Study Guide

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Passivity

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In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (13-14)

Although these lines don’t add to Prufrock’s story (or lack thereof), the image of these women coming and going while talking about a famous Renaissance painter totally captures the passivity of the poem. It’s not like they are looking at paintings or taking a class or something. They’re just talking about old stuff in a room that isn’t described at all.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. (lines 23-34)

Prufrock has big plans. BIG plans. And there’s plenty of time to accomplish them all before tea is served. He has time to spend an entire stanza talking about the fog. Also, he has time to get ready and "prepare a face" to meet other people. Kind of weird, but OK. We’re not so sure about "to murder and create," though. That could be hard to get done before tea, unless he has a getaway car planned already. But there’s definitely time for "a hundred indecisions." If anyone is capable of not making a decision, it’s our man Prufrock.

So how should I presume? (line 54)

This is just one of the many stall-tactics that Prufrock uses to put of asking his question or saying anything important at all. He justifies all his delays because he doesn’t want to "presume," or act like something is the case when it may not be. But what he really means is he doesn’t want to take a risk by sharing his thoughts or feelings.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? (lines 75-80)

Here he’s just lazing around, like a kid on summer holiday, eating sweet foods and trying not to "wake up" the afternoon/evening, which is being personified as a sleeping person. It’s hard to tell whether the evening is really tired, though, or if it’s just "malingering," or faking it to get out of doing something important. Kind of like Mr. Lazy Bones over there with his "tea and cakes." He’s like the kid who promises to do the dishes after dinner and then after dinner complains, "But I’m too tiiiired!" He doesn’t have the "strength" to do anything that make cause a stir.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
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. (lines 111-119)

In literature, Hamlet is a classic example of a passive character. He spends all his time thinking about whether to murder his uncle, and he never gets around to doing anything about it. But Prufrock is even worse than Hamlet. He’s more like an "attendant lord" who serves a king. Everybody is nice to him, but nobody respects him because he doesn’t want to cause trouble for anyone, including himself. In other words, Prufrock is saying that he’s not even the main character in his own story.

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