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. But Prufrock repeats certain phrases and returns to certain core ideas as the poem progresses. The “you and I” of the opening line includes the reader, suggesting that only by accompanying Purfrock can one understand his problems.
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.
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.
PRUFROCK AS MODERN MAN
For many readers in the 1920s, 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.