Modernity can be looked at as something that travels and progresses with us as time flows by. For instance, vehicles become increasingly modern as we grow older - the features get better and more improved. In this context, the word ‘modern’ can be looked at as being similar to ‘contemporary’, that which belongs to the time period we exist in. This would lead to the interpretation that calling something ‘modern’ means judging its subjective value. However, when we talk about the ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’ in the cultural sense, we mean a collection of movements in art, literature, fashion, and science, all of which has radically altered the consciousness of the human mind - changing the way we think and feel.
In literary history, modernism started around early 1900s, with the onset of what was then called the Great War. The fragmented state of society and that of the mind was reflected in the fragmented story-telling of our Modernist writers. After the war had ended, there was a general sense of disillusionment and alienation within the world and that was reflected in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land -
Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.
But the quintessential work of Modernism was written and published by the same a couple of years earlier and sets the stage for the literary movement in question. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock takes on the themes of isolation and anxiety through a dramatic monologue that reflects the internal fragmentation of the post-war people. After the war, several parts of the world and their people were left in ruin. The trauma of the war led to severe mental crises amongst the populace and was followed with the tearing down of religious and moral values and the abandonment of faith. This was the “Modern Era” and these were the “Modern Individuals” that Eliot wrote about. The Waste Land was written in 1922, right after the end of the first world war and reflected the disillusionment within the minds of the Modern Man. However, it is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that really shows the onset of alienation and dread within the people as a generation entered a period of intense wartime. Written four years before WWI, it puts to words the ever-increasing anxiety of a generation entering a period of unfathomable and unwarranted suffering that promised nothing more than leaving everyone in the dark.
Eliot begins his Love Song with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno: Count Guido says that he would never express himself if Dante was to return to the world of the living. Since Dante was to remain in hell and would not be able to share his stories with other people, the Count was comfortable speaking about his sufferings without the ‘fear of infamy’. Furthermore, like Count Guido, Eliot’s protagonist – Prufrock – was also in hell; his hell however was on earth itself.
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table;
(lines 1-3, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
Prufrock’s hell is a modern city with “half deserted streets” compared to a desolate patient. “This dehumanising imagery” reflects the disorder and the disillusionment within the “mind of Prufrock and the world around him”. His hell is himself and other people. He is eternally plagued by indecision and he is hyperconscious of other people’s impressions of him. Two years before the end of WWII, the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote No Exit – a play that told the story of three individuals who arrive in hell portrayed as a drawing room. At the end of the play, one of them comes to a dramatic conclusion:
“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”
Prufrock isn’t alone in this world; he is aware that he must interact with others. However, his feeling of shame is brought on by the realisation of other’s existence and their gaze. Sartre uses the example of looking at someone through a keyhole in No Exit – this act reduces the other to a mere object that produces thrill and, in turn, brings a feeling of shame onto the voyeur. The voyeur looks at themselves in the same gaze they project onto the other, and as a result, feels shame in the gaze of the other. In The Love Song, Prufrock’s shame is his ‘realisation’ that he is little more to other people than the physical manifestation of his body. The gaze of the Other reduces him to an object and deprives him of freedom to make a decision. Prufrock is constantly paralysed with the thought of making the wrong choice.
In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
(lines 47-48, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
From the beginning of the poem, Prufrock is immobilised through his inability to take action. Eliot sets up a juxtaposition in the first stanza. The first line, “let us go” suggests that the poem and its character will move forward in time and space, so to speak. However, the poem lets us down by staying stuck in place: the lines “Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent” suggest that there is no correct path to take to go forward; one feels boring and the other threatening. Prufrock’s social anxiety leads to his procrastination. He is unable to make the most basic decisions – about what to wear or eat – and plays out scenarios in his mind where he would take the chance and interact with others. He imagines that he would “descend the stair” and greet his companions but he stops to ask “Do I dare?”. He frets about his outfit and the bald spot on the top of his head, never knowing how to even begin. Trying to make the best choice out of a seemingly endless list leads to making none at all. He thinks that his slightest action would send the universe into turmoil.
Prufrock’s hyperconsciousness of his own actions prevents him from communicating. He thinks twice, often more, about the words he is about to say, and after he is done, he decides to say nothing at all. He fails to force any moment to its crisis and as a result, fails to find love. He fails to make meaningful connections with people due to his constant self-doubt, and as a result, the only person he does talk to, is himself. The Love Story is Prufrock talking to himself, or his split-self. All scenarios are inherently playing out in Prufrock’s head; he is far removed from the actual world to perform an action (Hussein). He tries to escape his reality by imagining himself as a crab “scuttling across the floors of silent seas”.
This brings us to Prufrock’s, and the modern individual’s sense of isolation. He cannot live according to his own accord. This modern hero’s “painful entanglement leads to the utter isolation from the mainstream of society as they want to escape the abrasive reality by hiding themselves” (Hussein). In a practical sense, modernity has connected people around the world like never before. We are mere metaphorical meters away from each other. However, it has also rendered us emotionally bereft. We, the modern people, are perhaps more isolated than humans have ever been. Even within a collective or in public spaces, even in the heart of the busiest cities in the world do we feel completely alone. We inhabit the same spaces as other people but live in entirely different worlds. The world that we live in, is dark and devoid of life. There is no sense of communication, yet tension somehow radiates from within.