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Critical Essay by Shyamal Bagchee
SOURCE: "'Prufrock': An Absurdist View of the Poem," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 430-43.
In the following essay, Bagchee argues that "Prufrock" should be reinterpreted in terms of post-modern theories.
The aim of this article is to reclaim one of T. S. Eliot's most celebrated poems as a truly modern poem: as poetry that is as significant in our post-Modernist times as it was in 1915 when it was published at the beginning of the Modernist movement in Anglo-American literature. For much too long it has been admired and interpreted mainly from narrowly Modernist or Eliotic perspectives. Most existing readings of the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" ridicule the poem's main character for his timidity and self-deception. He is blamed for surrendering too easily to the petty vanities encouraged by a shallow and self-conscious society. The poem is admired mainly for its supposedly Modernist irony and its stylistic innovations. It seems to me that this "standard" approach fails to explain the poem's strange and powerful hold on the imagination of twentieth-century readers. There is an inexplicable gap between the critics' high-minded rejection of Prufrock and his world, and the incontrovertible appeal of the poem itself. The important concerns of the poem are those of the central character, yet critics have continually berated that character.
The view that Prufrock is a damned soul or a morally flawed character is popular also because it ties in well with the moral and religious concerns of Eliot's later writings. But this acceptance of the "integrity" of Eliot's oeuvre, though attractive in its neatness, tends to make us overlook significant differences between the poems. Today Eliot scholarship has advanced far enough for us to demand an analytical rather than a synthesized view. By making the right distinctions between the various kinds of creative impulses which inform the different poems we will better understand the poet.
In view of the continued appeal of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land at a time when Modernist poetic ideals have fallen in general disfavour, one may perhaps rightly conclude that in spite of certain superficial affinities with the deliberately iconoclastic and abrasive poetry of the early Modernist period, these poems never really belonged to that literary school or period. I think it can be profitable to examine Eliot's poetry from such post-Modernistic positions as the Existentialist and Absurdist. The poems indicate the inadequacy of reason and morality to make sense of our experience. "Prufrock," in particular, depicts a rational, sensitive, and sensual individual's exasperatingly pointless encounter with reality. The poet seems unable to suggest a path that will lead to sense and will impose some meaning upon experience.
Given Eliot's natural inclinations (which were towards order, some system of belief whether literary or religious) it is difficult to believe that he would ever have accepted this absurdist stance as the final view of life. Therefore, it is not surprising that Eliot did not write about an absurdist view in his prose criticism. For him the ideal was always a system of order, but his poetry was not merely the versification of what he thought; it embodied his experience of reality. On the one hand, Eliot was far too sensitive to be able to ignore the pervasive and painful irrationality of the world around him; on the other hand, he was not one who could, like Yeats and Lawrence, fight that reality passionately and imaginatively. Eliot must be seen apart from other writers who underwent the modern experience. He did not have Joyce's fine sense of proportion about the absurd which gave Ulysses its moral-comedic vitality. Neither was he temperamentally equipped to persist indefinitely in a view of amoral-irrationality; therefore, he did not develop into a writer like Kafka. Eventually Eliot had to discover tradition and religion as his symbols for order, but in these early poems he was mainly free from religious predilections and was close to the world of the absurd. It cannot be said that he was ever quite convinced about the inevitability of the absurd world (though he was surely, for the time being, painfully aware of its inexorability); for this reason he never became a co-medic-nihilist like Samuel Beckett.
"Prufrock" is more an inconclusive question (both for the protagonist and the poet) than it is a solution effected through social or moral satire. The poem does not invite us to force an absolute distinction between the poet and the protagonist; rather it invites us to regard Prufrock as a likely mask for the poet and for many of the poem's readers—the deliberately conflated "us" in the opening line.
What I would like to suggest is that Prufrock should be regarded as Eliot's Everyman. Of course, Everyman is never really every man and Eliot's is no exception. What makes Prufrock an Everyman is that in him acceptable notions of the self, of both the poet and the reader, find expression. Needless to say Everyman is not a heroic character; but this Everyman, being the Everyman of a particularly sensitive, learned, literary-minded, intelligent poet, is at least a special person. So is, in a way, the ideal reader of Eliot's poetry.
