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Malady of the Modern Man

April 26, 2022 | By

Thomas Stearns Eliot (TS Eliot) captures the inhabitants of a deaf and blind world, who seem to suffer from confusion and contradictions. The stage of this bankrupt world is set in ‘Preludes’, where he shows that life is spent out in smoky days, and he introduces J Alfred Prufrock as the mouthpiece of modern man in ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. The paper will take a closer glance at the malady of Modernity, how it has reduced human beings into a pigmy and how the springs of the earth have become dry.

Life of the Modern Man – a tragedy

Fiction seems to hail Oedipus Rex by Sophocles as the best tragic drama, which stands the test of time. It showed that the greatest error being committed by Oedipus Rex will create pity and horror in the minds of men who would not in their wildest imaginations, would give space to this crime. But the twentieth century laid bare the stark reality. It showed a thousand tragic men who went on committing the same error in their ignorance. Neither, one could emerge as a hero of their lives as Prufrock says “I am no great prophet … I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, nor could escape on the wings “charioted by Bacchus” (‘Ode to Nightingale’).

Eliot showed that modern man seemed to follow a tedious, melancholic routine without any self- introspection. The sense of belonging seems to rupture, where each and everyone seems to be judged. People are reclined to their sleeping postures like cats because they think that their presence would “disturb the universe”. So, the universe is squeezed into a ball, having one-fourth perception of life, modern man tramples on the sawdust streets and the footsteps leave behind no legacy.

The Romantic age was portrayed by John Keats as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (‘To Autumn’) and PB Shelley heralded “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (‘Ode to West Wind’) The “Sea of Faith” started to recede far behind as stated by Mathew Arnold as the Victorian poet could sense the modern world enveloped in the darkness of doubt and fear. TS Eliot pictured this existential crisis of modern man by creating an amorous middle aged man, whose struggles helplessly in the inferno of his mind.

This decadent human life has become a habit of modern man and so one finds the city streets trampled by insistent foot “at four and five and six o’clock”.

Paralysis of Modern City

The film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin shows the uncanniness of an industrialized future under the veil of laughter, where the factory line workers work robotically for six to eight hours, barely having time to eat. This time constructed work has reduced the quality and most importantly the reflection and retrospection on one’s own work. But as TS Eliot refers it in the same allusive tone that “a lonely cab horse steams and stamps” i.e. the rat race that men undergo turns out futile at the end of life.

modern times

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

The cityscape has suffocated the human soul will “smells of steaks in passageways” and “faint smells of bears” unlike the soft incense of “violets” and “musk rose”. Snapping away from Nature, shunning the blissful state of imagination, Prufrock seems to get entangled in the cobweb of mechanical lifestyle.

Human beings have undergone carcinization process and turned into sub human creatures like crabs who scuttles silently and like a worm wriggles, being formulated on the wall. Eliot tries to show that the gaze of others have pinned down the self estimation of human beings into a shadow. Therefore, in ‘Preludes’, there is a lack of a character, in fact in the first two Preludes, there is only representation of disembodied parts like- face, hands, eyes and arms.

To be or not to be

TS Eliot sets that this lack of confidence in modern man leads to his incapability of arriving at a decision. The dark, pessimistic and nihilistic mind undergoes hundred visions and revisions and cannot come to a decision. On the other hand, this damned overthinks about the fact that his presence will ‘disturb the universe’.

Eliot envelopes his poems in a melancholic mood as he himself, as a young man suffered from nervous breakdown and religious crisis. So some critics assumed that Prufrock’s sufferings acquired a personal colour but it cannot be denied that at the same time it has a universal appeal. He thinks himself coward and incapable to become Prince Hamlet, though the later too faces a dilemma of “To be, or not to be”. Hamlet contemplates suicide, but Prufrock never thinks of escaping this living inferno. Modern man is essentially a victim of circumstance and situation. Everyone prepares “a face to meet the faces you meet” so they suffer from identity crisis.

This exploration of the nuances of psychology chiseled out by Eliot can be alluded to Joseph Conrad’s creation Heart of Darkness. In this novella, Marlow also seeks for illumination in the inferno of his soul, where the arduous enterprise undertaken by him would give him a better vision and perception of life. This lack of perception or determination of ‘knowing thyself’ is the modern syndrome of man. He can only suffer from “hundred indecisions” and by measuring out life with “coffee spoons” can say

“I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,..”

