of the textual meaning of words. As Eliot found 40 years later, the most effective way to capture divisiveness in nature is to present jagged points. When Eliot wanted to convey his isolation from the world he poetically phrased himself as a jagged element, at odds with the quickly moving world around him. The jaggedness of Eliot’s early poetry reflects that all is not at peace in the world. This shifts the emphasis away from the specific and places it on the more holistic quality of sonic fluidity, and thereby avoids any saliency, or jaggedness.It should be noted that Hopkins found the same activity and animation of the world around him that Eliot did in his early poetry. While in “Prufrock” this motion of the world was the very cause of Eliot’s isolation, Hopkins relies upon the constant movement for the fluidity of his prose. But these happy days did not remain for Hopkins. In his later life he moved into a period where he wrote the so called ‘terrible-sonnets’. After the dappled colors of his early poems, in sonnet 67 he says he has seen “the fell of dark” (1). His acute vision, that brought the dappled beauty of the world is gone, and in its stead, in sonnet 69 he casts “for comfort I can no more get/ By groping round my comfortless, than blind/ Eyes in their dark can day or this can find” (5-7).Gone with this light is the aural fluidity of his early poems. In one of the most dark poems, “Carrion Comfort”, instead of the sonorous alliteration of the earlier poetry, there are hard clashing words. The first words are, “Not, I’ll not.” The short vowel sound of ‘not’, and the hard consonants on either side of the ‘o’, are at odds with the long vowel sound of ‘I’ll’. These first words set up the almost cacophonous aural experience that “Carrion Comfort’ is. The poem goes on:Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee,Not untwist, – slack they may bethese last strands of man (1-2)Each phrase seems an independent phrase at odds with those surrounding. The phrase ‘carrion comfort’ has little sonic similarity to the phrase ‘not feast on thee’. The alliteration that littered the early poetry, and that took the emphasis off of specific words is gone. Instead Hopkins places extreme emphasis on specific words. The word ‘Despair’, which is so significant in describing this new state, is set off from the surrounding verse with commas. The word ‘Despair’ is also emphasized by its lack of auditory similarity with the words around it.Hopkins de-emphasis of words in his early poetry is especially apparent when considered next to this later poetry where specific words – not the sonic elements – are the core of the poem. To emphasize words in these later poems he often repeats especially telling words. In sonnet 67 the following lines show this technique:And my lamentIs cries countless, cries like dead letters sentTo dearest him that lives alas! away.The repetition of ‘cries’ gives a very specific sense of Hopkins’ emotional state. In this excerpt Hopkins once again sets apart a significant word: ‘away’ is removed by placing punctuation marks on either side of it. This particular point of emphasis brings Hopkins feelings in line with what Eliot was feeling in his particularly despairing poems. Hopkins, as a Jesuit priest, had found communion with the world through God in his early poetry. In “Hurrahing in Harvest”, he had said, “I walk, I lift up heart, eyes,/ Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour”. Whereas he found a connection with God, and hence with the world in his early poetry, in sonnet 67, one of the ‘terrible sonnets’ he emphasizes that God is ‘away’. He moves even closer to Eliot when, in sonnet 66 he moans that “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life/ Among strangers. Father and mother dear, Brothers and sisters are in Christ not mood” This sense of isolation brings him to the point where, in sonnet 74 he calls himself ‘time’s eunuch’. This direct use of the idea of sterility brings Hopkins into almost perfect alignment with the Eliot who was ‘formulated’, and ‘sprawling on a pin’; so ineffectual that he cannot even decide whether he will eat a peach. But while Hopkins climbed onto the etherizing table in his later life, Eliot, in his own later life, climbed off the table to partake in the world. The Four Quartets represent the apex of his new hopeful view that is in accordance with Hopkins’ early poetry. Eliot’s seascape in “The Dry Salvage”, one of The Four Quartets, demonstrates his new, more fluid and integrated view of the world: the sea is all about us;The sea is the land’s edge alsoThis new image of the land merging with the shore should be contrasted to that coast presented in “Sweeney Erect,” one of his earlier poems. There he said, Paint me a cavernous waste shoreCast in the unstilled Cyclades,Paint me the bold anfractuous rocksFaced by the snarled and yelping seas.In this earlier vision the sea and the land are wildly separated and violently at odds with each other. This is a sharp contrast to the border that exists in the “The Dry Salvage”; a border which has really ceased to be a border at all. In his earlier poems he saw insurmountable borders between everythingparticularly between himself and the rest of the world. The revised view of a border that Eliot displays in “The Dry Salvages” is reflective of his changing perception of his isolation from the world. In the later poems Eliot does away with the jagged line breaks and constantly fluctuating meter that bespoke of Eliot’s division from the world in “Prufrock”. In the beginning of ‘Marina’, a poem that led to the hopefulness of The Four Quartets, Eliot returns to the ‘anfractuous’ meter seen in “Prufrock”:Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaningDeathThose who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaningDeathThose who sit in the sty of contentment, meaningDeathThose who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaningDeathAre becoming unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,A breath of pine, and the woodsong fogBy this grace dissolved in placeIn the beginning of this stanza the arresting line breaks and repetition of words recalls the topics of sterility, and isolation of his earlier poems. In ‘Marina’ he uses this anfractuous form to discuss death, an idea akin to those gloomy ideas discussed in his early poetry. But Eliot quickly moves