Far from being a damned soul, or a social nincompoop, Prufrock is actually quite admirable, especially when we contrast him against his social milieu. Moreover, Prufrock proves himself capable of describing and interpreting astutely the moral pointlessness of the world in which he lives.
It has often been pointed out that the poem highlights lack of communication between individuals, and that Prufrock's main guilt is his refusal or inability to sing his "love song." However, throughout the poem it is Prufrock who worries most about the impossibility of such communication. Prufrock's most urgent wish is to convey his feelings. He is the most humane of Eliot's early protagonists and is flanked on one side by the silent and solipsistic Narcissus ("stifled and soothed by his own rhythm"), and on the other by the pathetic and gregarious lady of "Portrait of a Lady." Prufrock does not sing his "love song." But this is not because he wants to remain aloof from people who surround him. Rather, unlike the lady, he is acutely conscious of the insensitivity and callousness of his society and can see the futility of expressing his true feelings. Whatever else the unuttered "love song" may be, the bit of it that is actually verbalized by Prufrock is neither solipsistic nor lofty in any philosophical sense. In fact these are words that try to reach out to other people, words that are pregnant with great sympathy for fellow human beings:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?
We should pay particular attention to these lines. Within the poem's fragmented narrative framework, they represent Prufrock's first tentative formulation of the song. For most readers these lines are overshadowed by the more transparently rhetorical hyperbole of Prufrock's rehearsing of his "speech" a few lines later:
"I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
That this is really a "speech," or the beginning of one, is indicated by the inverted commas used to emphasize its theatricality. This "speech" has no thematic substance at all; it gives no indication of what it is that is bothering Prufrock; it is merely a pose, deliberate histrionics.
By contrast, in the earlier quotation Prufrock attempts to bring to the attention of a gregarious but uncaring society the real sense of isolation, of loneliness, that exists under the surface. It is not necessary to assume that this loneliness affects only the protagonist who loves to luxuriate in imagined suffering and eventually becomes an enervated solip-sist through sentimental overindulgence. What makes the poem relevant to our age is our recognition of both the validity of what Prufrock wants to say and of the fact that the women in the room will never really understand what he means. In fact what Prufrock wants to say in these lines is echoed by Eliot in "Morning at the Window" and "Preludes," two of the most compassionate of his early poems. In "Preludes IV" an "I" voice, who is probably the poet himself, confesses:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Critics often point to these lines when they seek to defend Eliot from charges of indiscriminate irony and lack of human sympathy. I think Prufrock's lines belong with these. But Prufrock is not a poet, he is merely the poet's Everyman. The poet is in a special sense a hero, a creator; he can live through the images he creates. To Prufrock such life is not available. In spite of these differences between the "I" of "Preludes" and Prufrock, the similarity of the message strengthens my view that Prufrock is actually quite close to the poet, for even the poet admits that in the face of our unthinking, heartless reality his images are, perhaps, no more than "fancies" to which he "clings." This is the most that is available to sensitive individuals—to hope for a more tangible solution to one's anxiety is to deceive oneself.
Eliot does not depict Prufrock as a prophet or even a prophet manqué. Prufrock's prophetic voice in the Lazarus speech is really a joke, and Prufrock intends it to be seen as a joke. It is not correct to imagine that Prufrock unrealistically or obtusely thinks of himself as one who has come back from the dead. As a matter of fact, Prufrock knows himself quite well. When he pictures himself making the speech, he does not see himself as being tense or overly serious, rather as being amused at the incongruous image of "squeezing the universe into a ball." He thinks of himself as casually "biting off the matter with a smile" (italics mine). This is one of Prufrock's private jokes: private because he cannot share it with anyone who is around him. Only he can see it as a comic invention, and he alone is capable of imagining such an improbable scheme with which to provoke his stupid audience. It is worthwhile to remember that Prufrock is not seeking to ask the overwhelming question but merely "some" overwhelming question—any that would be suitably highfalutin, outrageous, and improbable. In the opening stanza of the poem we are told that the overwhelming question is to be asked of Prufrock, not by Prufrock.
