Prufrock, Paralysis, and Pieces of the Modern City

February 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” depicts an image of the modern city that is marked by paralysis, alienation, decay, and repression. Prufrock is a modern man who can see the superficiality of the social values of middle class society, and yet lacks the will to break away from them and act on his desires. He can see the potential happiness that action would bring- the possible joy, love, and companionship – but is paralyzed and unable to perform any necessary action. Prufrock critiques modern society as a place where superficial social rituals prevail and where individuals are repressed, alienated, and detached from meaningful existence. The poem is narrated by a persona, Prufrock, who takes his audience not on a physical journey but rather one into his own mind, where he discloses his own desires yet ultimately accepts his own indecision and paralysis. Prufrock reveals his mental vision of urban life though fragmented and juxtaposed images which mirror the fragments of the ruined city.”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is written in the form of dramatic monologue, revealing the city to the reader through the representation of Prufrock’s psyche. Prufrock invites his audience to walk with him “through certain half-deserted streets” (4) and imagines himself ascending a woman’s staircase dressed fully with “collar mounting firmly to the chin,” (42) and yet there is no textual evidence that the world he presents exists anywhere but his own imagination. The world Prufrock presents extends only as far as the confines of his own mind, and the city that he describes is his own subjective view of the world. The poem’s title deceptively suggests the potentiality for happiness for Prufrock, but this notion is immediately undercut by the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno, where a character who is enclosed in flame agrees to talk about his life in hell to Dante. Similarly, Prufrock is trapped in his own inner hell of alienation and enervation and is sharing this world with his audience.The “you” who Prufrock addresses in the poem’s opening line is ambiguous; it may be a woman, or the reader, or even Prufrock’s own alter ego. Regardless of the identity of the addressee, the line, “Let us go then, you and I,” (1) is an actual invitation to take a journey of introspection through Prufrock’s personal hell.The poem is saturated with images of the modern world, images which reveal the alienation and decay of the modern world. The first two lines of the poem are rather romantic and resemble a real love song: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out across the sky” (1-2). However, the impossibility of the poem as a love song is established in the poem’s next line, where Prufrock compares the sky not to a romantic image but rather to a “patient etherised upon a table” (3). The former image is a romantic and pastoral one, while the latter reveals a colder, more scientific image which contains an unconscious figure on an operating table. The juxtaposition of these two images, from pastoral to urban, reveals the modern city’s decay into a place devoid of control and action, a place of paralysis. This image of paralysis reveals Prufrock’s own inability to take any action and his inability to relate to the beauty of the world.The third stanza contains more detailed features about the city Prufrock envisions. Prufrock describes the fog that descends upon the city as well as smoke, drains, chimneys, and terraces—all contributing to the dreary metropolis which houses “one-night cheap hotels” (6) and “sawdust restaurants” (7). The “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (15) and which licks “its tongue into the corners of the evening” (17) resembles a cat settling down to sleep. This image of a fog engulfing the city at once portrays the city as oppressive and claustrophobic, yet the sleeping cat also depicts the safety and comfort found in old routines which Prufrock cannot muster the will to change. The image of the cat is fragmented, recognizable as a cat only by its actions of licking, rubbing, and sleeping. The use of the color yellow further illustrates the breakdown of Prufrock’s city since yellow is the color of decay. This image adds to the impression of an etherized atmosphere and it is also highly reminiscent of a dream-like state, which lends credibility to the view that the city and what transpires there is a projection of Prufrock’s thoughts and does not exist in reality.Just as the seemingly etherized cat relates to the metaphor of paralysis, the image of Prufrock as a bug further illustrates his state of anguish and inability to escape absurd social customs. He envisions himself “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” (58) trapped by social conventions and constantly being watched by other members of society. This explains his excessive self-consciousness and worry about his appearance to others. The image of Prufrock fully dressed with “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (42) also seems restrictive and shows further the ways in which social mores are confining and oppressive. Prufrock finds the rituals of the upper middle class society, a world make up of “tea and cakes and ices” (79), completely inane. He finds the conversation of “the women [who] come and go / Talikng of Michelangelo” superficial and pretentious.Prufrock describes society in fragments of the domesticated world his actions, were he to take any, would interrupt, such as “the cups, the marmalade, the tea, / Among the porcelain” (87-88) and “the novels,…the teacups,…the skirts that trial along the floor” (102). In keeping with societal expectations, Prufrock