on, and, in much more regular meter, says that all that was in this stanza of anfractuous images and meter – the essence of his early poetry – is ‘becoming unsubstantial’. Fresh images of life – ‘the breath of pine’ and the ‘grace’ of this natural scene – renders the anfractuous meter and gloomy images unsubstantial. He rarely uses jagged meter in The Four Quartets, but when he does, whereas in “The Love Song of J .Alfred Prufrock” it was used to display his isolation from the world, in ‘The Dry Salvage’ he uses it to reinforce the communion of the world:The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oarAnd the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,Many gods and many voices.The salt is on the briar rose,The fog is in the fir trees.The sea howlAnd the sea yelpIn “Prufrock” Eliot used such quick changes in meter to place elements at odd with each other. His own slow question “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?” was in contrast to the racing lines that came before because he was at odds with the people described before. In this excerpt from the “Dry Salvages”, however, the metrical change is used to emphasize how the salt and the fog and the howl are all really one; are part of the ‘many voices’. The term ‘many voices’ harks back to the ‘lobsterpot’ and the ‘broken oar’, and calls forward to the salt and the fog, thereby placing all of these elements in a unified category. By placing the salt and the fog metrically apart Eliot allows the reader to connect these elements to the elements that came before. It is vital to also notice his revised use of fog in the two passages mentioned so far. In the first passage Eliot speaks of the ‘woodsong fog,’ while in the second passage he remarks that the ‘fog is in the fir trees’. In both of these two poems the fog is mentioned in passing, as a static element of the landscape, not an active part itself. The fog ‘is’ here, whereas in “Prufrock” the fog “rubs its back upon the windowpanes,” and “licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” Both Eliot’s revised use of the word ‘fog’ and his revised use of jagged meter are indicative of the calm and peace that has settled over Eliot’s later poetry. This shift to calm brings him to comment on the communion of the world numerous times in The Four Quartets. In the closing moments of the dry salvages he celebrates a world where music is “heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.” This startlingly beautiful image could just as easily be describing Hopkins early poetry where the world is taken into the mind, and there transfigured into music, as Hopkins had mentioned in his preface. This complete union is elaborated upon when Eliot remarks that, “Here the impossible union/ Of spheres of existence is actual.”
Superficial Standards in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
In concert with the Modernism movement of literature in the early decades of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot was a British writer whose works functioned as social commentary. In reaction to the superfluous and lush styles of preceding Victorian and Romantic literature, Eliot challenged traditional writing techniques and subjects with a more experimental approach. Eliot was greatly influenced by American writer, Ezra Pound, whose focus on imagistic writing inspired much of Eliot’s visually-charged works.
Eliot’s modernist poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” illustrates the trivial pursuits of a superficial society. Prufrock, the speaker, invites the reader on a journey through a modern city in which he contemplates social anxieties. Additionally, Prufrock reveals his personal anxieties that have emerged from frivolous societal standards. Throughout the poem, such petty concerns are depicted by images and scenes of shallow human interactions throughout the city. Specifically, Prufrock reveals his own vain insecurities as he examines images of masculinity and beauty within various social settings. In these various scenes, Prufrock considers the female idea of masculinity as normative standards of desirability. This notion reveals Prufrock’s flawed belief that acceptance and desirability in society are synonymous. Further, Prufrock maintains a faulty perception of beauty as he equates it with youthfulness. Consequently, Prufrock’s attempt to achieve such beauty precipitates his loss of authentic identity. These themes are cleverly conveyed by Eliot’s treatment of ideas about masculinity, his demonstration of personal insecurities regarding his physical attributes, and his constant comparison of himself against more prominent figures.
Throughout the poem, Prufrock centers his idea of masculinity around female discussion thereof. Early in his observational journey, his fixation on women’s opinions is revealed as he repeats: “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo” (ll. 13-14). The women’s conversations regarding “Michelangelo” suggest that they are referring to and intrigued by one of Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpieces, “David.” This allusion to “David” implies a rigid definition of masculinity as the sculpture provides a daunting image of a physically robust, nude male icon. Such intimidating standards of masculinity breeds in Prufrock a sense of deficiency and insecurity that guides his anxious manner throughout the poem. Further, the repetition of this reference to “women… talking of Michelangelo” in lines 35 and 36 conveys a sense of inevitability that plagues Prufrock. This suggests that Prufrock must eventually face his social fears, one of which involves facing the superficial judgments of women.
In addition, Prufrock further expresses his low self-esteem as he assumes people’s displeased reactions to his physical appearance in a social setting. First, he claims that in public, he should wear some type of mask when meeting people: “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (ll. 26-27). Here, Prufrock believes he must “prepare a face,” or a façade, that makes him presentable when meeting other “faces,” and thus, accepted by society. His repetition of “there will be time” in these lines hints at the fact that Prufrock is not ready to perform this act in the present moment. This repetition also suggests a looming sense of anxiety as this act of meeting people seems to be inevitable.
