“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an extra-ordinary dramatic monologue by T S Eliot, a pioneer of a new literary trend of early twentieth century. In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” through the character of “J. Alfred Prufrock”, a modern man, the poet portrays a modern man’s mental crisis of so called urban civilization.
The main theme of the poem is modern man’s mental restlessness in the Europe during the First World War, tension and conflict between passion and cowardice; his irresolution and frustration. Here J. Alfred Prufrock is the representative of modern man. Prufrock is an embodiment of split personality – a separation of head and heart, a paralysis of the will and too much worry regarding a love proposal. The poem marks a complete break of the modern civilization with all its ugliness – the never ending streets, smoking chimneys, yellow fog, dirty drains and smell of female bodies. It is urban in its theme and setting. In a series of paragraphs the lover analysis the reason for a resolution and indecision and tries to justify his cowardice and lack of nerves. Behind this, mental state is a disease of modern routine – the aimless life of the city dwellers and the monotonous sound of social parties.
In the very beginning of the poem, we see the mental condition of a modern city man revealing through some symbols and images that is equally expressive of the sordidness of modern civilization.
“When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;”
Prufrock is one of the victims of modern civilization. His neurotic nature, his inability to face the problems of life is reflected in his delay and procrastination. He thinks he has a lot of time to take a decision if any –
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Prufrock refers to Hamlet and this enables to understand his psychological malady. He is like Polonius, middle-aged, conscious of his position, though doubled-headed and sometimes ridiculous. Though he is old he wants to appear young with the latest clothes. Prufrock is unable to face the problems of life. He seeks an escape to a romantic world. He is dreaming about the mermaids and the sea-weaves, when he is awakened by the human voices around. The realities of life cannot leave him, although he is unable to face them. The poem highlights the dilemma and indecisiveness as well as the squalor and barrenness of modern urban civilization.
Prufrock’s affairs with women are a device to escape the loneliness of his life. Like other lonely man he desires company and yet he is unable to communicate.
“And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
Indeed, Prufrock is so hopeless and annoyed at the modern life that he wants to escape from the real world. As he says:
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Prufrock is bored by the mechanical routine by the trivialities of social life by his own indecision, by his own interests and laziness, which is again symptomatic of the meaninglessness of modern civilization. There is a lurking death wish ‘and we drown’, a desire to escape from reality. His intellectualism and sensitiveness has also sapped the source of his emotionalism.
Prufrock suffers from a spiritual paralysis. He is sterile and inert, for anything requires an effort. His intellectualism has sapped his vitality and potentiality for action. This is the condition of the modern man living in a commercialized society. Eliot very perfectly shows us the restless mental situation of modern man through the character of “J. Alfred Prufrock”.