The early part of the1900s was marked with many big changes; lots of technological advances,scientific discoveries, and political turmoil led to a major revolution inthought. This was the period of Darwin and his theory of evolution, Karl Marxand Marxism, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, and many others.
These people had new, unique thought processes that rocked the ideologicallycramped world of Victorian era thinking. This new wave of thought was calledmodernism, it completely broke from the mold of antiquated Victorian/ romanticera thought, and rippled outwards, influencing literature and many otheraspects of culture. Writersduring this time period decided to go against the grain, and began writinginnovatively, starting a “tradition of the new.” It was at the beginning ofthis movement that T.S. Eliot wrote his famous poem “The Love Song of J.
AlfredPrufrock.” Eliot’s poem marked a significant turning point from nineteenthcentury Victorian literature to twentieth century modern literature, this canbe seen through many different modern literary characteristics and devices suchas “stream of consciousness” writing, an unconventional structure, alluding toearlier authors, and a confused state of identity or reality, just to name afew. With this style, Eliot created the character of J. Alfred Prufrock, anervous and indecisive man of middle age, best portrayed through the device of “streamof consciousness” writing.”Streamof consciousness” writing was a literary device of modern period writers.
Thisis where the reader is given full access to all of the thoughts of a character,every last one of them, unadulterated and unfiltered. This technique was usedto represent the human consciousness, in all of its raw existence. One exampleof this is:Butthough I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,ThoughI have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,Iam no prophet — and here’s no great matter;Ihave seen the moment of my greatness flicker,AndI have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,Andin short, I was afraid. (Eliot 1387)This quote from the poemdisplays the characteristics of “stream of consciousness” well. There is a lackof punctuation, such as periods, which creates a flowy and constant stream feel,as if the reader were inside Prufrock’s mind listening to his chain of thoughtsspill out one after another. Eliot’s utilization of this constant flow ofthoughts, builds up the character, and shows Prufrock’s indecisiveness well ashe bounces from one thought to another. Prufrock’s anxiety also comes throughwith this style of writing.
His mind cannot rest on one notion and itcontinually flutters all over the place, like a panicked butterfly, as hespills his inner thoughts without filter. He mentions that even the “eternalfootman,” or death, would laugh at him because he has done nothing meaningfulwith his life and then Prufrock says he is afraid. With this, Prufrock is shownas a nervous being who is very critical of himself. Through “stream ofconsciousness” writing, the reader gets a chance to have a more intimaterelationship with the character, closer of a relationship than other styles ofwriting in the past produced. This was not the only modern writing characteristicof the time though. T.
S. Eliot wanted to break away from the normal of thepast and test out playing around with different meters. Beginning also withmodernism, was the movement to “make it new,” experiment, and to bend thenorms. Usually, in the past, poems had a simple and constant meter, with mostlyone form throughout. Looking at the poem, it is quite the mixed bag of meters.To start off and name one kind of meter, there are many rhyming couplets, forinstance with the verse, “in the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo”(Eliot 1385). Here he rhymes two words “come and go” with “Michelangelo,” whichmakes it a rhyming couplet.
Then he mixes it up and writes in sort of a freeverse, with no traditional or proper meter. On top of that, on other occasions,Eliot will write with a blank verse. This is written with a regular meter andno rhyme, which is usually, for the most part, an iambic pentameter. It is ametering form with five unstressed syllables following each five stressedsyllables. This modern writing style with a meter in flux further enforces the characterPrufrock, and his scatterbrained indecisiveness and anxiety; the structureEliot uses accomplishes this as well. Eliot uses a lack of structuring as another experimentaltechnique. One example of this is the fact that it is known time is passing,but questionably, at what speed? The reader has a hard time figuring it outsince he jumps from past to present numerous times, like when Prufrock says, “Ishall wear flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaidsinging, each to each” (Eliot 1388). He says “shall” talking about the future,and then in the next line he is talking about the past and says “have heard.” Thedynamism in the storyline, was yet another characteristic of modernism inliterature. Writers of the time did not follow a normal timeline, they liked to,again, experiment and jostle around the usual beginning/middle/end, adding an airof ambiguity. Writers also liked to reference pieces of literature past, andEliot did not miss the chance with that opportunity. Eliot dropped many different names in this poem, and notjust names, allusions to their past pieces of work that came before him too. Withmodernism, writers also liked to reference to other previous pieces of work byother writers, sometimes in an attempt to outdo them or just to pay homage.Eliot made many references, one being to Shakespeare and Hamlet.
He wrote a whole stanza about Hamlet, mentioning Prufrock’sindecisiveness could not be compared to Hamlet’s. The whole stanza was evenwritten in iambic pentameter, which was popularized by Shakespeare. The listcontinues for characteristics of modern literature, on to reality and identity. Another telltale sign of modern piece of literature isthat writers of the time liked to play with identity and reality, obscuring whatpeople thought to be true at the time: that reality and identity were notmalleable. During the modern period, with the ushering in of new ways ofthinking, reality began to be looked at from a different viewpoint, one thatsaw it as an object that could be manipulated or even seen through. ThroughEliot’s ambiguous style of writing, it confused the reader and leaves them toquestion the identity of Prufrock and what kind of world he lives in.
Especiallysince the poem has quite an obscured way of explaining normal events andthoughts. To add to the theme of playing with identity, the epigraph at the beginningof the poem is a quotation straight from Dante’s Inferno, in which the whole piece revolved around the question, “Whoare you?” This question is a one of identity, and Prufrock even poses a possibleanswer to it with the line, “do not ask, who is it?” (Eliot 1185). These examplesshow how Eliot is constantly playing with identity and reality throughout theentire poem. Through these modern techniques mentioned, “stream ofconsciousness” writing, an unconventional structure, alluding to earlierauthors, and a confused state of identity and reality, Eliot painted theportrait of J. Alfred Prufrock, an anxious, indecisive character who was toooverly critical of himself going through life. This drab, middle aged man’slife, so well created by a twenty-seven-year-old writer, makes the readerquestion why and how someone of that age could write from the perspective sowell. It’s highly possible Eliot may have been projecting an image of himselfonto the Prufrock, as reconciliation for his own reality.