Without a doubt, T.S. Eliot is one of the most important figures of English literature. In the world of poetry he towers even more. One of the Eliot’s best known works is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which at the time of its publication was even considered as one of the most important events in the history of English poetry (Lowe, 1). This must not comes as a surprise bearing in mind the fact that there is something radical about the poem as if Eliot was saying that he intends to do something new; something never done before.
He succeeded to a great extent and he wrote a poem that is haunting in its powerful way of describing an unhealthy form of rigid self-examination because the main character is the ultimate representative of all those who are self-conscious to a fault. J. Alfred Prufrock’s extreme self-consciousness greatly affected his personality and his relationship with others especially to the one he loves.
The problem of J. Alfred Prufrock can be further simplified into the following:
1. He was a an extremely self-conscious man; and
2. He was an extremely self-conscious lover
Being a very self-conscious man will already create serious problems for Prufrock but if he will add “self-conscious lover” to his resume then he is in for a big trouble. A self-conscious man is already struggling with low self-esteem, immobilized by analysis paralysis and wasting time second guessing himself but if he becomes a lover his anxieties is taken to the next level. But before going any further it is better to start understanding Prufrock as a man.
A Self-conscious Man
There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of self-consciousness. This prevents a person from thinking too highly about himself and saves him from the destructive forces of pride and other narcissistic behavior. Being self-conscious is the mark of a wise man making him sensitive to others around him and he will always do his best to look presentable and try as much as he can not to offend anyone. But there is also the extreme side of being self-conscious. Robert Cook was correct when he remarked that there is such a thing as an “excess of consciousness” or as Cook would like to put it, an “unhealthy self-consciousness” (224). He was talking about Prufrock, the literary character who expertly demonstrated how to behave in such extremes.
It can be argued that one of the root causes of extreme self-consciousness is fear. Fear of being rejected, fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of betrayal, fear of pain and so much more. But trying to insulate a person’s life from these tragedies may help him to avoid specific setbacks but it does not guarantee happiness or experiencing life to the fullest. So Prufrock will now have to choose between protecting himself from pain or the chance of becoming self-fulfilled and most importantly the chance to be with the person that he loves. For many it is a no-brainer question; they will take a chance than to forever regret not risking anything and therefore losing everything.
Prufrock’s timidity was expertly hidden by the use of his intellect. He justifies his pathetic existence by the superiority of his reasoning. Beginning in lines 26 Prufrock believed in his own delusion and he said:
There will be time, there will be time
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea
Prufrock could be forgiven if he is dealing with life and death situations that require careful planning and analysis. Everyone will understand if he was contemplating on a career change or deciding to marry someone or not. But most of the time his problems are as simple as deciding to go out or not or to eat a piece a fruit or refrain from doing so. It requires decision to do such things but a normal person will do it in a snap, not to brood over it for days; and not spending so much time over it that he can even write a poem describing his thought process.
A Self-conscious Lover
It was made clear that this poem should focus on love, particularly the love between a man and a woman. In order to direct the focus of the reader to this subject matter Eliot made sure that the title should inform that this is a love song, a heartfelt song from Prufrock to his lover. Moreover, Eliot introduces the poem using the words from perhaps the greatest lover of all, Dante who went to hell and back for the love of his life Beatrice (McCormick, 108). There is only one difficulty with that assertion – it is hard to see the ramblings of the self-tortured man as a love song. How could he win his lover through the use of such language? Is there a woman out there who will be flattered by his inability to act decisively? Maybe Prufrock was looking for a female version of a self-doubter like him.
As mentioned earlier, being a self-conscious man is enough to bring trouble to a man but if the same person falls in love; his world will totally turn upside down. Being self-conscious means the inability to decide if he will move forward or backward. A man in love will only feel one action and it is moving forward, the natural reaction of a man is attracted to a lovely thing. It is a natural behavior when a man is drawn to a beautiful woman. One could just imagine the conflict raging on inside Prufrock, his natural tendencies forces him to move in circles while his heart pushes him to move forward. It is like sliding down a slippery slope and one tries to stop the downhill slide with bare hands. It is painful and not a wise move. Prufrock already had enough on his plate dealing with mundane things but when love entered the picture he was totally overwhelmed from extreme self-consciousness.
In line 55, in one of the most revealing part of the poem, Prufrock tells of his insecurity in the presence of other people:
And I have known the arms 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,
Then how should I begin?
Prufrock sees himself like a specimen being studied closely by others. He may be right that there are those who make it their business to gossip and spread lies against other people, but life should not be lived that way and that there is no excuse for his behavior. Yet Prufrock refuses to change his mind.
Prufrock felt like he was about to ram against a wall. The wall of criticism is standing between him and his lady love. The critics are many and they surround him. He felt that he was like someone pinned to the wall while the rich and powerful ladies are circling around and examining his limited capabilities and mediocre appearance. On the other hand he felt something inside him that encourages him to leap beyond the wall and by doing so win the love of a woman.
At the end Prufrock was convinced that he does not have what it takes to confront the inner voices that tell him he was not good enough. He decided to quit the fight. He rationalizes that it is not worth it and that there is no use delaying the inevitable and for him there is no sense in struggling when he knew perfectly well that at the end he will lose the fight. At the end nothing of value can be seen except that the life of J. Alfred Prufrock serves as an example to what awaits a man with an unhealthy sense of consciousness.