Prufrock already knows that his humane appeal to his listener's conscience will inevitably fail: "I have seen the moments of my greatness flicker." He fully understands that he must not expect from either the woman or anyone else in his world sympathetic imagination and genuine concern. In fact, his lines about "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" are not obtuse enough to attract his listeners' attention or to interest them. His words may contain truth but they sound too simple, too low-key. What should he do instead? Use a special style, even if a false one? Speak in an artificial, theatrical rhetoric? Assume the tone and diction of a prophet? He is not convinced that doing any of these things would help him in any way: "Would it have been worth it after all?" he asks. The answer, obviously, is "no." Nevertheless, he tries to imagine what he would sound like if he did; he may even be able to startle his audience with this improbable form of speech. It is Prufrock himself, with his definite sense of irony, who tells how incongruous any show of human concern will be
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me.
In pointing out the irony Prufrock makes it quite clear that he has the ability to judge the true worth of the norms of social behaviour expected of him, the behaviour he regretfully conforms to. His sensitivity makes him vulnerable. He is an outsider and is treated as such by the women who discuss him as they would anyone similar to him—"some talk of you and me." The "you" here, as in the first line of the poem, includes the reader and the poet, both of whom are outsiders in that society.
Mainly, Prufrock wishes to tell his listeners that "No man is an island, entire to itself." But Prufrock is not a hero; he does not have a prophet's power to convince others, nor does he have the self-assurance needed to convince himself that he should at least try. Instead, he despairs and gives up. Numerous critics have dwelt upon Prufrock's "failure," his inability to "force the moment to its crisis." But this inability has been unjustly seen as moral failure, even more turpitude. Such a view of morality may be appropriate in the context of traditional ethical expectations, particularly to the conventional notion of a hero, but it is out of place in the amoral world of this poem. Ideally, Prufrock should have persisted in making his point; but to insist on such positive action from an unheroic character is to force a heroic concept on a world where notions of heroism have become inoperable. Prufrock is not a leader of men, but in not being one he does not automatically become insignificant to the reader. The disapproval of Prufrock's failure is quite simplistic and indicates our inability to enter imaginatively the existential and kinetic (rather than ideal and absolute) world of the poem.
The important question to ask is, "What could Prufrock have done being who he is?" To say that he should have been a different kind of person is to overlook the essential existential problem outlined in the poem. Prufrock comes at the head of the long list of non-heroes in recent literature. As a non-hero Prufrock is not better or worse than we are; therefore, we understand what he has to say while his listeners in the poem do not. This is one of the major indications of the poem's absurdity, its absurd world, and its absurd process of communication. Like many post-Modernist works of literature, "Prufrock" arranges its communicative pattern in a non-static, spatial way. What Prufrock fails to say to the lady in the poem, the very act of his failure makes most meaningful to the reader. I am not talking about dramatic irony, allegory, or any such referential rhetorical device that makes us understand a created literary piece—an object stable in time—from the outside of it. "Prufrock" is not to be understood merely by reference to stable intellectual and moral notions outside the poem. In fact "Prufrock" should not be approached referentially at all. Its dimension is that of space and it grows spatially into our, the readers', world. The creation of the relationship between the protagonist and the reader, in the "us" of the opening line, is vital to the poem's intended significance. It is not Prufrock's failure that we are shown in the poem; rather we are given an unmistakable sense of deja vu. The poem's world and its agony, despair, and uncertainty reach our world by extending a number of tentacles—various and complex patterns of images, emotional vibrations, and voices. Among these must be mentioned strange and compelling imagistic features like the "street" that follows like a "tedious argument," the fearful and mechanistic shadow of nerve patterns on the wall, and the silently scuttling crab that Prufrock wishes he was.
The special feeling of the absurd in the poem arises from Prufrock's, and our, apprehension that although the world is amoral and illogical, we are not yet prepared to accept it as such. This makes for a peculiar dilemma: is one what one thinks one ought to be, or is one someone one has never been taught to recognize? These critics who suggest that the "overwhelming question" is not really an "insidious" one but a profoundly moral one fail to understand the way in which the poem works. The questions about what Prufrock did, what he should have done, and what he should not to have done are quite out of place and deserve Sweeney's firm but impatient disapproval:
What did he do! what did he do?
That don't apply.