In another instance, as Prufrock briefly considers facing society, he quickly discourages the idea by presenting hypothetical dialogue of scrutiny regarding his physical appearance: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair — (They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)/ My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin — (They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)” (ll. 40-44). Prufrock’s “bald spot” and “thin” figure can be observed as indicators of his aging and deteriorating body, which contributes to his feelings of deficiency. His “morning coat,” “mount[ed]” collar, and “rich and modest” necktie depicts Prufrock’s attempt to appear well-dressed and respectable, further conveying his desire to be pleasantly accepted by society. His constant concern for what people “will say” about his physique shows his lack of autonomy. Prufrock’s lack of autonomy places him in an indecisive state of mind in which he contemplates his role, or lack thereof, in society.
Later, Prufrock refers back to his “balding” head and meager features as he assesses his lack of self-worth: “But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter; I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (ll. 82-84). Prufrock’s admission of having “wept,” “fasted,” and “prayed” implies a meek and unremarkable quality about him. The repetition of the image of him weeping in these lines further amplifies his lack of masculinity as defined by societal standards. The notion of crying and praying reveals in Prufrock a sense of helplessness, and ironically, an almost feminine quality. The second segment of these lines suggests that he has in fact, suffered societal scrutiny as he has seen his head “brought in upon a platter.” This image of his head “grown slightly bald” on a “platter” demonstrates society’s tendency to superficially and brutally assess people. It is such magnified judgments made by society that incites insecurities in Prufrock regarding his external appearance.
Further, Prufrock continues to submit his depleted self-value by presenting all the things that he is not. Prufrock’s claims of not being a “prophet” and that this is “no great matter” implies that his role is devoid of any relevance. As he admits that the “moment of [his] greatness has flickered,” Prufrock maintains the image of his fading and diminishing presence. The “moment of greatness” to which he refers to, can be observed as his youth. His frequent remarks about his “balding” head suggests that he is aging, and therefore, Prufrock believes that he has become undesirable and unworthy by societal standards.
Prufrock continues to degrade his self-image as he positions himself below prominent figures: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool” (ll. 111-114). By ironically stating that he is not “Prince Hamlet,” Prufrock implies that although he is indecisive like Hamlet, he does not identify with Hamlet’s impulsive traits, which would in turn, redeem or add value to his identity. He further reduces his value as he deems himself a mere “attendant lord” who simply operates as a figure of service to Hamlet. Prufrock continues this image of worthlessness in the subsequent lines: “Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool” (ll. 115-119). Here, Prufrock’s admission that he is “glad to be of use” further illustrates his unambitious demeanor and lack of confidence. His “cautious” and “meticulous” conduct conveys his doubtful and insecure mentality. Additionally, Prufrock’s claims of being “ridiculous” and at times, “the Fool,” demonstrates detrimental self-shaming that is caused by his inability to fulfill superficial standards of beauty. Moreover, in Margaret Blum’s journal article, “The Fool in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock’s “Fool” allusion is examined as a parallel to the character, Yorick, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This Yorick figure, like Prufrock, mocked the meaningless of his world (Blum 425). Similarly, Prufrock grapples with the futility of human existence as he questions whether partaking into society’s superficial standards is even “worth it at all” (line 87).
Towards the end of the poem, Prufrock submits to superficial standards of beauty in hopes of being accepted and desired by society. As he acknowledges his aging self, he attempts to mimic youthful traits: “I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach” (ll. 120-123). This scene of him rolling his “white flannel” trousers and parting his hair displays his obsession with maintaining a youthful image. Prufrock dares to “eat a peach” and “walk upon the beach” because he wishes to simulate an artificial youthful quality that he no longer holds. Nonetheless, Prufrock fails to assimilate and reverts back to his self-shaming state of mind: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me” (ll. 124-125). Here, Prufrock’s lack of confidence is revived as he realizes that his miserable efforts to imitate youthful beauty is unsuccessful. His claim that the “mermaids” will not “sing” to him represents his apprehensive belief that society will see through his façade and reject his true unattractive identity.
The examination of various images related to masculinity in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” demonstrates the speaker’s trivial insecurities that have been instilled in him by superficial societal standards. Prufrock’s frequent consideration of physical beauty and bodily features is detailed in his allusions to Michelangelo’s “David,” an image of rigid masculinity, as well as, upon his reflection of his own identity and build. As he surveys his “bald spot” and “thin” arms and legs, Prufrock acknowledges his diminishing youth and reveals his self-consciousness and anxious sense of deficiency. To be desired by society, Prufrock would have to alter and enhance his “bald” and “thinning” self, as such traits are deemed unattractive by the women in the poem, which would consequently compromise his unique and individual identity. Further, Prufrock’s high regard for female discussion and perception of masculinity reveals his lack of autonomy. In this way, Prufrock displays a fear of rejection that leads him to question whether attempting to assimilate into society would even be “worth it at all.” This question extends to and critiques the individual’s pursuit of fulfilling normative or desired standards that are imposed by society.
High Culture in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Friend or Foe?
