Modernist Disillusionment in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Exploring the profound shifts in societal perspectives, the modernist literary movement emerged as a response to the disillusionment of a Lost Generation affected by industrialization and war trauma. Unlike the preceding romantic period, modernist literature, often marked by cynical or detached tones, delved into internal conflicts. T.S Eliot, a luminary of the movement, exemplified modernist themes through his poetry, with "The Love Song of J.

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Alfred Prufrock" standing as a poignant exploration of personal anxiety and stagnation within the broader context of modernization.

Repetition as an Expression of Self-Doubt

In dissecting T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one encounters a poignant use of repetition as a vehicle for expressing the speaker's self-doubt and insecurities. The poem intricately focuses on the protagonist's incapacity to engage with women, a microcosm of his fragile self-esteem within a rapidly changing society. The speaker's refrain, "In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo" (lines 13-14), disrupts his hypothetical dialogue with the woman he adores.

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This inability to approach women is rooted in intimidation, a reflection of the evolving societal landscape where women emerge as more educated and independent figures. The speaker's self-questioning, as seen in the repetition of "How should I presume?" (line 54), follows memories of past rejections, eroding his resolve to pursue romantic connections. This repetition becomes a significant element, showcasing the speaker's contemplation of his role in society, a recurring theme in modernist literature.

Allusions as a Modernist Skepticism of Tradition

T.S. Eliot weaves a tapestry of literary allusions in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a hallmark of modernist skepticism towards tradition. Drawing inspiration from diverse sources, including the Bible, Dante, Chaucer, and Greek philosophers, Eliot places particular emphasis on Shakespeare. In a striking stanza, the speaker laments, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two" (lines 111-113). Here, the speaker grapples with a sense of personal powerlessness, envisioning himself merely as an extension of others, destined for a supporting role. This introspective acknowledgment mirrors the overarching theme of modernism, where classical allusions serve not to glorify the past but to question the present, revealing the speaker's perceived inadequacy and unattainable aspirations.

Connection between Fear of Inadequacy and Existential Crisis

The intricate layers of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" unravel a profound connection between the speaker's fear of inadequacy in romantic pursuits and a broader existential crisis. As the speaker attempts to summon the courage to pursue romantic interests, he resigns, "I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter; I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid" (lines 83-86). The speaker, grappling with social awkwardness, perceives it not merely as situational but as the defining narrative of his life. Each failed interaction magnifies a sense of life's insignificance, with fleeting instances of success. Death, personified as the "eternal Footman," becomes a mocking specter, paralleling the imagined mockery by women. Through this vivid imagery, the speaker links romantic insecurity with existential angst, embodying the nuanced implications of modernist thought.

Modernist Focus on Internal Mind

Distinct from its predecessors, modernist literature, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," redirects its gaze inward, delving into the internal mind rather than the external world. Although external societal issues such as industrialization, imperialism, and war serve as significant influences, the modernist style primarily concentrates on the personal psyche. Departing from conventional structures, modernist literary works often adopt forms like stream-of-consciousness or, in this case, dramatic monologue with minimal interpersonal dialogue. By internalizing the narrative, modernism seeks to expose the profound impact of the external world on individual body and mind. The enduring relevance of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" lies in its ability to intimately connect readers with the speaker's internal conflicts, fostering an understanding of the external conflicts prevalent in the early 20th century.


In conclusion, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" emerges as a quintessential representation of modernist disillusionment. Through masterful employment of repetition, allusion, and introspection, Eliot encapsulates the speaker's personal anxieties within the broader context of societal shifts. The poem becomes a conduit for readers to navigate the intricate interplay between the internal and external conflicts of the modernist era. As we traverse the contours of the speaker's psyche, we unravel the intricate layers of disillusionment that defined an era, making "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" a timeless testament to the enduring legacy of modernist thought.

Updated: Jan 02, 2024
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Modernist Disillusionment in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. (2019, Aug 19). Retrieved from

Modernist Disillusionment in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” essay
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