Prufrock presents his fragmented and nebulous view of women repeatedly
with his disjoined
descriptions of them. A hand here an arm there, a face on the street-- yet he never arrives at
a whole, complete, image of a woman. He recognizes only pieces "Arms that are braceleted
and white and bare (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair! )." Lines such as these
give the reader a clear picture of an arm and only an arm. One cannot even imagine the woman
to which the arm is attached because Prufrock offers no individual description. In fact the arm
could belong to any woman, or all women. Nothing particularly distinguishes one white,
braceleted arm from another. This description epitomizes Prufrock's view of women.
indistinguishable, disjointed pieces.
Just as he identifies women as bits and pieces, so does he associate
objects-- teaspoons, cups, pillows, dresses-- with the world of women. In fact, as the poem
progresses, he begins to use the objects as symbols of women. When women and the objects
become interchangeable, Prufrock's view of women is driven all the more strongly into the
reader's mind. Prufrock asks, "Is it the perfume from a dress? That makes me so digress?".
In simple prose he is questioning the influence of a woman over his thoughts. Instead of saying
this plainly or referring indirectly to women by a body part as would thus far be characteristic,
Prufrock substitutes a scent, a substance associated with women. This substitution
demonstrates that like perfume, women are light, flowery, ethereal objects in his eyes. Not only
are women indistinguishable pieces, they are substances.
Prufrock diverges from the trend of looking at women as objects
in two different instances
and seemingly gives them voice-- the women talking of Michelangelo and the mermaids.
Though he describes both sets as communicating he cannot access their words or meanings.
ln this way they do not really differ from other women, they remain as objects in his mind.
"In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo". These lines repeat several
times in the poem yet Prufrock never learns more. The image portrays women as moving in
their own world It emphasizes Prufrock's inability to reach them or to understand their
conversation. He views the women as he would view a painting. He sees the images, but
does not recognize them as real beings with whom he could interact. Instead they symbolize
a world to which he does not belong, a world of objects.
At the very end of the poem, Prufrock endows the mermaids with
voice. He quickly
recognizes though, that they too are in their own world, not his. "I have heard the mermaid
singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me". These mermaids, like human
women, are surreal forms with their own methods of communication. It is particularly
significant that the only beings singing the love song mentioned in the title, or any song for
that matter... mythological femme fatales. "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".
These lines suggest that deep within each man the ability to understand women's songs is
buried, if he can stand to delve into that murky "chamber" of the mind. Prufrock implies that
if a human exercises this ability and the dive becomes a reality, the experience overwhelms
the senses. He believes that to listen and understand a woman's song spells certain
doom for any man.
Prufrock's general fear of being overwhelmed and destroyed by
earlier in the poem as linked to his feelings of isolation.
"Would it have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter
with a smile, To have squeezed
the universe into a ball, To roll it towards some overwhelming question, To say: 'I am Lazarus,
come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'- If one, settling a pillow by
her head, Should say 'That is not what I meant at all / That is not it, at all"'
Though he feels the desire to communicate. Prufrock questions
the real value of communication.
He describes the huge emotional effort it would take to speak to a woman. He equates it with
"squeezing the universe into a ball"-- a feat beyond human abilities. He acknowledges that to
"tell all," to achieve a voice, he would have to first die and then return to the world of the living.
Prufrock especially questions the value of so dangerous an endeavor, if the outcome would
only be misunderstanding. The final image of the passage, shows the reader even after all the
effort, the lady involved gracefully reclines and declines to be understood. She cajoles him for
not understanding. Her attitude implies that he missed her meaning completely and probably
would never understand.
For Prufrock the fear of being misunderstood is certain
and very frightening. He sees it as
akin to death.
"Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in Upon
I am not prophet-- and here's no great matter. 'I have seen the moment of my greatness
flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short.
I was afraid".
The reference he makes to John the Baptist implies even great
men, holy men can be killed by
misunderstanding. Prufrock claims that every time he has the opportunity to assert his
"greatness," he is terrified And each time he considers trying, to communicate, "the eternal
footman," death, laughs at his false courage. Prufrock makes no effort to conceal his fears from
the reader, he is as frightened of misunderstanding as he is of death, perhaps even more.
Prufrock combines his view of women and the lessons he has leaned
about misunderstanding to
formulate his actions. He does not want to be misunderstood, so he prefers to be alone. He
builds a wall around himself-- a tough, exterior shell to insolate himself. "I should have been a
pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors silent seas" Prufrock desires to be a crab or
some other crustacean with claws. He wishes to live his life isolated on the silent, desolate sea
floor. Though he recognizes this life is the cowardly solution, hence "scuttling" he would prefer
it because he would be protected and safe from communication and misunderstanding.
Near the end of the poem when Prufrock equates himself with
Polonius, he is describing to
the reader his shell, the protective barrier he has erected around himself "No! I am not Prince
Hamlet, nor was meant to be, ... Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and
meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool". Prufrock's explosion of profound thoughts, unlike Hamlet's,
does not affect his exterior demeanor. Instead, he imitates Polonius whose action are always
slightly bizarre. Prufrock pretends to be slightly bemused and befuddled in order to hold
women at a distance. They assume he is just obtuse and strange-- too difficult or odd to be
worth the trouble of speaking to or trying to understand. In this way Prufrock avoids women
prying into his self-created isolation. He exhibits a kind of triumph over developing this
facade. He stresses that he only "at times" seems to be ridiculous or foolish. He definitely
believes that though others perceive him as "the Fool," the exact opposite is true. Because
he sees the evils of misunderstanding, he thinks he is the wise one for avoiding
communication that would result in misunderstanding.
Prufrock's problem in communicating with women is really a double-edged
sword. He cannot
speak to them because he fears being misunderstood by beings he views as fragments,
objects. At the same time though, he cannot see women as whole, complete individuals
because he cannot communicate with them. In other words, capable of communicating with
women he would understand them as individuals, not objects, if he didn't view them as
objects, he would be able to communicate with them. To solve this problem, Prufrock
isolates himself. He builds a barrier of silence because he fears misunderstanding and
the emotional stress of trying to clearly communicate feelings, more than he fears
It is the paradox between Prufrock's view of women and his inability
to communicate that
causes him to develop his (and perhaps Eliot's) belief that each man and each woman exists
isolated and alone, forced to stifle and internalize his or her own thoughts and emotions for
fear of being misunderstood.