High culture bears a great significance in Eliot’s poetry and in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock he expresses its significance in life and the valuable lessons it can provide. He also manifests his concerns about culture’s influence on his contemporaries but also about “the burden of vision” (Atkins 136) that the artist has to bear. Prufrock tries to escape the loneliness he feels by looking for wisdom in the past but even though high culture seems to be a friend that provides momentary solace, deep down it makes him more detached from his environment and more aloof. Should the artist resort to high culture in his effort to escape the impersonal and pretentious reality or is it just another mask behind which he tries to hide from life? For Eliot culture is the force that connects the past, the present and the future, the very thing that makes civilizations and societies advance and it includes art, history, religion and myths. The artist is a part of that cultural history that has shaped his world but he also has the power and even responsibility to change it and alter it and as Eliot has pointed out: “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (The Sacred Wood 44). He believed that the authors of the past are part of that history that shapes and defines us and that “historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (The Sacred Wood 44). The functions of culture and tradition are numerous and multifaceted. The most important role that tradition can have in the present is being a source of wisdom and knowledge that can provide answers relevant to the present if people learn to use and apply this ancient wisdom that has been passed down to them through art. He uses Dante as an example of those writers of the past and says that “Comedy is in some way a moral education”, underlining thus how important it is to not forget the continuous relevance of these texts in the present (The Sacred Wood 148). The contemporary artist also has a great responsibility to tradition and culture and he should try to find his own individuality through this constant dialogue with the past, “the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. […] Looking at the writers of the past is exactly what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity” (The Sacred Wood 43-44). He seems to envision tradition as a river that is always flowing and connecting everything, the past with the future but also vice versa, it is a “development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen” (The Sacred Wood 46). Artistic creation is a process that changes and influences the society as a whole. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock it is evident that Eliot applies the principles that he has set out in his essays concerning tradition and culture by constantly alluding to various literary texts and myths that he juxtaposes with the moral decay of the industrial landscape in which Prufrock is trapped as he is taking a walk down “streets that follow like a tedious argument/ of insidious intent” (1.8-9) Even though Eliot would probably disagree with equating Prufrock with himself, it is evident that the poem is an internal monologue of an artist and his concerns so it is possible to understand his own reflections about life as an artist living in an impersonal and threating city. The poem’s epigram is from Dante’s Inferno and “the speaker, Guido de Montefeltro, consumed in flame as punishment for giving false counsel, confesses his shame without fear of its being reported since he believes Dante cannot return to earth” (in Baym and Loeffelholz 1577). This epigram introduces us to the theme of hell which is manifested in the image of the city, full of smoke and loneliness where the artist, like Dante, is trying to escape his torment but he also introduces the theme of the prophet, the person who comes back from the vision of the hell but may fall in the moral and spiritual sin of false counsel as Guido did. The artist, unlike everyone around him, has understood that his life is a living hell while others live their lives unaware that they are already dead, “for in Dante’s hell souls are not deadened, as they mostly are in life; they are actually in the greatest torment of which each is capable” (The Sacred Wood 150). The artist who has to bear the burden of this knowledge cannot articulate it to those around him and influence them because he is also aware of his own insignificance, his own mortality, “I am no prophet” (11.10). The artist feels trapped behind the mask that he is forced to wear because everyone around him seems to be distant and pretentious, “There will be time, there will be time/ To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” (4.4-5). Using a literary allusion to Andrew Marvell, Eliot expresses this façade of smoke that blinds the artist and makes Prufrock want to live either in the nostalgic past or the distant future, but never in the present. This temporal and special displacement within Prufrock is also evident in Eliot’s allusion to Hesiod’s didactic poem Works and Days, “And time for all the works and days of hands” (4.7). Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, cannot give him solace but instead he can only “drop a question on your plate” (4.8). Prufrock seems to look for answers in ancient wisdom but still he cannot answer this great elusive question. While Prufrock struggles to understand the cause of his loneliness and the reason why he cannot communicate his feelings, “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (5.1-2). Everyone around him is indifferent towards the profound truth that he finds in the artists of the past and use high culture as something mundane, a way for them to appear cultivated and pretentious while they go on living their insignificant lives in the living hell of the city. As Eliot points out in Christianity and Culture, “culture itself is regarded either as a negligible by-product which can be left to itself, or as a department of life to be organized in accordance with the particular scheme we favour” (164) and while Prufrock wants to be able to connect with one of these women and escape his misery, he cannot surpass their ignorance towards everything he holds dear because “the arts without intellectual context are vanity” (Christianity and Culture 95). Prufrock is in need of human contact and connection but he finds that his contemporary society is incapable of anything as sincere as that. The city is like an anesthetized body, “like a patient etherized upon a table” (1.3) and connection is almost impossible. As Murphy points out “Eliot’s would have been a world where matters of manners and decorum took precedence over more common human impulses, […] the longing of the natural ease of human interaction without the constrains of social proprieties” (289). He constantly feels that he is being judged and that everyone is only looking at him, he knows “the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase” (8.2) in order to comment on his flaws and observe him like a dead butterfly, “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall” (8.4). Prufrock