Theme Of Moral Paralysis In The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock And The Hollow Men

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The philosophical movement of modernism yearned to banish traditional ways of thinking and revitalise the way modern civilisation viewed life arising from the Industrial Revolution, followed then by World War I. T.S. Eliot permeates a perturbing, and in many instances, unpromising portrayal of the tumult inherent in modern life. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1910) depicts an archetypal modern man who has been too enthralled with romanticism until the realities of the modern world threatens to consume him. Similarly, ’The Hollow Men’ (1925) juxtaposes images of purity with paradoxical depictions of desolation, suggesting that humankind will suffer anguish due to the loss a sense of purpose. Whether the poet’s works are ‘a disturbing portrait of uncertainty amidst the turmoil of modern life’ is solely a matter of interpretation. These poetic works showcase how moral paralysis leads to futility of life. Thus, the poems’ reference to the angst of disorder within Eliot’s poetry should be considered alongside the subtle possibility for hope. Inertia within individuals acts as a catalyst to a dubious, disordered modern life.

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 T.S. Eliot saw a decline in civilisation, due to technological advancements in relation to the means of production. This transformed the modern worker from one previously involved in the entirety of the production line, to one insignificantly contributing to the process. This lack of activity incurred from division of labour, caused men to experience negative feelings of fragmentation, and a lack of self purpose and worth. Eliot presents insight of moral paralysis in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, showcasing the narrator’s stream of consciousness where fragmented thoughts are unified by the structure of the poem. This highlights the inaction engendered from the paralysing nature of his continual questions to himself and his insecurities of others’ perceptions, with bathos implemented, instantly transitioning from ‘half deserted streets’ to ‘sawdust restaurants’. There is a tone of self mockery as he asks where he ‘shall[…] part [his] hair’ or whether he ‘dare[s] to eat a peach’. Prufrock metaphorically refers to himself as an insect ‘sprawling on a pin’, exemplifiying his inability to connect to the rest of the world; like the insect, he is paralysed in time. Prufrock is an observer who remains imprisoned in his own subjective space, where time is only of subjective existence. Modernist French Philosopher Henri Bergson noted ‘time is not an extended, ordered progression, but a fluid, dynamic medium that can be traversed by the will’, influencing Eliot’s grasp around this concept and utilising it in this poem. Prufrock is paralysed as past, present and future are equally immediate. Prufrock’s reality is a timeless, pure duration; a frozen time in which all possibilities seem to have already materialised. This is reflected in the use of repetition, which identifies he has ‘known them all already, known them all’. In this time of endless repetition, Prufrock believes that ‘indeed there will be time’, an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, suggesting both eternity and hesitation. This reveals Prufrock’s belief that starting to attempt physical endeavours is futile, as there is still endless amounts of time to do so. Eliot is criticising the unreliability of this perception, using Prufrock as a portrayal of modern life’s concerning way of living. 

American literary critic J. Hillis Miller describes that ‘Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others’ underling Eliot’s creation of a ‘disturbing portrait’ of modern life in this poem due to the absence of hope. The poem concludes with a mythological allusion when describing that ‘We have lingered[…] By sea-girls […]Till human voices wake us, and we drown’, yet, the focus is not on the sirens of the mermaids. The focus lies on the human voices that cause Prufrock to drown in the reality that he will always exhibit inertia. Eliot dismantles the romantic notion that poetic genius is all that is needed to triumph over the destructive, impersonal forces of the modern world. This sense of moral paralysis within society prompts a meaningless and lustreless existence due to the lack of human substance. The disillusionment of society following the First World War reveals immense anarchy of the world itself. 

Subsequently from showcasing the concept of moral paralysis within ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, he then exhibited the consequences of inaction in ‘The Hollow Men’. Eliot utilised the poetic form of vers libre in ‘The Hollow Men’, rebelling against traditional forms as a result of French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue’s development of this poetic form. Vers libre enhances understanding of the hollow men’s moral paralysis as it allows for the portrayal of the workings of the mind rather than exterior events which provoke mental activity. British philosopher F.H. Bradley describes that ‘no experience can lie open to inspection from outside’, underlining Eliot’s ‘stuffed’ men, who are ‘filled with straw’, commenting on the substance he believed humanity was lacking. The series of paradoxes used describing the hollow men as ‘shape without form…shade without colour’ and ‘gesture without motion’ convey that the essentials that make men real are absent. Their emptiness is the vacuity of pure mind detached from any reality, seizing any sense of meaning to their existence. Author David Spurr comments it is ‘better to be a ‘lost/Violent souls’ for they were at least capable of damnation’. The hollow men lived without blame or praise; neither rebellious nor faithful to God, but lived for themselves, in between ‘death’s dream kingdom’ and hell. He is incapable of entering through either, similarly to the hollow men, falling between intention and action. However, Eliot’s language is ambiguous, implying that the sightless eyes of the hollow men may recover from their moral blindness, gaining the ability to see the truth in their own nature. This can occur if the motif of the divine eyes, which are ‘The hope only/Of empty men’ reappear as ‘the perpetual star/Multifoliate rose’ of heaven itself. This reveals Eliot pondering of the possibility of the prospect of human redemption amongst modern life. Despite this subtle reference to hope, the hollow men concludes ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. The use of onomatopoeia intensifies the anticlimactic and inadequate nature of their destruction due to the futility of their outlook and meaningless existence. 

Moral paralysis leading to the futility of life that pervade ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ’The Hollow Men’ reflect Eliot’s qualms regarding the nature of modern society. However, ‘The Hollow Men’ does so without solely concentrating on a mood of despondency. Thus, a responder should consider assessing Eliot’s poetic works with hopeful assurance of protection against turmoil of the world, rather than a mere distressing portrayal of disorder beyond repair.

16 August 2021

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