When Prufrock admits with much agony, "it is impossible to say just what I mean!"—lines that can be placed next to Sweeney's words, "Well here again that don't apply/But I've gotta use words when I talk to you" we should not assume that this is merely because Prufrock cannot articulate recondite ideas.
The tragedy of Prufrock, if the word tragedy is not inappropriate here, is that he, like most of the poem's readers, has been brought up on the idea of a hero ("Prince Hamlet") and therefore cannot now reconcile himself to the notion of a non-hero. In other words, Prufrock is quite unlike Murphy, the protagonist of Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy. Caught between two worlds, the reasonable and the moral, and the irrational and the amoral, Prufrock epitomizes one of the most central and most perplexing of modern dilemmas. And it is my view that the communication of this dilemma accounts for the continued appeal of "Prufrock." In the poem and in its portrayal of the protagonist we recognize the "divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting," which according to Albert Camus constitute the feeling of Absurdity.
To understand the absurdist intentions of the poem we must consider the character of Prufrock in the context of the world in which he lives. We should not approach the poem from preconceived moral or satirical premises. The poem is about a man who is neither so naive as to overlook the irrationality of the world around him, nor so pessimistic as to accept the failure of reason as final and absolute. This hesitation makes Prufrock a special person. Prufrock is not like the others in the poem who appear to be utterly ignorant of what it is that is happening to their world. Some degree of sympathetic and intellectual understanding of life is necessary before questions about reason and irrationality, meaning and absurdity become important to an individual. Such questions do not trouble obtuse minds. It is an indication of the special nature of Prufrock's character that these questions bother him; his predicament is of half knowing and half not knowing the issues involved. When one is not thus bothered one can afford to be dogmatic, smug, and self-assured as the woman in the poem is when she says so emphatically, "That is not it, at all" (italics mine). By contrast Prufrock hesitates, vacillates, and is diffident. He is not one of the "low"
on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
(The Waste Land)
It is instructive to contrast Prufrock with the house-agent's clerk in The Waste Land. Prufrock, middle-aged and neat of appearance, is an antithesis of the "young man carbuncular" even though both are shown visiting their ladies. Eliot's early poetry demonstrates the several levels at which individuals encounter reality. Among the various characters who populate the early poems Prufrock is alone in believing that no individual, however competent and intelligent he may be, can truly have his whole meaning by himself. Yet having a meaning, or at least believing that meaning is important, is one of major concerns. The young man in The Waste Land is not in the least bothered by the fact that his overtures to his mistress have no effect on her. His assurance and self-sufficiency are disgusting:
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once. (Lines 235-39)
For Prufrock, polite and sceptical, time is never "propitious" in the world in which he has to live.
Although Prufrock never sings his "love song," neither does he reduce his love to an "assault." Prufrock is diffident not because he believes that his song is unworthy of being sung; his main fear is that it will be ridiculed and defiled by an uncaring world. In the world of the poem, the emotional, lyrical quality of his sensitive mind makes Prufrock an exceptional person, but it also makes him especially lonely. However, the inexorable fact about both love and song is that they need at least two people to give them meaning.
What can a person like Prufrock do? The poem's stark answer is "nothing." That is precisely what Prufrock does. One cannot, as the protagonist of The Waste Land foolishly imagines possible, set one's own lands in order. It is an intellectual self-deception to presume that there are "my lands" which can be separated from lands that belong to others, and it is equally self-deceiving to believe that one can, by oneself, set any land in order. The only things one can truly have by oneself are one's dilemma and anxiety. Eliot's personal, and it would appear inevitable answer to this dilemma in later life was the rejection of the world itself. But such a drastic metaphysical position is not maintained in the early poems, where the concerns of the absurd world are unmitigated by any ascetic desire for withdrawal into a spiritual world. In the world of the early poems such withdrawal can merely "confirm a prison." Many of Eliot's early protagonists are solipsistic and ego-bound: Narcissus, the young man in "Portrait of a Lady," Gerontion, and several characters in The Waste Land. Only Prufrock, even in his faltering ways, desires to break open the prison of the complacent self. In a vague way he is similar to the woman in "Portrait of a Lady" who also believes in friendship: "Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!" What makes this woman pathetic is that she foolishly declares her love to a world that cares little for such an emotion. She sings her love song and confirms the validity of Prufrock's fears. In spite of the strong erotic attraction of the woman in the shawl Prufrock does not sing his song to her; in doing what Prufrock does not do, the woman in "Portrait" acquires a lover who trifles with her affection.
