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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

Prufrock seemed to epitomize the frustration and impotence of the modern individual. He seemed to represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment. Such phrases as “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” (line 51) capture the sense of the unheroic nature of life in the twentieth century. Prufrock’s weaknesses could be mocked, but he is a pathetic figure, not grand enough to be tragic. The speaker of this ironic monologue is a modern, urban man who, like many of his kind, feels isolated and incapable of decisive action.

Irony is apparent from the title, for this is not a conventional love song. Prufrock would like to speak of love to a woman, but he does not dare. The poem opens with a quoted passage from Dante’s INFERNO, suggesting that Prufrock is one of the damned and that he speaks only because he is sure no one will listen. Since the reader is overhearing his thoughts, the poem seems at first rather incoherent. The images of the opening lines depict a drab neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, where Prufrock lives in solitary gloom.

In line 12 he suggests making a visit, and immediately his mind calls up an image of the place he and the reader will go– perhaps an afternoon tea at which various women drop in and engage in polite chitchat about Michelangelo, who was a man of great creative energy, unlike Prufrock. The next stanza creates an image of the dull, damp autumn evening when the tea party will take place. In the rest of the poem Prufrock imagines his arrival, his attempt to converse intimately with the woman whose love he seeks, and his ultimate failure to make her understand him.

Prufrock has attended such parties many times and knows how it will be, and this knowledge makes him hesitate out of fear that any attempt to push beyond mere polite conversation, to make some claim on the woman’s affections, will meet with a frustratingly polite refusal. So Prufrock simultaneously plans his approach and tells himself that he can put off the action. The phrase “There will be time,” repeated five times between lines 23 and 36, represents his hesitation and delay. When he says in lines 44 and 45 “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?

,” the universe he is referring to is his small social circle of middle-class acquaintances. He would disturb its equilibrium if he actually tried to sing a “love song” to one of them. He already “knows them all” and knows that they do not expect much from him. He tries, starting at line 70, to rehearse a speech he might make to one particular woman, but he gives up almost as soon as he has started, saying that it would be better to be merely a crab rather than a human being who has to make love speeches and ask for affection.

Prufrock’s characterization explains his fear that his true self will be revealed to the ladies at the tea party he is about to attend. No master of small talk, he repeatedly wonders how-and why-he should begin to talk about his unexciting life (54, 60, 61, 68, 69). He wants to sound important, but what will he say if a lady expects him to talk about himself? Any revelation about him could bring indifferent rejection. He is certain that the ladies will not care about “the butt-ends of my days and ways,” fearing that when he shares part of himself with another, she will be uninterested in his life (60).

The introspective Prufrock is afraid of being exposed at the tea party because he does not see himself as a worthwhile individual. He fears that the ladies will mock his thin hair (symbolizing an unimpressive mind) and his thin arms and legs (symbolizing an unimpressive body). His self-focus is pathetically ironic because he is mostly unnoticed by the ladies at the tea party. He wonders if he will dare “disturb the universe” and show his true self, but twice a brisk couplet slices his monologues (47).

The women “come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (13-14; 35-36), and miss Prufrock’s moment of greatness, which was, sadly, only a “flicker” (84). As he describes how he sees himself-and how he thinks others see him-he succinctly sums up his feelings towards self-revelation, “and in short, I was afraid” (86). Deciding not to try, Prufrock questions whether his efforts would have been worthwhile. He excuses his fear by rationalizing that his speaking to the woman would not have achieved any real response. In line 110 Prufrock contrasts himself to Hamlet, a hero who hesitated but finally acted decisively.

But Prufrock sees himself as more like Polonius, the old fool from the same play. Prufrock will retreat into a solitary, dignified old age. He has gone past dreams of romance into the sober but empty existence of a passionless old man.

References:

Brandon Colas,T. S. Eliot -The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock http://www. literature-study-online. com/essays/eliot-prufrock. html Kathleen McCoy’s and Judith Harlan, New York: HarperCollins, 1992: 265-66, ENGLISH LITERATURE FROM 1785, http://www. vanderbilt. edu/AnS/english/English151W-03/prufrock. htm

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