has led an unfulfilling and controlled life: “I have measured my life with coffee spoons” (42). The image of coffee spoons captures the domestic routines that have trapped him. Although these social mores and rules of comportment are restrictive and eliminate individuality, Prufrock finds their familiarity oddly comforting and safe and cannot bring himself to break away from them.Further fragmentation occurs with the people in the poem. The woman who Prufrock imagines going to see is not given a face or a name, but is described in terms of body parts. Prufrock’s inability to describe the woman in full detail reflects his inability to confront her. By reducing her to body parts, he again evades confrontation with her and avoids rejection. In fact, all people in the poem are reduced to disembodied parts and actions. They are “the voices dying with a dying fall,” (52) the “faces that you meet,” (27) and the “hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate” (29-30). Only Prufrock himself is presented with any type of visual detail: “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—” (42-43). Yet even this image of Prufrock fully dressed is fragmented by the gaze of others into a bald spot and thin arms and legs.Prufrock is acutely self-conscious and consumed with trivial thoughts of his aging appearance: “(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)” (41)2E This concern about his appearance to others exists to such a high degree that he himself is not exempt from reduction into a collection of parts. He cannot exist in the gaze of others without being decomposed, so vain and weak is he. He is so self-conscious that his reality is the only one that he can see. Thus this imposed subjectivism, heightened by the need to conform to proper social roles, is the ultimate cause of his paralysis. He is afraid to take any course of action and risk disturbing the universe, illustrated by his desire that he was a crab “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” (74) which reflects his need to abstain from action, moving sideways as crabs do and thus avoiding direct confrontationJust as the people in Prufrock’s world are reduced to individual body parts, time also becomes a collection of fragmented parts through the shifting use of tense. The methodical confusion of tenses in the poem reveals the distorted relationship between past, present and future in Prufrock’s world. The different scenes are juxtaposed with no sequential fluidity. The poem begins in the seedy part of town which houses “cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants” (6-7) and is soon juxtaposed with the upper middle class setting of the room where “women come and go / Talking of Michangelo” (13-14). Prufrock begins by suggesting that he and his audience take a trip through the city and claims that “indeed there will be time” (37) to decide whether he wants to take action. In the next stanza the tense, along with Prufrock’s tone, changes as he claims that he has “known them all already, known them all” (49). This shift into the present perfect tense seems to cancel out the possibility of any future, for he is growing old and he has “known the evenings, mornings, afternoons” (50) and “known the arms already, known them all” (62). He goes on to ponder over the visit he previously suggested as if it is something in the distant past: “And would it have been worth it, after all, / Would it have been worth while” (99-100). Then, contemplating his impending old age, Prufrock muses over what he will do in the future: “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?” (119-121).Prufrock seems lost in fragments of his perception as his present, past and future lives all exist at once in his subjective universe. Trapped within his own mind, the opportunity for that which Prufrock wishes to happen has already passed, and so action is impossible. As a result, Prufrock accepts his inability to act upon his wishes and, among the closing images of the sea and singing mermaids which represent all of his sensual and instinctive desires, he states, “I do not think they will sing to me” (125). Prufrock metaphorically drowns among the “human voices” that he previously criticized as “the voices dying with a dying fall” (52), and he accepts the social roles that he finds so comfortable, yet so alienating.The breakdown and alienation of the modern city as Prufrock envisions it are represented by the fragmentation of mental images and time. These broken pieces of urban life can never be brought back together, for Prufrock, the modern man, is helpless to do so. He is trapped in a subjective bubble by his need to conform to the demands of society and by his own cowardice. The irony of Prufrock’s world is that he is aware of his own paralysis and inadequacy yet he lacks the will to rectify these things. He sees the possibilities for happiness and fulfillment but is paralyzed by self doubt and solipsistic self-consciousness. Prufrock is caught in a single moment in time, so completely overwhelmed by the prospect of “a hundred indecisions” (32) that he cannot bring himself to make them, and the result of his acknowledged and accepted paralysis is that the separate pieces of his perception remain in bits and fragments that he struggles with but is never able to combine. Prufrock represents the prototypical modern man whose thoughts reflect the fear, questioning, and overall stasis of activity and thought elicited by the period First World War. At this time, everyone’s world had changed in a profoundly frightening way, making the thought of more change all the more frightening. Enough had transpired in the modern world, especially in the large, urban cities.

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