seems to blame others for his detachment like the stereotypical romantic artist who is ahead of his contemporaries and thus cannot fit in but deep down he realizes that he too can appear pretentious and judgmental. How can he approach a woman and really connect with her when he too puts everyone into stereotypes and equates all the women that “come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (5.1-2)? Could culture that he considers a haven actually be his own hell? Here Eliot puts a very important question to the front about the role of the artist in society: whether the artist should keep a distance from everyday life and the social sphere or take part in life even if he feels that he has a special burden to bear. Eliot tries to answer this question through Prufrock and figure out if high culture is a friend or a foe to the tormented soul of the artist. Prufrock seems to be split by this question and although he feels safe in the darkness of his room, in “the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!” (11.1), alone, away from those who are constantly judging him, it is his emotions that he cannot escape, the emotions that he cannot find a way to express and Eliot seems to know this painful reality when he writes that “the intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known” (The Sacred Wood 93). He cannot find himself in the comfort zone of his loneliness because what he really wants is a woman to share all his intense emotions with, the emotions that he fails to articulate, “It is perfume from a dress/ That makes me so digress?” (9. 4-5). He says: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (10.4-5) because he has lost his identity in the chaos of the city but he cannot find his true identity when he is alone either because as Hart points out “personality is the collective fiction of a world in which experience is private but depends utterly upon the contingent presence of others” (176). Prufrock is like Hamlet when it comes to this feeling. He too is lost in indecisiveness and loneliness and they share what Eliot identifies in the character of Hamlet, “it is the buffoonery of emotion which can find no outlet in action” (The Sacred Wood 93). Even though Prufrock is like Hamlet, he cannot fully embody this stereotype of the greatest romantic hero who is deeply wounded by the maze he is in. He would have liked to have the majestic glory of such a hero but he comes in short, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;” (14.1). No one will quote what he says or consider him profound and he cannot even be the protagonist in his own play, he only manages to be “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/ At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-/ Almost, at times, the Fool” (14.7-9). Living according to the standards of his time seems to be frustrating but living by the standards of the sphere of high culture is even more depressing because nothing can help him escape himself. As Eliot points out, “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but, an escape from personality” (The Sacred Wood 52). Prufrock fails to fit into yet another image from the past, the image of the prophet who has to live a life of isolation and constant betrayal because he has the burden of knowledge and the God-given responsibility to save all those around him that have been lost. Even though he too knows this feeling and in his effort to learn from the past has considered assuming the role of such a savior, he admits: “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in /upon a platter/ I am no prophet-and here’s no great matter” (11.8-10). He again has to face his own mortality and the failure of trying to aspire to mythical stereotypes that transcend reality. He says “And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / and in short, I was afraid” (11.11-12) and the parallel he tries to draw to connect himself with his ancestors proves painfully unfruitful because he has to bear the inevitable fear of growing old and dying. Old age will not reward the romantic intellectual who will have to “wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach” (16.2) and although he has heard the song of the mermaids, they will not sing for him “I have heard the mermaids sing, each to each/ I do not think that they will sing to me” (16.3-17.1) Even though the society is indeed one of false pretenses and shallow human connections, it seems like Prufrock is not trying to get out of his hell by working through his problems and surpassing the sorrows that every human being faces, but instead hides behind the bubble of an ideal world that he has put together only with the pieces of history and culture that he handpicked from the ruins, thus like an unreliable narrator, he is creating a distorting lens through which he evaluates himself and judges everyone around him. The reader never finds out the answer to the question and as Mays points out, “(the poem) moves through the pattern of expectation, failure and suspended resolution” (in Moody 112). One thing is very clear from the poem though, that no matter where the individual choses to hide, it is the connection to others that he will eventually need the most. It is not Prufrock that will show others how dead they really are, but the human voices and the loss of and need for this connection that will make him realize that he was the one who was drowning all along, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (19.3).
Atkins, G. Douglas. Reading T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets and the Journey towards Understanding. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. Baym, Nina, and Mary Loeffelholz. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Print. Eliot, T. S. Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print. —. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. Print. Hart, Matthew. “Visible Poet: T. S. Eliot and Modernist Studies.” American Literary History 19.1 (2007): 174-89. Print. Moody, Anthony David. The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print. Murphy, Russell E. Critical Companion to T.S. Eliot: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Print.
Unreliable Narration in F. Scott Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes
An “unreliable narrator” is defined as “a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised.” The phrase itself was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961): in the course of his analysis, Booth goes onto argue that “A narrator is reliable when he speaks or acts in accordance with the norms of the work, unreliable when he does not.” Although a theory later challenged by Peter J Rabinowitz, the idea of the “unreliable narrator” does provide some context to the concept of “unreliability.” As I will argue, the main difference between the presentations of two respective narrators, Tony in The Sense of an Ending  and Nick in The Great Gatsby , is how reliable the narrators consider themselves to be, compared to what the reader may believe. Although both seem to some extent unreliable, our opinions do change at key moments in each novel.