TS Eliot used the trope of dramatic monologue in ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ being inspired from the Victorian poet Robert Browning. But unlike in ‘The Last Duchess’ where one gets to know the real intentions of the Duke of Ferara, TS Eliot brings the psychic ambivalence of Prufrock to light. The romantic proposal that he intended to do remained as his inner turmoil.

Prosaic Gesture

‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ sets an unromantic environ by comparing evening with a medical metaphor of “patient etherized upon a table” as the evening turns out insipid. Where a Petrarchan Lover would have fantasized about a romantic proposal, this imagery brings into purview where Prufrock can only come to an overwhelming question “Let us go then you and I”.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot

An extract from ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, by TS Eliot

By reading ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ it is clear that the title is ironical, as in the words of critic George Williamson “is bring divided between passion and timidity in the real world”. The emotional impulse to act or come to a decision is repressed by over scrupulousness, because Eliot here draws an unheroic character, who will be judged by his looks – “thin arms and legs” and “bald spot in the middle of the hair”. He tries to garb his physical infirmity by an apparent sense of sophistication by wearing morning coat and “collar mounting firmly to chin”.

‘A book cannot be judged by its cover’ but Prufrock gets obsessed by about what others will say – “How his hair is growing thin?” and ponders –“Shall I part my hair behind?”. He continues to have useless talks over tea, cakes, marmalade and ice. The last word ‘ice’ is deliberately used by Eliot in order to show the frozen relationship that two fellow individuals have among them. Prufrock will be unable to face dejection, so he fears to put the question of proposal on the plate in front of his lady love. Instead of facing this harsh truth, he would like to contemplate over it peacefully.

Again in ‘Preludes’ the third part shifts to focus on the image of fallen woman to showcase how sex has turned into a mechanical process bereft of emotional, spiritual and intellectual involvement. This anti romantic idealism shows the morbidity of the age. This decadent age turns Nelson’s eye to understand the soul of the woman whose soul is constituted with “thousand sordid images” in the real world; it even turns a deaf ear as it refuses to believe that mermaids will sing the lover’s lyricism to ‘him’ in fantasy.


The fragmented urbanscape in ‘Preludes’ and the blurred vision of Prufrock in ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ sets a mirror of the rootless age in which TS Eliot lived. Prufrock is skeptical about his lack of comprehensibility but at the same time he is critical about the women who engage in the small talk about Michelangelo. The age is turning backwards from spirituality to gross physicality, where there is lack of intellectual fervor. The last line of ‘Preludes’ holds true of the mechanical work and lack of intellectual pursuit undertaken by ancient woman in collecting woods.

Eliot feels the age where men gets digressed by the aroma of perfume, needs to be reawaken by a clarion call. Modern man need to break the shackles of pretense, superficiality and shallow, half known, half perceptions and to undertake the endeavour to peel the layers and get the kernel i.e. to know one’s true self. Knowing oneself, one’s true purpose in life and engagement with the life activities will help one to turn this inferno into paradise.

Works Cited

  1. The Role of Emotions in Wordsworth and Eliot” Accessed on Nov 26, 2021.
  2. Sultan, Stanley. “Tradition and the Individual Talent in ‘Prufrock.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 77–90, .
  3. Smith, Grover. “Charles-Louis Philippe and T. S. Eliot.” American Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, Duke University Press, 1950, pp. 254–59.
  4. A Modernist Approach to TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” Accessed on Dec 12, 2021
  5. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Accessed on October 12, 2021.
  6. Preludes. Accessed on October 2, 2021
  7. Cooper, Xiros John. ‘The Cambridge Introduction to T.S. Eliot’, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006.

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Sampurna Chowdhury is a student of English Honours in Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College. Her writings have been published in The Times of India student editions and various magazines including LLP Magazine (June and December 21), and 'Feminism in India'. She has also presented her paper in the National Level Online Seminar on ‘Education in its Juxtaposition with its Aims and Reality’.
All Posts of Sampurna Chowdhury

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