The Unhappy Narcissism of J. Alfred Prufrock

Elham Shayegh, Miami University

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the reminiscence of a session of psychoanalysis. Similar to a patient revealing his mind to a psychoanalyst, T. S. Eliot’s “patient… upon a table” talks his mind throughout the poem. “The Love Song”reflects the anxiety of a young or middle-aged man (or person) to confront the external reality. Hesitant to address his “overwhelming question” to the women in the party, Prufrock never dares to endanger his situation by establishing a connection with their world. It seems that the melancholic atmosphere of the poem is the result of Prufrock’s anxiety from confrontation rather than an outcome of an actual confrontation: “They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”… They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!” (Eliot 40-45). In condemning the external world, Prufrock restore his anxiety. According to Sigmund Freud, “[…] anxiety can be resolved by psychical working-over, i.e. by conversion, reaction-formation or construction of protection” (Freud 1990: 16). Shaping a protective shield against anxiety, Prufrock turns his attention away from the external world into himself. This conversion or “withdrawal from the external world” is what Freud would call “narcissism” (57). According to Freud there are two stages of narcissism: primary narcissism and secondary narcissism. Primary narcissism, which appears in childhood, shows the fact that “human being has originally two sexual objects—himself and the woman who nurses him” (Freud 1991: 18). The child’s love for himself is called “primary narcissism.” This primary narcissism may reappear in later stages of life as a result of psychic tensions, for instance at the loss of a love-object, the ego reduces psychic tensions by replacing the lost object with another object i.e. itself. This substitution of love-object with the subject’s ego is called “secondary narcissism.” “When the ego assumes the features of the [lost] object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: “Look you can love me too—I am so like the object’ (Freud 1990: 25). The ideal image of self or the ego-ideal “is the substitute for the lost narcissism of childhood in which [the person] is his own ideal” (Freud 1991: 24). According to Freud this ideal image can be:

  1. What he himself is (i.e. himself),
  2. What he himself was,
  3. What he himself would like to be,
  4. Someone who was once part of himself (Freud 1991: 20).

It seems that Prufrock’s narcissism is the third type: What he himself would like to be. What we see at first glance is an anxious disgust rather than a loving attitude toward himself, the anxiety about his body (“I have seen my head grown slightly bald” (Eliot 82)) and about his mental abilities (I am the “Fool” (119)) reflects his disapproval of the present Prufrock. Simultaneously, the poem depicts an ideal image of masculinity: “In the room the women come and go. Talking of Michelangelo.” Michelangelo as the sculptor of male beauty is a representative of an ideal masculine body. The desire for a perfect masculine body comes and goes in Prufrock’s mind while women are talking about Michelangelo. Instead of Prufrock’s sexual desire, women provoke his longing for an ideal masculine body. Prufrock’s desire for such an ideal body is a narcissistic one. The society of Prufrock presents a scattered body of women, an image of a feeble man (himself), and an ideal image of distant men (Michelangelo, Hamlet, and John the Baptist). Prufrock presents women in bits and pieces (“eyes,”“arms,”“hair,”“perfume”), while using a large number of allusions to picture masculinity in its complete perfect form.

            The body/mind dichotomy is presented among male figures in the poem. While Michelangelo represents ideal body, Hamlet and John the Baptist stands for an ideal mind. Possessing neither an admirable body, nor mental power, Prufrock sees himself as Polonius, the “Fool.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord…

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool (Eliot 109-118).

Is Prufrock happy of being an attendant lord? Is he satisfied with who he is? If he is, why should he introduce himself as the prince’s (Hamlet’s) advisor and not simply any advisor? The answer comes in the line that contains John the Baptist: annoyed with not being a prophet, he reveals his dream:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat (Eliot 84).