What is, in effect, absurd about the world of Prufrock is that even the most apparently right gestures and efforts lead only to wrong solutions—or to no solutions at all. No easy reconciliation with this irrational world is possible for the person who expects reasonable and humane solutions. The unthinking woman whom Prufrock loves, or the cruel young man of "Portrait of a Lady," are least bothered by this absurdity. But Prufrock and many of the poem's readers are not such people. Unlike the protagonist of Thom Gunn's poem "Innocence," Prufrock is not
ignorant of the past:
Culture of guilt and guilt's vague heritage,
Self-pity and the soul.
Rather, he is an heir to all these, especially "soul"; perhaps "self-pity" is a more human manifestation of soul's "vague heritage" than the arrogant, upstanding qualities our world loudly proclaims in public and expresses in clichés. In Gunn's ironic poem the "hero" has forged, out of such "finitude of virtues" (line 13) as "Courage, endurance, loyalty and skill" (line 10), a conscience that "No doubt can penetrate, no act can harm." Prufrock's soul is not composed of such innocent and sturdy ingredients. On the other hand, Prufrock's recent literary inheritors include many of Philip Larkin's sensitive but non-heroic protagonists. This comparison goes against the generally held view of the works of these two poets. For instance, C. B. Cox has recently written that "there is a compassion which sharply differentiates Larkin's democratic sympathies from T. S. Eliot's assumptions of superiority." The misunderstanding is due mainly to the Modernist readers' fastidious cultivation of a taste for ironic and abrasive literature. "Prufrock" has often been admired for wrong reasons—reasons which are, to some extent, based on pre-conceived assumptions about Modernist literature. Today we recognize the humanity of Joyce's Ulysses, although for a long time Joyce was regarded primarily as an iconoclastic writer. Such change of attitude towards Eliot's works is not yet evident. At least partly, "Prufrock" is a humane poem.
Our understanding of Prufrock's character has been influenced also by our notion of Eliot's poetic techniques. For example, critics often quote approvingly Eliot's statement, made several years after he wrote "Prufrock," that a modern poet must become more and more "allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning." But this is not the only way poetry can be written. Obliqueness in poetry, as the context of Eliot's statement makes quite clear, is the result of cultural contingency and is not in itself a special poetic virtue. Although the modern world has cultivated to a high degree its habit of not paying attention to simply expressed words, this is not necessarily because such words are inevitably inadequate. In a kind of two-tiered logic "Prufrock" seems to make this very point. The protagonist's words about lonely men in shirt-sleeves are quite direct and make no attempt to "dislocate" language. But they fail to satisfy the fastidious listener, who demands something rich, strange, and obviously different from normal speech; this expectation leads Prufrock to contemplate half mockingly his speech about Lazarus. In Pound's words, "The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace." In "Prufrock", a highly innovative poem, the complex, disjointed structure and indirect mode of expression are undercut by a deeper, persistent belief that it is the condition of the world itself that has banished from it both natural feelings and a natural kind of poetic expression. It is impossible to make sense in this world unless one joins hands with it. This is the contingency the poet faces and he adjusts his expression accordingly. The form of the poem is a living, spatial symbol of that reality.
