Sunday, October 20, 2013

Comparing Wineburg, Ohio and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

WInesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories written by Sherwood Anderson, deals with the overwhelming loneliness and disillusionment that sometimes comes with growing old. Similarly, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” addresses the confusion and hopelessness of growing older.  The loss of youth is expressed through lines such as “I grow old…I grow old…” (line 120) and “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (line 122) The peach in line 122 bears connotations of sex and sweetness, both which are often saved for the young. The speaker’s constant questioning throughout the poem: “To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?” (line 38), “Do I dare / Disturb the Universe?” (lines 45-46),  and “So how should I presume?” (line 54) also serves to put an emphasis on the self-doubt the speaker feels, indecisiveness, and inability for the speaker to act out on his desires. Similarly, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio characters encounter this same problem. The majority of them are grotesques that cling to their “truths” or desires. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, the characters in Winesburg, Ohio waste their time asking questions, dappling in self-pity, and giving into self-doubt. They deny themselves the company and understanding that they seek through their inability to act on their desires. Instead, they waste their time by praying, speaking to imaginary characters that they made up inside their heads, and creating shapes of figures out of pillows in their bed. J. Alfred Prufrock’s question, “So how should I presume?” is equivalent to that of Elizabeth Willard’s praying in “Mother”. The questions and praying are only a distraction, an excuse to not fulfill their desires. Elizabeth Willard has every capability to leave Winesburg, Ohio. She has the money; her father gave her eight-hundred dollars before he passed away. In fact, she hid the money in the walls, and it remained there until the day she died. In the same way, J. Alfred Prufrock, who we assume is the speaker of T.S. Eliot’s poem, has the potential and means to do the simple things he keeps asking the reader and universe permission for. He asks, “how should I begin?” instead of simply starting, and seems to be confused and apprehensive about going through with the simplest, most trivial things. He is extremely concerned about what others think of him as he goes over how he looks in lines 40-45, “ With a bald spot in the middle of my hair- / (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin- / (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) “Like the characters of Winesburg, Ohio it is what others think of them that leads to their isolation; it is their inability to connect and understand one another.  In Sherwood Anderson’s “Loneliness”, the character, Enoch, could not connect with others because he could not express how he felt. This inability to express himself could have been caused by the self consciousness he felt as others judged his artwork. The speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” also experiences isolation and loneliness as he cannot express himself. 

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