Modern Man and his loss of identity: T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

XX Century

Historical Background

Home Policy. It was a period of moderate rule and great social reforms under George V. 

1906: The Liberal Party wins the general elections.

1911: The money Bill is signed

1912: The National Insurance Scheme is approved; it assures the workers a sum against sickness and unemployment
Foreign Policy: Ireland gets the Home Rule (an independent Parliament) but the Protestants in Ulster do not want to be included in the scheme. The Sinn Fein (in Celtic language: ourselves alone) is created by the Catholics.

1916: at Easter, the members of the Sinn Fein rebel in Dublin calling complete independence, but they are defeated and executed (Easter Rising). Subsequently they form an Army, the Irish Republican Army or IRA that uses terrorist methods. The English parliament decides not to move directly against them because it understands the importance of the support of small nations during the 1st World War. A police force, the Black and Tans is sent to sedate the rebels.

The First World War: Britain and Germany ally against France. But William II of Germany wants to challenge Britain on the sea and tries to get influence on the Balkan States. This represents a danger for Russia for the control of the Mediterranean and for England as in this way Germany can control Egypt and India. So Britain starts an alliance with France (Entent Cordiale) and Russia (that supports Serbia).

1917: Russia collapses because of the Bolshevik Revolution

The Peace Treaty is signed in Versailles and the League of Nations is founded in Geneva.

Between the two Wars

Inner Policy
: The war has left heavy economic consequences: the value of the money falls; the taxes rise; there are difficulties in transports because of the loss of shipping and machineries; the exportation of coal diminishes and the iron, steel an textile industries decline, whereas the U.S.A. and Japan develop economically.

1926: the workers go on strike because of the reduction of their wages. The war

1918: the Liberal Party disappears and is substituted by the Labour Party

1921: the women over thirty get the votes.

1922 to 2nd world war: The Conservative Party detains the power.

the women over twenty-one get the vote.

1929: Economic breakdown, famous all over the world as Wall Street Crash.

1936: Edward VIII is crowned but his reign only lasts ten months because he abdicates to marry Wally Simpson, an American divorcee. George VI comes on the throne.
England does not intervene in the Spanish Civil war.

1938: England and French coalize.

Foreign Policy: England has to face troubles in the colonies. Ireland claims its independence and the Dominions ask to be legally recognised.

1921: Great Britain recognises Ireland as a free state in the British Commonwealth of Nations

1926: The countries first colonised by Great Britain become autonomous

The Dominions get legal recognition in the Statute of Westminster.

1935: thanks to Gandhi, India becomes a federation of self-governing provinces (India Act)

: Japan and Germany withdraw from the League of Nation. Italy intervenes in Abysin.

The U.S.A. declare their political isolation.

Germany and Italy are on Franco’s side during the Spanish Civil War

1938: Hitler starts frightening Europe with the annexation of Austria.

Russia signs the Pact of no-aggression with Germany.

1939: Hitler invades Poland.

The 2nd World War:

after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, England and France declare war.

W. Churchill
leads the coalition government in England

1940: Italy joins Hitler at war; France is defeated and Paris is invaded by German troops;
Germany prepares to invade England that is saved by her air-force

1941: Hitler attacks Russia while Japan attacks U.S.A. at Pearl Harbour. America enters war.1942: The American General Montgomery defeats the German Colonel Rommel in North Africa and Russia starts its retreat.

Italy is invaded by German troops.

The Allied forces meet at Elba.

In Japan war goes on and the U.S.A. throw the atomic bomb

After the war

1948: India gets its independence together with the African Colonies.

1952: Elisabeth II comes on the throne of England.

Literary Background 

The preoccupation of the writers shifts from society to man himself. Man is dissatisfied and disilluded (Age of Anxiety) because of  
  • a social and economical crisis
  • the collapse of old values
  •  A deeper understanding of reality due to an improvement of education and to the developments of the means of communications such as radio and films
  • The influence of Freud’s ideas about the self-spread in literature by T. Dostoevsky and Proust.
The Edwardians: under Edward there is a period of transition with writings about social aspects and fear for the future. 
The main writers:
H.G. Wells: interpreter of the fears of man about a future catastrophe (The War of the Worlds; The Invisible Man; The Island of Dr. Moroe)
R. Kipling and J. Conrad deal with problems and contrasts of the colonialism. They speak about the reality of countries and peoples different from the English one, but their reflections then become to symbolise the uncertainty of man fighting between the different forces of instinct and rationalism; truth assumes different meanings. The time sequence is no longer chronological, but follows the streams of the unconscious.