Here, we face another speaker who is in contrast with the “attendant lord.”His physical and mental features do not arouse admiration but Prufrock desires it by imagining a better self through what Freud would call “sublimation.” Sublimation occurs when “a special institution in the mind constantly watches the real ego and measures it by the ideal” (Freud 1991: 25).In the process of sublimation picturing himself as a poor creature insufficient for people’s affection, Prufrock produces an ego-ideal in form of Michelangelo, Hamlet and John the Baptist to be pursued and desired by others and by him. Male body as depicted by Michelangelo is the body that Prufrock loves or in Freud’s words “would like to be.” Love for his ideal body takes his attention away from women as objects of desire into himself what Freud would call “subject’s desexualization.” “Sublimation is a process that concerns object-libido and consists in the instinct’s directing itself towards an aim other than, and remote from, that of sexual satisfaction; in this process the accent falls upon deflection from sexuality…The transformation of object-libido into narcissistic libido which thus takes place obviously implies an abandonment of sexual aims, a desexualization—a kind of sublimation, therefore” (Freud 1991: 24-25). In a process of sublimation, his ego-ideal becomes Prufrock’s love-object desexualizing his relationship with the world.

Prufrock’s relationship with himself is an amalgam of love and hate. He roughly despises himself and eagerly loves himself. The best of Prufrock’s self-love appears in the images of illness and death. Who is the “patient” on the table whose face is “yellow” and pale, who is “asleep,” “tired” and “malingers”? The resonance of self-pity is obvious in the poem: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent sees” (Eliot 73). He is so involved in self-pity that people’s reactions, cares and concerns make no difference in his condition: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all—”(55).Not only has he already known the people, he also holds in mind a ready picture of all events and circumstances: “For I have known them all already, known them/ all…evenings, mornings, afternoons” (50). Maintaining a ready-made image of reality, Prufrock’s fixation helps him to successfully replace others by himself.

In narcissism, the factor that encourages life (i.e. the “sexual instinct” in Freud) is replaced by a personal desire for self or the “ego-instinct.” The “sexual instinct” is “the incarnation of will to live” or life-instinct,whereas the “ego-instinct” is the “impelling towards death,” thus “death-instinct” (Freud 2003: 54, 63). The ego-instinct in Prufrock leads him to a desire for death. “Death-instinct is driven by the influence of narcissism” (Freud2003: 69). This time, Prufrock introduces himself as Lazarus: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead” (Eliot 94). Prufrock desires to go through the experience of death and come back like Lazarus to talk about it. His desire for self-sublimation ends in his ego-ideal reaching its absolute form in death where a complete destruction of ego occurs. The poem starts and ends with images of death. In epigraph, Dante’s character, Guido da Montefeltro, is talking from the depth of inferno as if Prufrock longs to hear from death or desires to be in the place of Montefeltro. The ending scene in which Prufrock sets free from party and its people sinking in the ocean among the harmless mermaids (“I do not think that they [“sea-girls”] will sing to me” (Eliot 125)—another sign of desexualization) shows his longing for becoming one with his ego-ideal. The “you” of the poem in this sense (“Let us go then, you and I” (1)) is not a person apart from Prufrock. It is a part of him with whom he wants to walk, talk, go to party and die. Death in this sense is not the end of relationship of “you” and “I” but the unification of the two, and the becoming one of the narcissistic character’s ego and its ego-ideal.

Work Cited

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems. Minneapolis: Dover Publications, Incorporated,  2000.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Textbook, 2003.
—-. On Narcissism: an Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
—-. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
—-. The Ego and the Id. Ed. James Strachey. Trans. Joan Riviere. Boston: W. W. Norton & Company,       Incorporated, 1990.
McNamara, Robert. “Prufrock and the Problem of Literary Narcissism.”Contemporary Literature. 27 (Autumn, 1986): 356-77.

Elham Shayegh is a graduate student in English Language and Literature at Miami University. She is interested in finding the meeting points of literature and psychology and in presenting the possibility of dialogue via literature. Contact: shayege@miamioh.edu

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