I wish now to examine a specific aspect of the poem's spatial nature—the central method of its depiction and embodiment of the absurd. In "Prufrock" a number of inanimate, or at least non-human, objects acquire a living quality. The most important of these is the "street" of the opening paragraph. Both the descriptive words used to signify it, and the effect it supposedly has on the protagonist, give the street a sinister character. The street forms not merely a part of the landscape—the celebrated opening "scene" of the poem—it assumes an active role in the poem. The street is described as a "muttering retreat." This phrase stands in ambiguous syntactical relationship with the cheap hotels as well as the street. The street not only "mutters" but it also "follows" while at the same time that it, paradoxically, "leads." The street is not stationary, nor is it merely a long, curving line drawn in a painting; it chases the speaker from behind, while it is also ahead of him, beckoning him toward "an over-whelming question." Apparently, its intentions are far from benevolent; they are "insidious": lying in wait somewhere along the street, in ambush, is the question one cannot foresee or formulate, the question that one suspects exists, that one knows one will never be prepared for. The anxiety that propels the protagonist, who from time to time glances fearfully backwards over his shoulder (how else would he know that the street was following him?), makes him step cautiously (the insidious question lying in wait for him, ahead of him) but hastily (for he is also being pursued) into a future which seems to continue unendingly…. The point I am trying to make is that the "street" is not a symbol or a metaphor. Eliot's "multifoliate rose" is a symbol—a complex one, but still only a referential signpost. So are the "rock" and the "rose garden." But this sinister, slithering, and self-willed street is an active agent of the anxiety that haunts the protagonist. For the individual, who exist between birth and death—Eliot does not appear to be concerned with Christian salvation in this poem—the anxiety has no beginning which he can manipulate, nor can he know where its end lies. The street is a continually self-regenerating image. Unlike the "rock" in The Waste Land it is not stable and finite. The "rock" is stable and solid, both semantically and in the range of its traditional symbolical meanings.
As the spatial vehicle of Prufrock's anxiety about not knowing what it is that he should do, the street extends into the reader's world and adds a concrete dimension to the poem. From the beginning Prufrock and the reader are walking, escaping, and following the same street. If the street is to be taken as a metaphor, then it must be seen as a deliberately misapplied one: it suggests a meaning—the journey, the path, the anxiety—and yet it remains itself—concrete, menacing, advancing. The word "street" suggests a range of possible meanings, then it proves all those meanings (what it stands for) highly inadequate and becomes real itself. In a way, it is a catachresis rather than a metaphor. In another sense, the "street" is what phenomenological critics call an essential "experiential pattern" which embodies an author's experiential world, or his Lebenswelt.
The street recedes backward into the remote distance, but it never actually ends; beyond every curve on the way it is still there. Ahead, it lies on and on; even when out of view it is unmistakably there. This creates a mise en abîme effect. It recedes but does not disappear; its validity is both continuous and continually revived. The street engulfs both Prufrock and the right reader. To cover it, to travel to its end, to reach some meaning, to hope to have the overwhelming question asked is to engage in the labour of Sisyphus, the most absurd and nerve-wracking of all endeavours. Sisyphus is an appropriate symbol for Prufrock and we may, in viewing them together, see why Prufrock fails to ask his question although he tries repeatedly and almost achieves success. Prufrock is doomed continually to try to sing his love song, to waver between a desire to sing his song and a desire to conform to the trivial wishes of the world, to hear "human voices" telling him to roll his trousers and forbidding him to eat peaches, and to expect to hear the "mermaids singing"—who sing "each to each" but never to him.
The street runs out of the page and into the reader's world; at the same time it runs through the poem from the half deserted streets, to the strand at the end of the poem where Prufrock contemplates walking in white flannel trousers. The street is always there, even when we are indoors, insidiously lying in wait for us just outside or watching us through the "window-panes." While Prufrock attempts to ask his question—which is not the "overwhelming question"—he is also mindful that the insidious, inexorable "overwhelming question" may be asked of him at any time. These two ironically juxtaposed "questions" make the protagonist's double-edged dilemma visible to the reader. In fact, when he first formulates his question he mentions his walks "at dusk through narrow streets" where he was expecting to have the over-whelming question" asked of him.