The Modernism (1910s): the writers experience new forms that focus on the mental processes in human mind. In art this process is called Stream of Consciousness and refers to the theories of H. Bergson (the inner time eludes the clock time) and W. James (the consciousness flows like a river in an area beyond communication).
To reach this form of expression the writers used different techniques: story in the story, metaphors, various narrators and points of view.
The interior monologue becomes the instrument to translate this phenomenon into words.  

Main authors: 
V. Woolf (Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; The Waves; Orlando) ; J. Joyce that after a period of transition in which he still uses naturalistic techniques (The Dubliners) he tries to get to pure objectivity with a sort of invisible narrator and an indirect interior monologue, eluding the chronological time in Ulysses, a metaphor of the modern anti-hero.
Inter-war years :
Novel: the writers choose different techniques to show their fears and doubts or to proclaim their socio-political ideas.
Main authors: S. Maugham, G. Green, A. Huxley and G. Orwell.
Poetry : there is a period of transition from 1885 to the 20th during which appear new trends in particular under the influence of the Irish Pet W. B. Yeats that experiences new techniques and spread new ideas about an uncertain future. He speaks about Christ’s Second Coming in the world.
Other experiences in the world of poetry are due to:
The Georgians: that promoted a revival of Romanticism about natural and rural life. Main exponents: A. Brooke and W. De La Mare.
The War Poets: they speak about the disillusion n and the horror after the experience of the 1st world war.
Main exponents: W. Owen, S. Sasson.  
Symbolist movement: it gives origin to different styles and trends; its writers are influenced by the French Decadentists and stress the individual emotions in a free verse.
Vorticism: it follows Cubism and Futurism; its mouthpiece is Ezra Pound that writes his poems applying his studies about Oriental Languages and Celtic tradition.
Imagism: it dictates new rules concerning the way of writing poems based on simple brief sentences that pivot around an image. Main authors: A. Lowell and E. Pound.
Modernism: the writers belonging to this movement are more interested in the individual and symbols

T. S. Eliot in England, with the help of E. Pound, uses the Correlative Objective in his famous work The Waste Land, a picture of the incommunicability, lack of love and loneliness of man in this fragmentary, ruined world without hope. The only solution is in faith.

After a long period of silence, the theatre starts a new life with the Irish revival, already started by O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw. It follows the Irish tradition linking non-realism (B. Brecht) and music. The panorama is the one of a commercial theatre dominated by important actors and directors that cared about money market and star system. The only exception is T. S. Eliot that writes Murder in the Cathedral on the death of Saint Thomas A’ Beckett following the old Greek tradition of the chorus.

Britain has to wait until the 1950s to discover a new theatrical vein with new trend:
The Theatre of Cruelty, based on verbal and physical aspect to stress and think about the horrors of the war.  Main authors. A. Huxley, The Devils, about the power of inquisition.
The Theatre of Anger, whose main aim is to evidence the clash between social classes that still exists and the disillusion of young people that believed in ideals that revel their hypocrisy.
Main authors: J. Osborn, Look back in Anger, whose protagonist, Jimmy, becomes a sort of mouthpiece of the English Beat Generation.
The Theatre of the Absurd that seem to unify the experiences of the other two movements to show the anguish of our age. There are no real characters, the structure is usually circular, nothing happen and nothing changes. Man can’t communicate because words are meaningless in this sterile world.
Main author: T. Beckett, Waiting for Godot: the only thing man can do is to wait, hopelessly, until death.

T. S. Eliot

Life and Works:

1888: T. S. Eliot was born in Saint Louis, Missouri (U.S.A.). It was a country where colonists and immigrates from every part of the world coexisted. His grandfather was an educated Puritan comes to Missouri to teach religion to the pioneers of the frontier towns. He founded schools and influenced young Eliot. He was a student at Harvard

1910: Eliot writes The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Then he goes to Paris where he studies for about a year.

