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.
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