The way in which the narrators are used by the writers provide clues as to why they act as they do. Fitzgerald uses his book as an opportunity to launch a scathing attack on American society in the 1920s. He argues that instead of separating itself from the days of the past as originally thought, American society has changed very little, with distinct social boundaries remaining, presented in The Great Gatsby as the contrast between East Egg, “…the white palaces of fashionable East Egg” [G 8] and the Valley of Ashes, “where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.” [G 21] Here, East Egg shows how the social elite remains secure thanks to the wealth of its ancestors. The Valley of Ashes, meanwhile, represents the crushed dreams of ‘normal’ citizens who had hoped to make something of their lives by following the American Dream, only to find that America is still enslaved to the traditional European social system set up by colonial rule, leaving behind only “foul dust”[G 6]. By launching this attack, Fitzgerald would not want to be directly associated with these ideas, largely to avoid tarnishing his reputation (he stood in both social camps – mixing with upper class circles and writing for a readership of a multitude of classes). If Daisy appears to be based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, it is possible that the author would want a filter to distance himself from Daisy’s portrayal as a shallow, self-centered, and even hurtful woman. The situation is quite different in The Sense of an Ending, where the author Julian Barnes has a more personal reason for writing the book. Some critics view the book as allowing Barnes to properly come to terms with the death of his wife in 2008 and to present his views on the importance and connection between memory and death. His narrator therefore could be seen an alternative perspective. In his 2013 book Levels of Life, Barnes tells us that he contemplated suicide, his preferred method being “a hot bath a glass of wine and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife,” the same method used by Adrian in The Sense of an Ending. Therefore, you could argue that he is considering the actions and repercussions of his potential suicide. However, it does show that the motives behind the two novels are different, with Barnes seeing his work as a therapeutic and reflective way to cope with his wife’s untimely death and Fitzgerald looking more to produce a good story, while simultaneously distancing himself from the key messages of the book.
The initially-presented forms that the narrators take also offer strong contrasts. In The Sense of an Ending, Barnes starts by constructing an air of unreliability around Tony’s narration: Tony tells us “I remember in no particular order:” [S 3] before launching into a fragmented list of what seem to be random memories, (“a shiny inner wrist… steam rising… gouts of sperm… a river rushing… bathwater long gone cold…” [S 3]) although they soon become important. Early on, Tony refers to one of the key concepts of the book – the link between memory and documentation for recording history. Adrian explains that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” [S 17]. The linked theme of the book is that Tony is attempting to figure out the story of what happened with very little documentation, so that memory is used to plug the gaps, “imperfect[ly]”. This quotation can also be used to look at Nick’s narration in The Great Gatsby where the reader is expected to believe the story as fact simply because it is the only form of “documentation” with which the reader is presented. We presume, however, that Nick does not suffer the same memory issues as Tony because he is dictating events from less than two years ago (“When I came back from the East last autumn” [G 5]) unlike Tony, whose own gap is much larger (“I’ve followed… the fall of Communism, Mrs Thatcher, 9/11, global warming” [S 60]). Nick, meanwhile, is presented without Tony’s cognitive inadequacies. Early on he says “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” [G 5] and insists “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” [G 48], Fitzgerald encouraging us to see Nick as reliable.
The effect here is that whereas Tony’s failings are emphasized, making the reader aware of the unreliability of the narration, Nick is used to deliberately misguide and deceive us, suggesting that Fitzgerald wants to hide certain elements of Gatsby from us. Gatsby is presented as an idol (“there was something gorgeous about him” [G 6]) giving a strong sense of deliberate deception, a contrast with Tony, who only provides a mixture of confused memories in a blatantly unreliable account.
However, it is possible to argue that Barnes’ narrator does in fact attempt to deceive us by ‘forgetting’ to mention some important facts. His poor memory is an excuse (“my best memory.” [S 19]): “few other memories came back to me.” [S 35]. What perhaps makes us suspicious is how quickly he turns from moments of strong detail to a sense of confusing ambiguity. When Tony describes breakfast with Mrs Ford, we are told how “The remnants of the broken one were still in the pan; she flipped them casually into the swing-bin and half-threw the hot frying pan into the wet sink” [S 29]. However, he moves on to “When Veronica and the menfolk returned…” [S 29] without giving any timescale or detail of what happened in between, not unlike Nick’s fragmented account in Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby: “Beauty and the Beast… Loneliness… Old Grocery Horse… Brook’n Bridge…Then I was lying half-asleep.” [G 32]. Tony’s obfuscation may not seem relevant at the time; but after we discover Adrian’s affair with Mrs Ford, we are interested to know whether something happened between her and Tony, the sexual connotations of “fizzed” [S 29] and “steamed” [S 29] helping to back this argument up. Nick, meanwhile, is proven to be unreliable through his inconsistencies. In chapter 7 on the same page, Nick says “I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him.” [G 122]. However, just a few lines down, we are told that he “disapproved of him from beginning to end.” [G 122]. The contradictions suggest that Nick himself is conflicted. Being a normal man makes him tell some truth about his opinion on Gatsby, “Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” [G 5/6] However, Nick also wants to present Gatsby as being a “great” man (hence the title) and so attempts to cover up his “unheroic” (according to Claridge) qualities. Gatsby’s illegal activities are only implied, not explicitly explained as Peters describes: Gatsby is “a shadowy figure, built up from a series of chronologically disjointed rumours, anecdotes and brief impersonations.” There is stronger evidence therefore that Fitzgerald uses his narrator to deceive – Nick fails to “reserv[e] judgements” [G 5] as was previously promised. With Tony, however, we can only guess whether he has deliberately left facts out or whether the flaws of memory itself is the reason, “memory is what we thought we’d forgotten… time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.” [S 63]