1914: Eliot leaves again for Europe to study philosophy in Germany. When the First World War breaks out he is forced to go to Oxford to work on his thesis about the philosopher and critic F. H. Bradley. (1846-1924). At this point he was 26 years old and had already written his most important early poetry. Yet he stays in England for the rest of his life, marrying there and holding a position with Lloyd Banks.

1922: Eliot writes The Waste Land.

1924-25: He publishes The Hollow Men.

1927: He becomes an English subject and joins the Church of England.

1929: he becomes the director of the Faber and Faber.

1930: after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, his work acquires a quieter and gentler tone, exploring the mysteries of Human faith. Eliot writes Ash Wednesday.

1935: He starts writing for the theatre with Murder in the Cathedral and the poem The Four Quartets, finished in 1943.

1939: He writes the play The Family Reunion then followed by The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Stateman.

1948: Eliot is awarded the Order Merit and The Noble Prize for Literature. 

The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock 
In this period Eliot was under the influence of the French poet Jules Laforgue (1860-87), that renewed the e 19th century way of writing with the use of the fantastic irony, free association and bathos.
The application of the interior monologue is an obvious debt to Robert Browning, even if Eliot’s character lacks the interiority and the solidity of a browning’s persona.
In Eliot’s poem, the dramatic monologue used by the Victorian writer is re-arranged as an unconscious confession of the soul. The listener becomes the alter ego who tries to discover his identity.
The only action in the poem is the game of impressions and remembrances. The only link between the various parts relies on his thoughts, and on the irony that Prufrock uses towards his society and himself, giving a tragic vision of his world.
Under this point of view Eliot was influenced by the ideas of F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). The philosopher treated the personality as a delusion: the other centres do not know every «finite centre» of the person.
At the time of this poem Eliot was learning something about the Symbolist Movement. These studies introduced him to the French poets Mallarmè and Verlaine and gave him a new curiosity and new interests. Eliot started approaching Dante and the metaphysical poets considering their way of writing modern and near to the 20th century’s styles.
Besides, it dates back to this period his friendship with Ezra Pound tat published Eliot’s poems on the magazine Poetry (Chicago) in 1915.


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the first long poems that T. S. Eliot wrote and it is very indicative of his entire production. It contains all the themes that will be developed in his later works and represents the starting point for the illustration of the modern decadence and spiritual desolation.
In this poem Eliot shows some of his beliefs:
  • – In poetry the personality of the author must be exstinted (the poet uses the inscrutable personae).
  • – In poetry the use of the objective narrative can assume a different meaning for every reader and implies no precise story or interpretation of a concealed narration.
This poem is powerful because of its random transition, its poetic flights, and its echoes of other poems. The way to read it is to follow its movements and to live in them.
There are two levels of reading: the “heroic” and the “colloquial” one. The former is connected to the various quotations, more or less explicit, both to other past works and to great figures.
The latter is represented by the lack of logical cohesion that conveys the idea of mental confusion of the protagonist. The unity can be found on a formal and stylistic level thanks to the repetitions and the recurrent images that link together the references.
In this monologue the listener, you, is presented like a relative but without a proper identification. Probably it is Prufrock himself who tries to communicate with his alter ego or with the reader. Both I and You share a common destiny: they drown (l. 132).
The basic words are connected with the movement (walk), the food (eat, restaurants) and the communication or, better, the lack of it.
Prufrock fails these three functions: he makes a journey but at the end shipwrecks; the food is for him only a banal action of the every day routine, a status symbol without a vital function; finally, Prufrock cannot speak either to himself or to the other. His failure is complete.
His argumentation is sterile; it does not imply real relationships. Nobody in Prufrock’s world can speak, the only subjects people face are artificial, futile, they have no links with real life.

