T.S. Eliot’s poem, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is part of the modernist movement that emerged in Britain and to some degree the United States following the era of World War I. The Great War had a considerable impact on the consciousness of young writers, many of who served during the war. In Europe there madness of war led to the realization of the medical diagnosis “shell-shock” associated with prolonged exposure to conflict and helped foster an interest in exploring psychology through writing technique.
Eliot’s narrative style in the poem, thrusts the audience straight into the middle of the action, and progresses predominantly linearly to the end with brief juxtapositions of memories dispersed throughout. The style is very intentionally stream of consciousness; he is trying to propel the reader into the mind of a wounded individual. The narrator is likely a shell-shocked veteran just home from the atrocities of war who begins having difficulty maintaining happy relationships, feels distant from society, and questions everything that brought happiness in the past. The beginning of the poem, “let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky” evokes a romantic scene between lovers which quickly turns sour. The poem starts in a happy dream, probably the images that gave him hope throughout the war, but quickly fade, to images of a “patient etherized upon a table.” These lines suggest the numbing agony the act of killing and of watching his friends and comrades die. The writer feels powerless and feels as if he was never in control of his actions. He had to watch the events of war and of his life unfold as if he were paralyzed.
Eliot evokes the intense loneliness and paranoia associated with shell-shock writing, “let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.” The deserted streets literally represent the loneliness of London in the aftermath of the war, but also symbolizes the internal loneliness the shell-shocked soldier feels knowing no one in his previous circles can understand his pain. If he had any friends his age that survived the war they are likely depressed knowing that seeing their friends would only bear resentment and reminder of loss. The soldier is wracked every night with terror of the war making it difficult for him to sleep and even more withdrawn from society.
He further extrapolates on what relationships have become for him, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent.” The reader can feel the writers frustration at not being able to express the anger and fear he is feeling and is attempting to avoid being reminded of the war. His lover noticing his isolation continues to inquire about his personality, and he regrets, “to lead you to an overwhelming question … / oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.” He is attempting to return to life as normal despite his difficulties.
Time is a constant theme throughout the poem. He says, “in the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” This alludes to the renaissance and hope for rebirth through the modernist period. It is also a solid connection of the influence of the past and its importance on the present. His noting of the talk of Michelangelo also positions Eliot’s work within an elite society. The imagery of “tea and cakes and ices” further divides the narrator with their society. Perhaps many of his peers were able to buy their way out of service further alienating the individual. The poem seems to suggest the healing possibility of time, “And indeed there will be time / to wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” / time to turn back and descend the stair.” Since we can not actually revise what happens in our life this seems to represent the mental revision the narrator continues to replay in his mind. He is constantly questioning whether he made the right choices despite the inability to change them. The end of the poem reminds of the premise, “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.” Seaweed tends to be green, so the colored images of red and brown solidify the images of blood and dirt associated with war and death. He feels as if he is drowning under the weight of war and death consuming his mind. The human voices startle him and cause him to realize he has been thrown back into society expected to return to a normal life and he drowns in the overwhelming-ness of it all.