In T. S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, published in 1917, Prufrock is an outsider. His movement within the boundaries of city life is the hovering of a detached soul. He does not identify with the world of 'cakes and ale and ices'; because he cannot. The voices of his environment recede from him, and ultimately he declares that he cannot hear the mermaids singing. The traits of an outsider in Prufrock can be better detected in the light of a comparison with an existentialist outsider figure: Albert Camus' character Meursault, from his novel The Outsider, published in 1942. The two can be seen as consecutive stages in the development of the modern man's predicament.
Both characters, I feel, are products of heightened realism, and this is reflected in their quest for truth. As examples of realist figures, both provide a microscopic view of their world through meticulous descriptions. The similarity in their environments, perhaps coincidental, is reflected in the fact that both Prufrock and Meursault enter 'sawdust restaurants with oyster shells'.
Prufrock's song opens with a peep into Dante's inferno and goes on to enter a labyrinthine and misty landscape where it seems the smog will smother him. Meursault's hell arrives when he is tried for murder. Up until that point he had been blissfully unaffected by so-called social norms. Hell for him, is the loss of innocence (almost like Christian idea of the Fall) and the people who condemn him. As Sartre says, 'Hell is Other people'. And despite all attempts, there is no escape. Prufrock tries to wriggle out of his emotional void by singing his love song, but love does not exist. Meursault does not even try to 'love', because having come later than Prufrock, he knows the impossibility of love. He says
His mother's death is nothing more to him than mere fact. There is no sense of loss because for him love had been impossible. Love implies a mastering of the Other, which is impossible. Detached from all essences, for Meursault social ties consist simply in getting used to the Other, like his neighbour had got used to his mangy dog.
It is interesting to note the title of the book in which Prufrock was first published: Prufrock and other observations. Observations! The very word implies detachment. And this is more obvious because throughout the poem, Prufrock is never involved in the scenes he describes. His observations are objective:
But the detachment is not total, because Prufrock has known what he sees already:
This partial detachment is implied in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley which had influenced Eliot, as well as in existentialist philosophy. For Bradley, from the point of view of the subject the psychological event is objective, while from that of the observer it is the subject's personal experience. From this Eliot concludes that objects of traditional philosophy are 'half objects'. According to Sartre, too, man's 'being-for-itself' is not absolute. True to this condition, Meursault cannot help getting involved in his trial, even if for a moment. At first he adopts a detached attitude, then he seems to revolt against the fact that very little consideration is taken of him during court procedures. Finally he recovers his detachment from what is occurring, his mind wanders from the trial, and he would like to be over with it. Thus partial detachment, in both cases, is an essential trait of the outsider.
Prufrock and Meursault cannot escape from the hell around them. And the closer Prufrock gets to the room where he hopes for love and escape, the more he perceives everything as fragmented and alien. There are eyes, arms and severed heads. The love song cannot serve as a romantic escape route, because the sense of wholeness required cannot be found in a fragmented world. Prufrock's very life is fragmented: it can be measured out in coffee spoons. By the end of the poem there is an impression that the 'you and I' are parts of the same person - one looks on, as the other acts.
That Meursault too is a split self is clear from the remarkable disparity in tone between the first and second parts of The Outsider. The immediacy in the former is replaced by a less confident tone in the latter. The second part is spoken with an intuition, if not intellection, of what he represents to society. This might be the result of the reaction he observes in the spectators of the trial:
In Meursault the selves are further sub-divided, even to the extent of non-existence. This is especially poignant when the Public Prosecutor bends over him and declares that he finds no soul. There is again a parallel to the dissection image in Prufrock:
In both cases we see that the outsider has no claim to a comprehension of things in totality. Not even their own selves. In the modern world uncertainty has replaced totality.
Prufrock at least can hope, whereas Meursault does not know the essence of hope. Prufrock repeats 'There will be time' because he believes that in time lies man's secret power of creation and destruction; birth and death. But for Meursault, death is absurd: he kills without particularly wanting to. In his eyes the sun is as much responsible for the Arab's death as he is himself. Death simply does not matter. This is also reminiscent of Dostoievski's Raskolnikov (in Crime and Punishment, 1866) in a similar situation, with which Eliot was familiar.
Even time itself is questioned by the outsider; he does not work within its paradigm. The first part of The Outsider starts with 'Mother died today', while in the second part Meursault has already been in prison for a few days. This discrepancy once again highlights the split self, and the focus is shown as being more on point of view than on sequential time. Therein lies the difference between Meursault and Prufrock. In the final analysis, Prufrock too, seems to waver in the hope he has invested in time. It seems that the outsider in Prufrock resurfaces with this faltering in conviction.
In both cases the semblance of hope that may have been raised is extinguished suddenly. And strangely both Prufrock and Meursault have the feeling of being drowned; Prufrock in a sea, and Meursault in a colourless liquid, like sinking into the sickly sweet viscous substance of nature. The viscous is an aspect of the world which fills us, says Sartre, with natural instinctive revulsion. In the viscous, there is the possibility that the in-itself might absorb the for-itself. Both Prufrock and Meursault thus suffer an outsider's fate.
In Prufrock and Meursault we find two classic cases of the outsider. In both cases there is a tortuous quest for truth, and detachment has been necessary to provide a viewpoint for what is truly real. But after its discovery, the truth is either dismissed or subverted. Prufrock is dissuaded from telling us everything;
As for Meursault, he is hanged for his revelation.
Both characters refuse to lie. They refuse to indulge in what existentialism calls 'bad faith'. Prufrock's love song is truthful in that it cannot be a love song. But what kind of truth does it reveal? As Camus says,
The same applies to Prufrock.
Camus' novel incorporates in itself the post-war deterioration in human values. The disowning of social essences as hypocrisy is intrinsic to the realization of the hopelessness of so-called human values. The only way for Meursault to remain true to himself is to reject everything but his existence as false. And since there is no reason for his existence, it is a tragic existence.
Being an earlier creation, Prufrock is perhaps more hopeful than Meursault. But he wavers and admits to uncertainty. He too suffers from the existential plight of indecision, asking,
Escape from the hell that surrounds him lies in a realization of the truth of existence. His quest and its realization are similar to Meursault's. His fate therefore is equally tragic.
On looking at these characters together, one is surprised by their startling psychological resemblance. Though temporally separated, Prufrock and Meursault are essentially similar. From our comparison Meursault's character is revealed as a development on that of Prufrock, so that despite their differences they seem to be parallel examples of the outsider.
Camus, Albert. The Outsider. English trans. by Joseph Laredo. Penguin Classics.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Poetry. ed. Manju Jain. CULT.
Bush, Ronald. Eliot
Champigny, R. A Pagan Hero
Lavine, T. Z. From Socrates To Sartre
Sartre Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness
Sartre Jean-Paul. No Exit
Scofield, Martin. T. S. Eliot: A Study
Wollheim, Richard. Eliot and Bradley
© Souvik Mukherjee, September 2002
Souvik Mukherjee, formerly of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, obtained his Ph.D. from Nottingham Trent University in 2009