The poem becomes a sort of symphony where there are many leit-motives:

  • – the description of the city,
  • – the social behaviours,
  • – the social judgements
  • – the fear of old age and of death
These images are new, taken from the past, from Dante, from the Metaphysical Poets: the evening is compared with an anesthetisized patient; the streets lead to a tedious argument; the fog and the cat, the coffee-spoons, the insect stuck on a pin, the crab in the sea. The final image of escape seems to free Prufrock from the futility of life, but it is only another disillusion. He does not die among the waves; he dies when he hears the voices of his society.
This fight against the time is a failure on a physical level and becomes a failure for the lack of moral courage. Prufrock’s heroic dimension fails: he cannot make any choice, his questions are without any answer and the society is futile and meaningless.
The definition of the protagonist’s identity is supplied by the glances of the other people. Prufrock becomes an insect “sprawling on a pin”, nailed by an artificial and false culture.
Man is hopeless because pleasure cannot be realised and made active (l. 60).
Prufrock tries again the communicative approach, but people around him show signs of paralysis and disgust. They are hollow men and the society around them appears unreal. Even if he could be a Lazarus to reveal his knowledge, he would not speak threatened by the incomprehension of the others. Incommunicability finds its complete confirmation.

The monologue takes place in the evening, under a yellow fog symbol of his mental confusion. The time setting is analysed under a personal and social point of view: Prufrock is growing old and the use of the direct speech conveys this idea with realism and immediacy.
It is not a cultural analysis of the passing of the time; it is a more cruel examination of the aspect of a Man who tries to mask his weakness and his decay.
The streets are lonely and desolate in Prufrock’s journey, the restaurant are only muttering retreats, not places where to meet, to speak, and to communicate.
Even the floors of the sea do not give a real shelter; they supply a way of escape from a world made up of conventions.


Prufrock : Prufrock is a name with a voice, the sentences he utters seem to be bound arbitrary. His name has a precise value: t is a common name in St. Louis. Missouri.
The references to figures of epical greatness like Guido Da Montefeltro, Hamlet, St. John, Lazarus and Ulysses contrast with the meaningless and neurotic personality of Prufrock.
Prufrock is a weak idealist who feels the weight of the banality of everyday life but is unable to follow his insight. He is a complete failure as his sensibility and his rationality do not help him to live up to his ideals.
He is closed in a prison made of overwhelming questions without answer. These questions are about the identity of Man, the communication and the knowledge.
He is an inadequate character: his journey finishes with a shipwreck and he dies when he hears human voices. He cannot evade reality and feels confused. His self-irony stresses this emotion and confesses his personal inner hell only because he thinks nobody can hear him, it is impossible to come back (like Guido da Montefeltro). Maybe, the confession he is making is only to him or to a reader that shares his same hell.
Prufrock is a middle-aged man who feels fear for his growing old. He is afraid of death, the eternal Footman, and is threatened by the social judgement (they will say). This figure is attracted by his society, but understands that there is something more important, the overwhelming question he does not dare to ask because it would mean to go against social behaviours.
The mermaids could give him an answer about love, about the meaning of life. He sees them, but they do not reveal anything to him because he cannot change his life.
Prufrock’s personality is torn into two faces: one is real, a man with doubts about future and whose life is built on repetitive routines; the other refers to the inner aspect of man, the ego who would like to give solutions to his questions.


1) Objective Correlative: T. S. Eliot himself defined this term in his essay Hamlet and His Problems (1919): The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an Objective Correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, era given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

2) Imagism: According to the main principles of Imagism are: an image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, so the poet

  • – must not use superfluous words, which does not reveal something
  • – must use either no ornament or good ornament
  • – must not be viewy
  • – must go in fear of abstraction
  • – must not be descriptive
  • – must not make each line stop dead at the end
  • – must not mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another.

3) Dramatic Monologue: it is the name given to a kind of poem in which a single person, not the poet, is speaking. The speaker expresses his/her feelings to a silent listener that is evidently present. The monologue is dramatic because it is theatrical and often the actions told are tragic for the speaker. Usually these poems are rich in dramatic irony because the narrator reveals unconsciously his real self or his personality.
Interior Monologue: it is a development of the dramatic m. in the 20th century.

6) R. Browning: (1812-1889) Major English poet of the Victorian Age, married to poet Elisabeth Barrett, he is noted for his psychological portraiture and for his mastery of dramatic monologue. In fact he influenced many modern writers with his emphasis on the psychology of the individual and his use of stream of consciousness. He wrote about the variety of modern life in a language that nothing owed to conventions.

7) Metaphysical poetry: It was a highly intellectual poetry written mainly in the 17th century and whose most notable exponent was John Donne It is a blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity characterised by conceit that is the juxtaposition of apparently unconnected ideas and reinforced by a dramatic directness of the language.