Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

A Character Study of J. Alfred Prufock

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J. Alfred Prufock, the character in T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song Of  J. Alfred Prufock’ is clearly portrayed in the poem as someone with a fleeting, flimsy personality, one who has a problem with self-esteem, and one who cannot take decisive action.

The poem begins with a sweeping vista of frustration, “Let us go then, / you and I, /When the evening is spread out against the sky     / Like a patient etherised upon a table;” (1-3) setting the tone for the entire poem where the tone goes progressively miserable on the part of Prufock.

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Appropriately, this particular opening for the poem sets the stage for the character who goes through various situations and seems to be going around in circles or going back to ‘square one’ or is actually unable to progress in his character as illustrated by the refrain, “Let us go and make our visit. / In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” (12-14)  These lines are repeated numerous times throughout the poem usually after a series of narrations by the character focusing on what he has to go through.

The previously mentioned sweeping vista of frustration also progresses as Prufock reveals more in the poem – unfortunately, there is no progress with the character as he consistently drags himself down, even to the bottom of the sea, in the end of the poem, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” (129-131), indicating his inability to rise above the situation and merely succumb to the consequences of other people’s actions.

Prufock, in the poem, manifests his fleeting, flimsy personality in many passages, like in the passage, “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions,” (32-33), and in the repetition of the phrases, “There will be time, there will be time…There will be time…And time…Time for” (26,28-31)  Someone with the personality as indicated by these lines waits and expects for indecision to set in and cannot make up his mind as indicated by the phrase ‘visions and revisions’. (33)  In the same manner, the repetition of the ‘time’ phrases illustrates how Prufock allows time to pass him by in that instead of making time for things that he needs to do, he simply waits for time to come, and instead of grasping opportunity, remains passive.

Prufock’s self-esteem problem is as well indicated by many lines that show how he feels about himself, foremost by his reference to his balding, “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!”]” (39-41)

Hair is a symbol of virility, and in these lines Prufock shows unsure he is of himself with the phrase ‘turn back’ (39) where he decides to go back down the stairs and hold his ground instead of moving up, because as shown in his internal thoughts, in the last bracketed line, he feels that people will be talking about his lack of virility.

Prufock here illustrates his inability to cope with society in that he is quite concerned about what other people will say about him.  This lack of confidence and self-esteem is again validated when Profock talks about how he should make a decision, “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” (57-60)

Here, he clearly shows how indecisive he can be, that even when he is in a situation that calls for drastic and immediate action, he resorts to slinking back and considering what he has done wrong, instead of considering what he can do right; ‘spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” (60)

Finally, the very main train of Prufock in the poem that dominates the entire piece is his abject indecisiveness – while the whole poem takes this as its main subject matter, there are very detailed indications as to this particular trait of Prufock.  For instance, in the passage, “And how should I presume?... And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?” (61, 68-69)

More than this obvious indecision of the man when exposed to women is his deeper dilemma with what to do with himself, in the lines, “Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter; / I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” (82-84) These lines do not only show that Prufock is terribly indecisive, but it shows as well that because of his indecisiveness he had let opportunities pass to the point of regret and self-pity.

The characterization of Prufock in the poem gave rise to what is known as Prufockian paralysis which is a personality type that is characterized by extreme self-pity, fleeting thought, severe loss of self-esteem, and serious indecisiveness to the point of corruption of the individual himself.  T.S. Elliot, in this poem, very accurately portrayed these traits in his character, Prufock, and created a living, breathing symbol of male indecision.

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