Disturbing the Universe: Mental Illness in Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Art is a subjective and diverse amalgamation of mediums. Despite the vast array of differences, there is a heavy overlap of thematic elements. One of these recurrent themes is mental illness, and specifically its negative representation. Since the Ancient Greeks, maladies of the psyche have faced terrible persecution and stigmatization. Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) posited the notion of deficiency of the four humours. This theory proposed that mental instability was a result of the human body lacking various bodily fluids which altered the way a person understood and interacted with the world. Despite the fact that human understanding of psychological afflictions has grown significantly, the mysteries of such conditions is present within our society and our art. From the tragedies of Sophocles to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, mentally ill artists have assisted neurotypical people in their attempts to understand what it is like and how the world changes with mental illness. One of the best examples of this is Modernist poet T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The fragmented, off-putting narrative style and vivid yet alienating imagery help to establish the poem as both an excellent example of mental illness as a thematic element and a recreation of the thought processes of a tormented mind.
The tone of discomfort is put forth in the poem immediately; to open his piece, Eliot lead with an epigraph from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian, the translation of which reads as such: ‘If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed.’This initial excerpt of prose, both without context and in a different language than the rest of the poem, helps establish a feeling of inconsistency and confusion which is present through the rest of the work. Additionally, when considering the excerpt’s source, it could also be referential to a journey through Prufrock’s own personal hell. Despite this conscious literary choice to include this (for reasons unknown), the rest of the poem follows an unsettling stream of consciousness format, which seems invariably uncertain in nature. The reader enters the mind of a man, presumably J. Alfred Prufrock, who is rife with dissatisfaction and an evident inability to concentrate. Prufrock also presents an obvious anxiety within the sexually driven atmosphere he lives in through his constant questioning of his actions and motives (“do I dare?”), giving a perpetual feeling of imminent crisis among the debauchery and decadence. Eliot bobs and weaves through these thoughts, grazing each but never examining or fully explaining any. Because of this erratic narration and Vonnegut-esque temporal shiftings, it is difficult for the reader to place where, when, or even what exactly the piece is set. There is no linearity or discernable structure to the narrative; in both execution and style, the poem is meant to be confusing. Prufrock shows a marked disinterest and lack of enthusiasm for the world around him, a disillusionment for the high society life he lurks in. Confused thinking, social withdrawal, and delusions are all markers for mental illness. In addition, there is a sense of monotony and sameness through the shifting periods of his life, as if it is passing all at once but not at all. This loss of meaning, as it were, could be a nod at the pervasive emptiness which is associated with major depressive disorder specifically. Prufrock also shows a preoccupation with the concepts of death and loneliness, both of which are present in the observation of him having “seen the eternal Footman hold [his] coat, and snicker”; he is heavily aware of his mortality, and it frightens him. He is always afraid, and always feeling misunderstood. This perceived “Otherness” mirrors the internal struggles of individuals with mental illness, making “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” successful in its presentation of mental illness as a theme.
Imagery also plays a role in the alienation of the readers. Regardless of not having a concrete setting in the traditional sense, there is an array of vague atmospheres which flicker in and out of frame. As the poem opens, we are greeted with the description of a seedy, gritty somewhere, which reads:”Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,The muttering retreatsOf restless nights in one-night cheap hotelsAnd sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”There is a clear debauched and debased tone to this excerpt, which paints a bleak picture of the backstreet existence which Prufrock lives. It is clear contextually that this is not a neighbourhood which one would wish to find themselves in. Despite this bleakness, we are also presented with a recurrent theme of yellow fog, a deceptively cheerful colour outside of this context. However, this “yellow smoke” simply adds to the anxiety of the piece. Yellow in excess, due to its brightness and how easily it draws in the eye, can be both disorienting and nauseating. Eliot’s choice to emphasize the colour yellow, and to present it in an almost feline manner, brings attention to its silence and stealth. The colour yellow itself also further drives in the visualization of a sprawling industrial landscape, run down and polluted (metaphorically and literally). Prufrock’s world is dirty, from the air to the inhabitants.
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