“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot is one of most widely anthologized poems of the twentieth century. Upon reading the poem, this fact does not at all seem surprising. At first glance, the poem is extremely cryptic in its meaning and message. However, by analyzing the literary techniques that Eliot employs, such as diction, repetition, and allusion reveals the poems central message declaring that social rejection and a lack of initiative yields a life devoid of meaning and results in a lethargic and paranoid mental state, a mental hell.
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Another of Eliot’s techniques is the use of repetition of certain motifs, which serves emphasize the ideas discussed previously. Prufrock constantly mentions an excess of “time” (21). Accompanied with the words vision, revision, and indecision, his message becomes clear. He is avoiding the confrontation with the woman he seeks, citing that there will be plenty of time for him to try again. The oppression that he undergoes causes a perceived elongation of time. Because time passes so slowly for Prufrock, he feels that he will have more time to overcome his fears. Furthermore, because Prufrock believes his life is pointless, he will never have any outstanding obligations and will always be free to try and fail again. Prufrock, moreover, repeatedly asks himself the same question, “Do I dare?” (44). The repetition in itself shows Prufrock’s indecisiveness because he needs to repeat things to himself to come up with a decision. However, by repeating the rhetorical question, the effect is multiplied, magnifying his inability to make up his mind and his lack of confidence in himself. Also, the question shows the degeneration of his mental state. While at first, Prufrock’s concerns are much more grand in nature (the universe), eventually his confidence and self assurance deteriorates in such a large manner that he even begins to question if he should even “eat a peach” (122). Finally, Prufrock mentions a number of times that he has “known” (49) everything. Prufrock expresses his lethargy and his discontent with the life that he leads. He has experienced all that could come with his uneventful, unexciting life style. With the heavy repetition in “Prufrock,” it becomes clear that has simply grown tired of suffering through the life that he lives.
Another crucial element that Eliot uses in his poem is that of allusion. In the very beginning of the poem, Eliot utilizes a portion of Dante’s Inferno. Prufrock voices these lines because he is in his own mental damnation and realizes there is no way out of his situation. He believes that few will listen to his story, and those who do suffer a similar fate as he does. Then, he alludes to John the Baptist when he says “I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter” (82). In this simply declaration, two facts are affirmed. Prufrock deems his existence aimless as he states that he has already been decapitated and loves no more. Also, he contrasts himself from the prophet because firstly, he is not and will never even be desired by women and secondly, that he will never lose his head in any glorious or majestic act like the prophet did. Finally, Eliot alludes to Lazarus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He distances himself from Lazarus and states that he is “not Prince Hamlet” but instead is the “attendant lordâ€¦the fool” (111,112,119). Prufrock separates himself from the heroic savoir, Lazarus, and Hamlet, who although mired by insecurity and hesitation, eventually brings himself to take action, and compares himself to Polonius, who dies in old age as a bumbling fool. Prufrock, unlike Hamlet, will never disrupt the world to avenge its evils and rectify wrongdoings. He recognizes his own impotence, and accepts his fate to be a passionless old man and to live a bleak, insubstantial life. Prufrock mentions these heroic figures to serve as a stark contrast to himself. He acknowledges that he will forever languish through a life that will lack purpose.
The diction, repetition and allusions in “Prufrock” all contribute to one central message. Prufrock, constantly afraid of rejection from women and insecure about himself, lives a life with no meaning. He simultaneously has grown weary of such a passionless life and has also grown to expect such a similar fate. Such a state of mind has caused Prufrock to cage himself in a mental hell: unsatisfied with his life, and too apprehensive to do anything to change it. While Prufrock’s plight invokes pity, Eliot seems to be expressing a state that is universal at one point in life. Although, the levels of emotion may never match the intensity of those that Prufrock experiences, everyone will eventually undergo a similar period of mental torment.
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