The Issue Of Cowardness In The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock

Jim Carrey once said, “Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in the world”. Throughout T. S. Eliot's poem 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' the main character characterization explains why he locks his true identity, the one he desperately wish to share with the world, deep inside his heart, creating a shell of the man he once was. This mask that he puts on for others is one that he unintentionally let’s manipulate the personality he greatly wants to set free. Through the creation of the anxious, impassive, and somewhat brooding man, known as J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot is able to portray that only through the act of being vulnerable to those around us, will we be able to quench our need for the autonomy of our emotions. Since throughout the poem, Prufrock himself is never able to satiate his emotional release, he eventually succumbs to his inhibition and doubtfulness. He lets these negative emotions determine his destiny, a coward of the man he once was.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” first opens with a few lines from Dante’s Inferno which, when translated from Italian reads: “If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed”. Here, Dante can be seen expressing to his former mentor in the eighth circle of hell that he will only share his tragic life story with confidence that those who are alive will never get the chance to hear it. Similarly, Prufrock is faced with a similar problem in this poem. Prufrock has had this love song engraved within his heart and soul for so long and he wants to share it with the world, but he like Dante, lacks the courage to share it with those who have the ability to judge him.

This lack of confidence within the poem can further be seen in Eliot’s unusual use of the word yellow to describe the way in which the smoke and fog look in the second stanza “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes”. By weaving these sentences to flow in the rhythmic way he does, Eliot is able to create a very peaceful setting; one that contains soft repeating sounds that almost lull the readers to sleep. This smooth yellow fog and smoke that Eliot creates seems out of place when set in context to the anxious, brooding tone of Prufrock's. However, the yellow, let’s call it smog, is not as harmless as it appears, it is yet another way in which Eliot shows how Prufrock hides his true self behind a wall. His protective disguise is deadly, it may seem calm at first like the smog, but is more like a haze of mustard gas, one that slowly kills anything that approaches.

The overall concept that this yellow smog creates a façade for Prufrock to hide behind and provides insight into the true nature of his self-induced spinelessness. Throughout literature, it can be seen that yellow is commonly associated with those who are cowardly. Take the “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman for example. In this beautifully crafted poem, John, the main character’s husband, can be seen being a coward and dismissing the fact that his wife has a mental issue whenever she mentions what is happening to the yellow paper and how she wants to leave the house. Like John, Prufrock’s overall existence is subjected to a yellow theme of timidity because the life in which he lives is one in which he chooses to hide and dismiss what is really happening. Yellow, can also be seen further emphasizing Prufrock’s pusillanimity in that when used as an adjective it is giving further imagery to the fact that the smog is hiding. His incapacity to portray his own emotions, like the smog’s inability to stop hiding on the windowpanes, is one of the several reasons as to why he is trapped in his current situation.

J. Alfred Prufrock has the ability to escape the self-inflicted prison that he finds himself in, but because he lacks the ability to be courageous and anything but timid, he is once again stuck in his shell. While in this shell, Prufrock starts to imagine many things. The first thing he imagines is what it was like to be John the Baptist, especially during his most courageous moments. This fantasy about John the Baptist can be seen when he mentions that 'I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter/ I am no prophet'. In the New Testament, John the Baptist's head was presented to King Herod on a silver platter for all to see because he was courageous enough to tell him that his lifestyle was one of the corrupt. John died because he spoke the truth against the King, someone who did not care to be judged or told was wrong. Knowing this, Prufrock reveals that by showing who he really is to those around him at the tea party he will not be accepted, and perhaps he may even be killed. He also comes to the realization that he is “no prophet”. He knows he does not have the same courage that John did and seems to be content with this, revealing that he was “afraid”. This revelation that he is afraid can further be observed when he makes reference to Prince Hamlet, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”. Eliot can be seen relating Hamlet to Prufrock in the sense that both of these characters can be incredibly self-conscious when it comes to those around them. Both these men are very also indecisive individuals who do not know what they want out of their lives. Unlike Hamlet, however, Elio created the character of Prufrock in a way that he is not an important character, he is more of a minor side character who is just there for the ride.

Without a doubt, J. Alfred Prufrock has shown that even though he has the potential to be courageous and expose himself to those around him, he is indeed a coward. He is trapped by all the decisions he has made to keep himself safe from other’s judgments. The prison in which he finds himself unable to escape is that of a coward’s prison, one in which he created because of his lack of self-confidence. Had Prufrock just opened his heart and shared his song with the when he meant to, he would not be stuck where he is today. 

16 August 2021
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