In the autumn of his life, Prufrock is facing an existential crisis in which he is confronted by his futile and meaningless life. He and his world are stagnated by yellow fog.
He assumes that he will have more time, but is afraid to think about how long he has left to live.
He thinks that he has known everything that there is to experience in life: time, relationships of all kinds, music, women…
But he considers himself at the moment of death when he is added up, dissected, examined, and he asks this question of himself: Have I experienced the depth of life? Do I know despair, loneliness, poverty, joy, true passionate love?
He has never dared to live the messy business of life or allowed himself to be dirtied by an immersion into the fullness of life’s experiences, but rather, he has preferred a surface existence.
He is not a prophet and so cannot know when he will die but he is sure that the time he has left is less than what he has already lived. He consoles himself with the thought that he was likely better off not risking and wrecking his comfortable life for the experiences of despair, joy and love. By the end of the poem, he tentatively asks the questions: What do I mean? What is my meaning? What does my life mean? He tells us that when others try to interpret his life, they will get it wrong. Without really wanting to, he has come to the conclusion that he has lived an unexamined life. Now he is even afraid to dream about being drawn into the world of imagination lest human voices call him back and cause him to drown in his own meaninglessness.
Prufrock seems despondent and unable to face his present reality. Yet, there remains the fact that Prufock is having these thoughts in the autumn of his life and not upon his deathbed. The truest existentialist finds the reason for life at the end of life. Prufock has the very great gift of an existential crisis before his last moments of life. For Prufrock, life can change direction. The audience is not given the satisfaction of knowing what Prufrock does with his questions. We will never know whether he seized his life and lived with more depth of experience. But there is hope in the telling of Prufrock’s interior story that a soul once drawn from itself will not likely return to its ingrown state. Once awakened to questions of meaning, a soul craves the exercise and does not lightly return to sleep.
Text copyright 2008, Athena Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means without the express, written permission of the author.