Do you ever feel that people are looking at you funny? Talking about you behind your back? But you can’t tell whether you’re overthinking things or if people are actually speaking ill of you?
Meet J. Alfred Prufrock, the spirit of social anxiety, self-consciousness, and social awkwardness.
Written by T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, well, a personalized love song by and for the poem’s narrative writer, Prufrock himself. Think of it as Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift writing a song about their woes to themselves (Where are you now? / What do you mean? / Shake it off…)
That’s how insecure the protagonist of the poem is. Prufrock wants someone to care about him, to notice him, and to see what he sees and interprets. The only person who can do that, though, is him.
The poem, along with other works from the early 20th century, is on the syllabus of Professor Geoff Hamilton’s Twentieth Century American Literature class. What is interesting about Hamilton’s class is that all the students have the opportunity to share their thoughts on a work first, and the grand reveal, or interpretation, is left to the end of the analysis.
From the start of Eliot’s poem, there is unease and uncertainty, a common theme during the modernist 20th century era. Beginning with an Italian excerpt from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Eliot writes of the uncertainty of knowledge and whether escape from this life is possible. That is what “Prufrock” is about: escaping the uncertainty of the world, its industry, and its lifestyle.
Prufrock speaks about himself declining in fertility, in age, in power, and in emotion. He worries about people seeing his bald spot or the way his legs seem too thin. Prufrock is among the masses of people who notice not him, who lives in the present, but rather relics of the past, like Michelangelo. What has Prufrock contributed to this world other than his own internal worries?
His enemy is that which is unstoppable: modernism. Modernity has stunted the profundity of all things in the new world. There is music, there are movies (but no “talkies” yet), and there are automobiles and industry. Suddenly, he becomes one of an uncountable many. He feels lost in the world as well as lost to himself.
The poem makes you want to meet Prufrock and give him a tap on the shoulder and say, “It’s all right, buddy, you’re gonna be okay.” But how do we know? Perhaps even we, 100 years after this poem was written, still feel like Prufrock. One among the thousands, millions, billions, wherever we go. Just one number among countless others.
Was Prufrock depicting the future emotions of those capable enough of seeing the truth? Who knows… But still, even today, the people “come and go / talking of Michelangelo”.