Prufrock does not know the exact nature of the "overwhelming question." However, in his absurd and pointless life the encounter with this question is likely to be the only significant thing to happen to Prufrock. We may call it a "spot of time" or the point of the intersection between time and eternity although it is likely that the high experience suggested by the two phrases may be entirely out of place in the life of a non-hero. But that absurdity is in itself an indication of the overriding absurdist view presented in the poem. A more positive character, a hero, a saint, or a poet, may be able to create such special moments, or may know how to make his life an appropriate context for such moments. But Prufrock does not know anything about the nature of that special hour. He merely hopes that his life, too, will have such a moment and his worst fear is that it might come upon him when he is least prepared for it. Therefore, he is afraid of the street by the side of which the overwhelming question lies in wait to spring before him at any random moment. Unlike others in the poem, Prufrock cares very much for such a moment of illumination. So far his life has been far from remarkable and he knows that. He is not so cynical as to imagine that such moments are of no worth, nor is he so much enlightened as to have any prior notion of what it can mean. He is both afraid and hopeful. The important thing is that Prufrock can, even at his humdrum level of existence, contemplate the existence of an "overwhelming" question. His impatient "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'" is quite understandable. To ask for its definition is to limit its awesome dimensions, whereas Prufrock needs something that is infinite. In his finite world everything he knows is frustratingly insignificant. If the poem was meant to work within an idealistic framework—moralistic, aesthetic, or religious—the question would have been more definite and its significance more fathomable, although it still may not have been within the power of the individual to will it. In Murder in the Cathedral Becket does not, cannot, take the "decision" but can, as Prufrock cannot, with his "whole being give entire consent." But we cannot compare Becket with Prufrock for their worlds are seen from very different points of view. "Prufrock" is a more revealing picture of the reader's world than are the later works. This is not a world where empty pools in the rose garden suddenly get "filled with water out of sunlight" ("Burnt Norton"); it is a world where "eyes … fix you in a formulated phrase" not only because you are painfully conscious of what people think of you but also because the "eyes" themselves get metamorphosed, abstracted from the rest of the body and dominate the scene as in a surrealistic painting. It is a world where "hands" drop questions "on your plate," and "arms" acquire separate identities. Prufrock has not lost his senses; it is merely that he alone seems to be aware of the strange but real landscape. In a way he is no more insane than Salvador Dali. We misread Prufrock's thoughts when we say that he prefers to withdraw into a hard shell and wants to become a crab "scuttling across the floors of silent seas." He is merely saying that in the society in which he lives there is as little communication and reaching out towards others as there is between crabs. It is not he who is a crab or wants to be a crab, it is the woman—synedochically expressed as "Arms that are braceleted," therefore comparable to "a pair of ragged claws"—who behaves as a crab. A much-distressed Prufrock wonders why he too could not have been such a silent hardshelled crustacean; had he been one he would not have felt so out of tune with his world.
This poem is spoken by Prufrock, and much of what we know about the world around him is reported to us by him. It is not necessary to blame him for every action he reports. It is unfair to imagine that only Prufrock has measured out his life with coffee spoons. Of course he has done so, as have others, but only he seems to recognize that there should have been more to life. Similarly, Prufrock is bothered by the women's opinion of his appearance, but they themselves are not above such petty concerns. His reaction to the women's trivial behaviour is not exemplary, but it is real and not idealized. It is unlikely that even if Prufrock was made of worthier stuff, if he had been a real hero, he would have had a different reception from the women.
Again, when Prufrock says:
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach
we may not assume that he is expressing his most cherished desires. It is much more likely that he is merely hoping that by conforming to the standards expected by society he may be able to keep the backbiting women ("some talk of you and me") at bay. Like Kafka's K he, too, cannot understand what crime he has committed, and is unable to find an explanation for society's irrational displeasure with him. These lines show Prufrock's defeat at the hand of "human voices." Yet it is not a final defeat, for end of the poem is a great lyrical outpouring, with Prufrock on the beach within earshot of the women and the mermaids. One imagines that Prufrock's vision of sea-girls will not allow him to be irredeemably drowned by "human voices."
In the religious phase of his career Eliot said "in our beginning is our end" and the "end is where we start from" ("Little Gidding," v). By that time the road itself had become manageable, comprehensible, and even dispensable. But in "Prufrock" neither the beginning nor the end is known, and the road is not inconsequential. The path is not cyclical; it is lateral, infinite, and insidious. Most of Eliot's early poems show only arbitrary beginnings and arbitrary ends; the beginnings mock each other as the ends do themselves. The poems themselves become icons for the "insidious" and "cunning" streets and corridors, as well as for movements along them. The final existential anxiety that perplexes a Prufrock is a convincing representation of the Absurd—not knowing where the road started, not knowing if it leads to any place, and waiting in fear and hope for the "overwhelming" question, "Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."
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