Rebecca Gwyn Wilson
May 6, 1998
A Study of Linguistic Characteristics in T.S. Eliot’s Portrayal of Women in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Thomas Stearns Eliot presents the internal monologue (or rather dialogue as he talks to himself) of a 40 year old man. Eliot was very guarded about his private life yet he said J. Alfred Prufrock was in part about a man of about 40 and in part himself as he wrote that the poem’s roots lie in the recording of “the private habits of mind, the fears and the solitary impulses that led him to a religious position.” The aging Prufrock feels alienated from the genteel surroundings of well dressed women making small talk while partaking in tea drinking. Prufrock is frustrated especially by what he perceives as the shallow nature of social interaction between men and women in contrast to the esoteric search for meaning raging in his mind. Eliot uses linguistic techniques to present Prufrock’s dilemma as well as to portray his alienation from women.
One of the ways in which Eliot presents Prufrock’s philosophical dilemma (are all of his intellectual meanderings meaningless?) is by using modal auxiliaries. Eliot’s practical use of modal auxiliaries demonstrates Prufrock’s attempt to make a world to word fit by using agentive verbs with permissive interrogatives addressed to himself. Take for example the following lines,
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’ (p. 10)
So how should I presume? (p. 11)
In the first example, Prufrock addresses himself with the semi-modal dare and in the second example he addresses himself with the modal auxiliary should. Prufrock’s conflict is apparent in that he is constantly questioning himself about whether or not he should perform some sort of an act to break the boundary between his inner and outer worlds.
Although Prufrock yearns to connect with others, he has difficulty doing so. On a non-linguistic level Prufrock’s inability to connect with women in particular is blamed on their shortcomings and non-intellectual attributes - gossip, beauty, and vapid small talk. The lack of appeal that women hold for Prufrock’s intellect is first shown as they are trivialized by being referred to as a mass noun. When women are first addressed as a mass noun they appear as a group that is part of Prufrock’s background.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (p. 9)
Eliot also presents here an atelic situation as the women “come and go”. These durative verbs have no goals and therefore the women appear aimless like a nomadic herd of animals in contrast to the impotent Prufrock who just can’t bring himself to act let alone wander.
To further show the split between Prufrock’s inner experience and connection with his physical surroundings Eliot uses the present perfect to show the perfect of experience and the perfect of result. For example, in the line, “For I have known them all already” the verb “known” is imperfective (durative) but entire phrase is converted into the perfect of experience because of the use of the word “already”. On the other hand, the line “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;” is a phrase showing the perfect of result. These two consecutive phrases show firstly that Prufrock’s inner frustration with women (them) has been ongoing (since it is imperfect) and second that he has attempted to quell his alienation and fit in by performing punctual acts of decorum (measured).
Eliot returns to the theme of portraying Prufrock’s alienation from women throughout the poem. Another facet is that women are not portrayed as individual agents of intentional causation. More precisely, women’s actions lack a mental component in “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as their body parts or physical attributes, are referred to as count nouns which serve as agents punctual acts. In the following lines, for example, it is a woman’s “arms” and “dress” that serve as subjects and agents of action.
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare,
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress? (p. 11)
When women are the subject of a line the few punctual acts presented are certainly not intellectual,
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, (p. 13)
It is also of interest to note that these actions are example generic aspect and therefore reveal a sense of essentialism. Further examples of generic aspect applied to women are seen in the following lines,
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin? (p. 12)
. . . after the skirts that
trail along the floor-- (p. 13)
Eliot is showing that non-intellectual acts are what women do. This is sexist since Eliot is habitually characterizing females as necessarily behaving in a certain way.
Eliot’s hostility towards women along with Prufrock’s alienation towards them is further shown in that out of the few punctual acts performed by them some are extremely violent. For example,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
brought in upon a platter, (p. 12)
The following acts performed by count noun female body parts also reflect a negative portrayal of women,
And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned (punctual) and wriggling (durative) on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume? (p. 11)
Eliot ties up his hostility towards women by returning to his portrayal of their shallow obsession with appearances (his balding head),
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
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. (p. 14)
This is a return to the poem’s early imagery of women’s voices talking of Michelangelo as Eliot uses the present perfect to connect the past to the present. Thus he develops a notion that women are a seductive image like sirens - but sirens do not drown him - human women do.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T. S. Eliot, Faber and Faber, London 1975
Eliot’s Early Years, Lyndall Gordon, Oxford University Press 1977
The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, Edited by Marion Wynne Davies, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd. 1990
 Eliot’s Early Years, Lyndall Gordon, Oxford University Press 1977, p. 45
 Ibid, p. 23
 Ibid, “The persona was finally perfected in the summer of 1911 when Eliot created the character of J. Alfred Prufrock. In ‘Prufrock’ the Laforgian split into mocking commentator and droll sufferer is reworked as a split into prophet and groomed conformist. Eliot’s prophet commentator evaluates experience from a withdrawn position, exhorts, mocks, and offers salvation. The conformist suffers the experience, doubts, despairs and resigns himself ot his absurd ties with society. (p. 31)
 “Actions characteristically consist of two components, a mental component and a physical component.”
The Structure of Action, Minds, Brains and Science, John Searle, Harvard 1984 p. 3
 . . . in ‘Prufrock’ - Eliot caricatured his embarrassing friendshop with an emotional older woman, Adeline Moffat, who used to serve tea to Harvard men in a home crowded with bric-a-brac, . . . Adeline is so elusive in Eliot’s poems because he does not strive to elicit her character, in the manner say of James, but immediately fits her to a variety of female stereotypes - the gushy romantic, the dangerous enchantress, the languid socialite. The interest of these poems lies not in the woman but in her effect on the potential lover. He is uneasily aware that the woman points up his pallid appetite for what others might readily desire but is, at the same time, defensively scornful of her taste, conversation and brains Prufrock has fleeting erotic sensations - the perfume from thewoman’s dress or her arms moving to wrap her shawl or throw it off can whip his attention from his foggyself-absorption but she is not capable of real exchange and is therefore unworthy ofhis confession. (p. 26)
Eliot’s Early Years, Lyndall Gordon