T.S. Eliot’s title character in “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” questions whether he should attend a social gathering, his insecurities toward facing women as a single man one cause of his hesitation. However, in examining Prufrock’s argument for avoiding the party, one discovers that his distress is not truly due to his intense feelings or his shyness towards a specific woman or even women in general. Prufrock’s anxiety lies not with the prospect of a relationship but with the acknowledgement of his aging self and of society’s perception of what a full life coming to its end should entail. Prufrock’s many character traits reveal him as a man whose main concern is with the passing of time.
Prufrock’s obsession with the time he has left to life is apparent in his insistence that he is an older man. His psychological and emotional traits find their roots in the physical and the visual because it is his outside layer which is exposed for judgment. While Prufrock may have encountered individuals who degraded him for his appearance, it is Prufrock, himself, who is constantly aware of the flaws of age, and it is his own insecurity with his appearance which leads him to conclude that others view him the same way:
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’) (37-44)
Prufrock imagines what the other guests will say about him and none of the imagined exclamations involve who Prufrock was as a younger man or state that Prufrock simply has lower taste or a personality flaw; Prufrock imagines the guests will point out the faults which have developed due to his age. His insecurities about his out-of-date dress come from his current state, what he wears to the party, but the imagined responses from the guests at the party concern what he can not fix, his bald spot and the loss of muscle in his limbs which occurs as humans lose their youthful roundness. The way Prufrock views himself, as well as the way Prufrock believes the world views his body, and his behavior reveals his anguish toward aging, in turn his unease with the passing of time.
Prufrock’s anxiety is not limited to the physical evidence of his body’s aging but also appears in his mental obsession with time itself. Eliot writes Prufrock’s dramatic monologue with precision, capturing Prufrock’s worry in even the slightest repetition. One example of Prufrock’s obsession leaking through his unconsciousness and spilling out in his monologue is the repetition of the word “And” at the beginning of twenty-one lines and of the word “all” at the end of several lines. Prufrock’s use of “And” shows the passage of time as the poem follows a linear story, but “And” disappears from the beginning of lines during the last segment as Prufrock hints at life coming to its end. Interestingly, the repetition of “all” appears most concentrated before this segment, perhaps as a note that at the end of the poem, at the end of life, “all” is accounted for and examined as an accumulation of the body of work’s worth. Prufrock regrets that at his old age, his “all” amounts to very little: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;” (51).
Several of Prufrock’s other repetitions also reveal his concern with time. The most obvious repetition concerning his feelings toward age is the repetition in line 120, “I grow old . . . I grow old…” However, the repetition which initially provides the evidence of Prufrock’s concern with time is the insistent notion that “there will time” (23, 26, 28, 37). The words alone might convince one that Prufrock does not worry about time, but upon examination, the opposite is true. “There will time” is an ironic allusion to Andrew Marvell’s seduction poem “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem in which a man attempts to seduce a woman by noting that there isn’t enough time to wait, in essence attempting to convince her that life is short so one should take immediate action in order to live out every moment. Prufrock’s insistence that he has time is a way of making his procrastination excusable, but he repeats the words in an attempt to convince himself that he does have time. Like Marvell’s narrator, Prufrock is using the echo as a means of persuasion; though, Prufrock is attempting to convince himself instead of a woman. If Prufrock had no concern for time, he would not have to convince himself of as much.
Another repetition appears when Prufrock discusses the unfortunate prospect of having to be examined by the eyes of the female guests at the party and when he inserts his own recollections of what the women look like. He repeats the word “known,” ending two lines with “known them all-” (55, 62). To have known something is to have already lived through an experience, so, in this case, one can assume that Prufrock is once again concentrating on the passage of time by elaborating that he has experienced people and social gatherings to the point of predictability. A similar repetition which exhibits a concern for time comes in an earlier line when Prufrock predicts what the women will be doing at the party: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” (13-14, 35-36). Aside from the element of predictability, Prufrock also uses the words “come and go” which is further evidence of events in Prufrock’s life passing him by as he ages. The reference to Michelangelo does not simply allow for the idea that the women are discussing art and trends but also hints at Prufrock’s concept of what the women speak in favor of-Michelangelo is a historical figure who was able to leave a legacy of art behind. Prufrock has no such legacy and appears hopeless that he will ever leave his own mark in time or be the object of favorable discussion amongst the women.
While these repetitions are evidence of Prufrock’s subconscious obsession with time, Prufrock also makes several allusions associated with aging and with a life coming to a close. One such allusion appears with Prufrock’s reference to John to Baptist’s murder: “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/ I am no prophet-and here’s no great matter;” (82-83). Another allusion comes after Prufrock’s imagined reaction from the woman he would approach at the party: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress […]” (111-113). In both allusions, Prufrock tells what he is not, and in examining what Prufrock is not and including the idea that Prufrock is unhappy with his aging self, one can discover what Prufrock’s concerns are and what he needs to feel satisfied. Prufrock is not simply stating a fact in these lines; it is already obvious that he is neither a prophet nor the fictional Hamlet. Prufrock examines what he is missing from his life through these conclusions. A prophet has a relationship with time through prophecy and through people remembering his prophesying, just as Hamlet is remembered through his tragic actions. Much like Prufrock’s reference to Michelangelo, both of these allusions concern individuals who conquer time by living on through their achievements; Prufrock’s achievement could be obtained by having a wife to carry on his name and his legacy, but he doubts he will ever have such an achievement due to his dwindling years. Also, Hamlet and John the Baptist were both taken before a natural end, unlike Prufrock who is given years to suffer from the effects of aging.
Aside from the Biblical and Shakespearean allusions, another allusion which is never fully recognized reveals Prufrock’s concerns about aging. In the last segment, within the last four stanzas, as Prufrock walks along the beach, imagining mermaids, there is an allusion to tales of sirens calling sailors out to sea. Sadly, Prufrock says, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” (125). One could interpret this allusion as an echo of a segment from The Odyssey in which Odysseus is isolated on an island with the sea nymph Calypso who wants the warrior to remain with her as her lover and promises him immortality if he stays. In considering Calypso and Odysseus, Prufrock’s woe toward the sirens is cemented by his inability to have a lover who wants to be with him, much less a way of becoming immortal, even through the achievement of companionship. Prufrock has no Calypso to call him out to sea and give him eternal life, and he has no Penelope to lure him back to land with the promise of a life fulfilled. Prufrock, it would appear, is no Odysseus, Hamlet, or prophet. Prufrock has lost his repetition of “all” by this final allusion and the accumulation of his life is simply the aging man’s anticipation of impending death: “[…] and we drown.” (131).
Eliot’s Prufrock is characterized by his inability to act and his insecurities, but it is his need for a fulfilled life and his anxiety toward watching his time disappear which establishes him as a tragic case of life coming to its twilight era too soon. Prufrock’s age would not be his concern if he was able to take action, but it is his fear of being rejected due to his age which stops him from obtaining a companion and security in his future. Prufrock is drawn to “dare” (38) because his time for action is fading, yet it is time which aged him, instilling in him the worry that stops him from taking action-time conquers J. Alfred Prufrock.