Themes in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Indecision: One of J. Alfred Prufrock’s central neuroses arises from the fact that he does not know what to do with himself. Prufrock’s indecision is a source of anxiety that causes his mind to unravel. His anxiety makes him indecisive, and his indecisiveness in turn makes him more anxious. Prufrock’s personal refrains are “Do I dare?” and “Should I presume?” Prufrock lives in a world stripped of cultural conventions and guidelines which causes a state of terrifying, unrestricted freedom. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard remarked, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Confronted with choices and possibilities, Prufrock finds himself gripped by anxiety. Thus he weighs dilemmas such as, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Though such a dilemma is comical, ridiculous even, we moderns understand his crisis. In an age in which all values and customs are disputable, it is difficult to decide what to stand for and how to conduct oneself. In a sense, Prufrock’s flexible moral sensibility is admirable and necessary. The downside is his utter lack of self-determination. In some respects, he is a coward.

Loneliness: It becomes apparent early on in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that the titular character is lonely, sexually, romantically and existentially. Prufrock finds himself haunted by women, by their judgments and withheld affections. He is afraid to speak to elegant women for fear that they might scornfully declare “‘That is not what I meant at all.’” He is haunted by the prostitutes he has visited in “one-night cheap hotels”; he wonders at his weakness asking, “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?” Finally, as the poem reaches its conclusion, he is haunted by mermaids, archetypal figures of feminine seduction. In what is perhaps the poem’s most famous passage, he reflects: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”

Aging: One of J. Alfred Prufrock’s great sources of anxiety is mortality. As a man just entering middle age,

Themes Examples in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 2
"pinned and wriggling..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

This idea of being pinned to a wall recalls the imagery of crucifixion, in which Christ was nailed (or "pinned") to a cross. It's also reminiscent of butterfly and bug collections, where specimens are "pinned" to display boards. As a whole, this phrase is meant to suggest social anxiety and discomfort, which Prufrock feels whenever he's made to account for himself (his "days and ways").

"To prepare a face..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

One of the poem's central themes is social anxiety and how it affects Prufrock's ability to interact with those around him. This line, like the others in the tea scene, is indicative of the discomfort Prufrock feels in social situations and his belief that he needs to put on a "face" or mask in order to fit in or hide his true self from those around him. This also fits into the theme of otherness presented throughout the poem.