Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
- "We" are being invited on a trip somewhere. Oh, fun!
- But who am "I"? Am I the reader of "J. Alfred Prufrock," or am I someone else? For the purposes of the poem, you are someone else.
- Right from the very start, by addressing itself to a fictional person, the poem is announcing that it’s a "dramatic monologue." We know that a "dialogue" is two people talking, so a "monologue" must be one person talking, because "mono" means "one." The poem is "dramatic" because it is written in the voice of a speaker other than the poet.
- We know this from the title, which tells us that the speaker is a guy named J. Alfred Prufrock – this is his song. (In olden times, poems were called "songs").
- It’s not clear who Prufrock is singing to, but the title gives us a hint. Love songs are usually sung to people you’re in love with, so it’s a safe bet that Prufrock is addressing someone he loves.
- Because these were more traditional times, we’ll assume this "someone" is a woman. Also, just to liven things up a bit, let’s pretend that we, the readers of the poem, are the woman he loves. Feel free to giggle now if you want.
- Prufrock tells us the time of day that we’re taking this trip: evening. But, this is not your ordinary evening: this "evening" is "spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon the table."
- Holy cow! What does that mean?
- Really, it’s hard to overstate how shocking this opening was to readers of Eliot’s time. We’re still a bit shocked ourselves. It’s one of the most famous opening images – ever.
- The image compares the evening sky to a patient strapped to an operating table and given ether, a kind of anesthetic, to numb the pain of the surgery that is about to happen. (In case you were wondering, the word is pronounced: ee-thur-ized). It’s an amazing, jarring, outrageous image.
- This is how you start a love song? You suckered us into taking an evening stroll, Prufrock, and now it’s like we’re about to watch a gory surgery happen. Give us a moment to calm down.
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
- Prufrock repeats his invitation for us to come along with him. One of things you’ll notice about this poem is that it repeats itself a lot.
- Now, usually when you go on a walk with someone, especially someone you love, you try to pick someplace romantic – a moonlit beach, a tree-lined avenue, that sort of thing. Not Prufrock. He’s going to take us through "half-deserted streets," where people walk around "muttering" to themselves.
- Hm. These are the kind of streets that are filled with "cheap hotels" where you might stay for one night only as a last resort, if you had no other options.
- Well, at least the street has "restaurants."
- Actually, these are the kind of restaurants that have "sawdust" on the floor to clear up all the liquor that people are spilling as they start to get drunk. It’s also littered with oyster-shells that no one bothers to clean up.
- Eliot is sending us a lot of small signals in this section. "Half-deserted" makes the streets sound pretty sketchy, and "one-night cheap hotels" only adds to this impression. "Oysters" are an aphrodisiac, which means, to put it bluntly, that they make people want to have sex…
- Oh dear. It looks like Prufrock has taken us on a stroll through the seedy red-light district, where prostitutes and vagrants hang out.
- Remember the epigraph, which comes from Dante’s Inferno? Well, we’re in a different kind of hell – the underbelly of a modern city.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
- The streets twist and turn like a "tedious argument." It’s an argument with "insidious intent" – the streets are so confusing it’s as if they were trying to trick us into getting lost.
- But, by this point, we might feel that Prufrock is also being "insidious" by trying to trick us into taking a walk through the seedy part of town.
- We could even go a step further and say that both the streets and Prufrock resemble Guido da Montefeltro, who tried to fool God (see "Epigraph").
- The streets are leading somewhere, however. They lead "to an overwhelming question," a question of huge and possibly life-altering significance.
- Oh, tell us, tell us!
- Nope, Prufrock isn’t going to tell us, and he doesn’t even want us to ask what it is. If we want to find out, we’re going to have to take a walk with him. Sounds pretty tricky, if you ask us.
- For good measure, he repeats his favorite phrase, "let us go," for a third time. Seriously, folks, when people warn you about bad peer-pressure situations, this is what they mean.