I am spectacularly terrible at interpersonal relationships. I have several theories as to why, but I think my primary source for the exquisite ways I manage to damage my relationships stems from my inability to stop thinking.
The very first time I read “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, my first thought was “That’s me!” I probably should’ve reigned in my enthusiasm because poor Prufrock is a mess. He wanders through the whole poem noticing details that bear no weight in his life and asking himself if he should act to change his course. And at the very end of the poem he hears the mermaids signing and remains so indecisive that he doesn’t act and the moment passes. Prufrock over-thinks his entire life and so ends up caught when the human voices wake him. Which is funny in that sad way funny moments in stories often are when they ring too true.
I also really love Prufrock because of his similarity to another of my favorite characters: Hamlet. But Prufrock doesn’t see himself as the lead in his own life. In fact, Prufrock explicitly states he’s “no Prince Hamlet”. For those of you playing along at home, we call that irony. Because Prufrock is Hamlet in poem form with less blood on the stage. Neither character can make a decision to save their lives. Hamlet just has the weight of the realm on his shoulders, while Prufrock has a dinner party.
Both of these men have to decide but find themselves stuck in their indecisiveness because they are thinking through every possible situation and possible outcome: they over-think.
And this is why I love both of these characters.
Because I frequently find myself stymied when it comes to making a decision. All of the layers of information weighing on my decision slows the process. Just to decide what I want to eat takes evaluating numerous elements, and that’s just for me. I turn the decision over to someone else when I’m with a group, because I’m never able to decide out of fear of making a bad choice. So I think over the question and my many possible answers for a long time. But, most of the time, this thinking ends up wasted because I always second-guess my decisions. The human voices wake us and we drown.
And so, when I read Hamlet and Prufrock my first semester as an underclassmen, I knew I was finally in a place with kindred spirits who take their decisions very seriously. And while this realization that such sad characters reflect such an innate personality trait might lead other to despair, I found comfort in knowing that others have felt like me. Probably less often, but, still, other existed who understood.
It is not, however, all doom and gloom. There is always a pathway for connection through the indecisiveness. I have met some interesting people along the way because I’ve hesitated, which allowed them the space to stop and chat. And, actually, the easiest way I’ve found to get a stranger to stop and talk is to look a little lost.
I’m still not entirely sure what to do when the human voices speak, but I’ve decided to try to look a little lost more often to try to meet those real people who can relate to Prufrock and Hamlet. And I’ve decided that it’s time to start sharing my thoughts on this poem that has so captivated me I want to pin pieces of it around me. I’m sure I could write books on the different meanings the poem has had for me over the years since I first went wandered through the half-deserted streets with Prufrock. But this post will suffice for now. I would love to hear your thoughts on the poem, so please do share in the comments!
My final thought will be to you with the recording of Eliot reading the poem himself below.