In his NY Times review, Geoff Dyer describes Tony as “reliably unreliable.” Certainly he is set up in a way that we expect as an unreliable narrator of “history.” Tony’s own description is that his story will be “a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes… approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.” [S 4] Yet Barnes also signals we should mistrust any narrator whose own story is obscured, since “we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” [S 12] Both Nick and Tony are brief about their own lives, Tony saying “I met Margaret, we married and 3 years later Susie was born.” [S 54]. Nick, meanwhile says “I just remembered that today’s my birthday” [G 108] before swiftly changing the topic back to Gatsby. Should we then be concerned that Tony and Nick’s real lives are absent from their narratives? It can be read that neither narrator is “great” enough to be the center of his story – as Tony comments: “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.” [S 15] Dyer describes Tony as ‘in keeping with the national average’ and the same could be said of Nick. Neither enjoys a “novel-worthy” (S 15) life, so they look elsewhere for their material, becoming “onlookers and bystanders… important things could happen.” [S 15]
The two ‘heroes’ of the respective books are presented very differently, yet both presentations foster the sense of unreliability. Barnes makes Tony’s perception of Adrian that of a martyr (“He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought.” [S 53]) thanks to his suicide. This completely changes when the ‘truth’ is revealed: “I had to recalibrate Adrian, change him from a Camus… into what? No more than a version of Robson” [S 140-41]. Adrian becomes no better than the “unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic” [S 14] Robson. His ‘hero’ status disappears, and we realize that the image was unreliable: Adrian was presented as a martyr when he is, in fact, a fake. A similar situation arises in The Great Gatsby but not for the same reason. Gatsby is presented by Nick as a kind of god, “He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way” [G 20], someone people should worship because of his ‘rags to riches’ life: “Mr Nobody from Nowhere” [G 103] becoming great is the embodiment of the American Dream. However, like Adrian, he turns out to be a fake, as Pearson describes, he is a “false prophet of the American Dream.” However, unlike in The Sense of an Ending where Tony sees the light, Nick hides from the truth, preserving the god-like image. The direct reference to God comes in “the truth… that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God…” [G 78]. This is blatantly ironic. Gatsby is a bootlegger and a showman, barely better than the rumors which initially complete his character: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once” [G 34]. However, Gatsby also represents the American Dream and how corrupt it has become. Siniša Smiljanić says that ‘The fundamental presupposition that the American Dream can be achieved by anyone as long as they work hard turns out to be nothing more than a mere illusion, a lie intended to give people something to live for.’ This is fairly represented through Gatsby – just as he is a fake, so is the dream, because American society has yet to escape its colonial past. The setting, on the USA’s east coast, strengthens the links to traditional Europe. Tony shows unreliability in that he presents Adrian incorrectly “calibrat[ing]” (S 140) Adrian, but we are given his updated perspective. However, Nick’s epiphany remains hidden because Nick hides himself from the truth, thus his narrative turns out to be wholly unreliable with Gatsby’s darker side never truly investigated.
The nature of the narrators plays a key role here. If we explore the way in which they react to society around them, an interesting comparison can be made with T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). This poem has different links to each text. Comparing the poem with The Sense of an Ending, one can draw comparisons between the like-minded Tony and Prufrock. Prufrock seems always to doubt his ability to speak to women: “Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” We know that Tony struggled in this sense, saying in his first term at university “I just hung around and tried to make interesting remarks while expecting to mess things up” [S 20]. Both Nick and Tony suffer from Prufrockian social awkwardness, affecting their narrations. Their perspective simply observing instead of doing, being “peaceable” or “cowardly” [S 35] should help to give a more reliable narration. However, Eliot’s link with Gatsby is even stronger; Mike Ettner describes Fitzgerald as “a self-described enthusiastic worshipper of T. S. Eliot.” The Valley of Ashes seems an image directly inspired by ‘The Wasteland.’ (1922) The illusion to Eliot’s “…Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” is apparent when Nick makes reference to Catherine’s “bracelets which jingled up and down her arms” [G 26]. This is one example of how ‘oddly’ the narrators observe feminine beauty. Yet this connection to Prufrock is more important than just characterizing our narrators as social outcasts. Their inabilities to understand social situations lead to misinterpretations such as Tony’s inability to understand relationships, shown when he apparently breaks up with Veronica, then has sex with her and concludes “No” [G 37] when considering the longevity of the relationship. The same can be said of Nick, who seems unable to understand his relationship with Jordan: “We talked like that for a while, and then abruptly we weren’t talking any longer.” [G 123]. Here, Nick seems unable to fully grasp the concept of being in a relationship and so (for almost no apparent reason) puts to bed any idea that they could have been a couple.
