Gender is a construct based on superficial societal standards that teach boys and girls how to grow into men and women. We form roles for our children based on their sex before they even know how to speak. Our boys are taught to be stoic, to make themselves untouchable, and that they need to be a pillar of strength and masculinity in order to be a man. But what if they’re not? Are they no longer a man? T.S. Eliot exposed the vulnerability of men in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. He dared to challenge the innately traumatising cultural expectations of men, characterising his persona as insecure, passive and incompetent, giving rise to a new perspective of men; The modern man. The traits associated with men have evolved since Eliot’s time. Although the idea that men should be masculine and stoic still exists, we as a society have become more aware and welcoming to the idea that men need intimacy just like everyone else. Eliot welcomed this idea long before society did, proving him to be prophetic of the progression to come.
The title, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is entirely ironic, considering that the poem is quite anti-romantic. It is the dejected ramblings of an insecure man, detailing the lack of purpose he feels there is to life. The reader’s expectations of the text to be a love poem are left unfulfilled within the first stanza as it reads, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky”. It begins as a proposal for a romantic night out, only for this expectation to be juxtaposed by the morbid use of the simile, “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. Eliot dismantles the romantic atmosphere created in the first two lines, as he describes a person left motionless, unable to do as they please. It’s easy to assume that Prufrock is the patient as he finds himself trapped in his own mind, full of hesitation and anxiety, introducing the theme of passivity in the text. This is the very first example of Eliot’s defiance of gender stereotypes, particularly those that claim that men must be assertive and all-knowing as Prufrock is characterised as a man who is trapped and without confidence due to his lack of substance. He becomes a representation of the modern man; a man who is not almighty but timid and indecisive. Like Prufrock, many boys nowadays are overeducated and therefore lack social skills. They’re introverted and passive, unlike their stereotype. Prufrock has demonstrated that there is variety among modern men, welcoming the idea that not all men are self-assured.
The realisation of male insecurity occurs throughout the text. It is first seen when women of a respectable class “come and go / Talking of Michelangelo”. The allusion to “Michelangelo” represents the class and culture that Prufrock finds to be unavailable to him. It highlights the inferiority and insecurity possessed by him as Michelangelo, a well renowned renaissance artist, created the famous sculpture, David. This sculpture is often perceived as the embodiment of male physical perfection, everything Prufrock feels he is not. Prufrock’s judgement of himself is ruled over by this ideal body type and his belief that masculinity is the standard of desirability. The statue of David exhibits a heroic view of a physically robust individual. Prufrock, on the other hand, grows more and more insecure as he worries that “They will say: How his hair is growing thin!” and “how his arms and legs are thin!”, questioning whether or not he is an adequate man. He exposes the deep insecurities possessed by the scrawny boys of today, and the men who barely have a remnant of their youth. These are feelings that have been forever possessed by men, but only now exposed to the world, as we learn to accept all body types and aging as an inevitable human experience.
The biggest aspect of a modern man exposed by Eliot is their inability to develop a romantic relationship with a woman. Socially unaware and consumed by his inadequacies, Prufrock is doubtful and frustrated as he pursues a woman. “Do I dare?” is a phrase consistently repeated in the poem to the point that the reader becomes frustrated by Prufrock’s indecisiveness over whether or not to approach the topic of love with the woman. Eventually he doesn’t go after what he wants, exemplifying the cowardice and insecurity possessed by him. Many modern men have thoughts of love as Prufrock does, but unfortunately their inaction prevents it from materialising into anything, leaving it as a thought. The poem is saturated with self-loathing through a modernist twist on narcissism, where one does not look at themselves in admiration, but disgust. Prufrock is in a constant state of self-pity as he stresses that he is growing “bald” and states that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, reducing his self-importance to nothing. The visual imagery dehumanises him as he takes the form of a crab, a scavenger of the sea. His insecurities and self-pity take precedence over the appreciation of the object of his affection, the purpose of a “love song”. The poem exemplifies the doubt and insecurities that hold modern men back from pursuing a love interest. Prufrock isn’t shown to be a dominant risk taker as men are often forced to be, he is characterised as fearful and frustrated. Eliot embraces the fear that comes before a chance is taken on love. He recognises the difficulties most men have in establishing a romantic relationship and understands that it is okay for men to have insecurities, causing them to be afraid of rejection.
Eliot was the first person to attempt to make male vulnerability a comfortable subject. He gave rise to a new perspective of men, a perspective inclusive of all human qualities, not just those associated with masculinity. We all have depth and insecurities, regardless of gender. Feelings are human, not female.