However, Fitzgerald and Barnes teach us that even decentered narrators do more than simply describe what is happening. They are the ‘windows’ through which we view the text. Eliot’s poem is the meandering stream of consciousness of an emotionally paralyzed persona. It is his ‘love song’, yet it fails to live up to the expectations of this form, just as the protagonist fails to live up to the pretentious promise of his name. This then is the ultimate result of the narrators’ unreliability. The reader must recognize that what the texts promise is not always what they achieve. Fitzgerald promises us Gatsby the “great” man, yet Gatsby becomes a tainted hero. Barnes promises us the sense of an ending, but when Tony is forced to change his mind, to recognize that nothing makes up for a lack of testimony, we are left wondering if one “gets it” at all.
 Booth, (1983), p. 3  Ibid, p. 4  Fitzgerald, (2008), p. 8  Barnes, (2013), p. 80  Barnes, (2011), page 3  Claridge, (1993), p.8  Peters, (2003), p. 20  Dyer, (2011), NY Times Website  Ibid  Pearson, (1970), page 4  Smiljanić, (2011), page 2  Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, (2001) L66  Ettner, (2013), Mike Ettner’s Blog  Elliot, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (1920), L. 69
Eliot’s Poetic Techniques and the Character of J. Alfred Prufrock
The first factor of the poem which is striking is the title: the fact that it is a ‘Love Song’ suggest closeness and romance which is then removed by the way in which he signs his name. ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’ appears to be more personal than simply his surname because it is individual to him but at the same time it could be interpreted as somewhat formal due to its fullness. Something else which seems strange at first is the name itself; the ‘fr’ sounds give it a weak, possibly feminine sound which is similar to his personality.The man himself, Prufrock, is clearly quite eloquent and well educated but has problems with showing emotion and therefore finds relationships difficult. This is shown in the first three lines which being apparently romantically with mention ‘the evening… spread out against the sky’ in the second line but this image is corrupted by his attempt at a simile ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’. This use of a simile suggests education but the manner of it also outlines his lack of romance. Due to the fact that the poem is a ‘love song’ it would appear that Prufrock is referring to his lover when he says ‘Let us go then, you and I’, although he could also be talking directly to the reader.Despite the impressive build up with the title, the exert in Italian and the first couple of lines, the first verse is largely bathetic due to the disappointment and rapid descent of any idea of love. He speaks about ‘half deserted streets’ which simply suggests it may be late in the day or they are streets which people have no reason to be in. This is followed by the mention of ‘muttering retreats’ and ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’; these two phrases suggest that he may be visiting prostitutes in the back streets of the city which certainly leads the reader to question whether the speaker is trying to woo a lover or deter her. The ‘sawdust restaurants with oyster shells’ are not the sort one would imagine he could take a lover to and yet this seems to be what he is suggesting in the first line ‘let us go’. Throughout this he appears to be nervous or cautious due to his increasing use of plosives in words such as ‘muttering’, ‘tedious’ and ‘night’.There are two lines before the beginning of the second stanza which are repeated again in the poem ‘In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo’. These women are different to the prostitutes he has supposedly been seeing or, in fact, his lover and the fact that they ‘come and go’ show that he has little interest in them. They appear to be the women that he has to spend his time with, as a middle-class man who would be expected to talk to them, possibly at social gatherings or alike where he does not necessarily wish to. They seem to want to show their intelligence and education by ‘talking of Michelangelo’, choosing to talk about this shows that they are cultured although it is really simply small talk. The second stanza shows less about the speaker’s personality but does show a slightly different side to him. The descriptive first four lines of the stanza give it a comforting feel which is also the closest he gets to writing something with a taste of sensuality in the first two stanzas. The ‘fog that rubs its back’, ‘rubs its muzzle’ and ‘licked its tongue’ suggests animalisation of maybe a bear which seems to be a strange comparison to fog but one which the speaker is clearly happy to carry through three lines. This might suggest a certain stubbornness which could be caused by his anxiety and nervousness. We see this throughout the poem but a strong example would be his need to comfort himself later on in the second stanza. He repeats the phrase ‘there will be time’ in an attempt to reassure himself that he will have time to do all the things he feels he needs to do such as ‘create a face to meet the faces that you meet’. This line is also interesting as it suggests that he believes he is required to put up a front to anyone that he meets and this further implies his cautiousness and lack of social ability. The speaker feels pressured about his inadequacies because he thinks people are always looking at him or meeting him and judging him, usually because of his appearance. He suggests that his servants ‘who lift and drop a question on your plate’ might be mocking him behind his back. This is why he feels the need to prepare everything with great detail and he spends a long time doing so, the phrase ‘a hundred visions and revisions’ shows this because he is sure that he must get it perfectly right before continuing with anything such as ‘taking toast and tea’. This way of thinking forces him to question himself repeatedly; does he ‘dare’ approach a woman in case she may find some sort of inadequacy? Overall Prufrock is a very vivid character, one who is critical of himself due to his anxiousness and apparent shortfalls. This leads him, certainly in the first forty lines, to question many things, among which is his ability to have a relationship or perhaps even meet with women. `