Alienation in “A Rose for Emily” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Alienation is a curious thing. While we would like to think that alienation is something that happens to people against their will, that is often not the case. Two pieces of literature that demonstrate this point are “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Both of these works of literature have protagonists that are alienated from the world in which they live willingly. Emily Greirson has no intention of blending in with the community in Jefferson. She is simply too set in her ways to even want to do such a thing. She chooses not to grow and change with those around her and, as a result, she becomes an eccentric, neurotic old lady. Similarly, the protagonist in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” does not want to fit into his surroundings very much, either. He spends so much of his time obsessing about what he will do when, his clothing, his words, the passing of time, and the importance of striking up a conversation with others that he does absolutely nothing, literally wasting his life away. To emphasize alienation, both authors utilize the literary techniques of imagery and the importance of time.
Alienation might seem like an unnatural thing but the protagonists in these stories illustrate how alienation is a choice. In “A Rose for Emily,” Emily is quite content living like a hermit. She stays in her home most of the time and the community seems to have more of a problem with that than she does. She rarely leaves her home, especially after her father dies. By setting the story up this way, Faulkner is preparing us for her eccentric, neurotic behavior. Emily’s personality is perfect for the type of mystery that Faulkner is telling because she is a mystery. The mood is set for “A Rose for Emily” with the story opening with a funeral. The mood and tone are ready for a suspenseful tale. Because Emily is something of an enigma, she is perfect for this story. The protagonist in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” leads us down a path of complete avoidance. His path illustrates the life that he has left behind because he chosen not to become involved with anyone. He experiences remorse for that old life that could have been and this remorse is riddled with indecision. The indecision becomes a primary aspect of the poem because the poet introduces the poem with a quote from Dante’s Inferno. The mention of hell is quite deliberate and it cues the reader to what lies in store for the protagonist. The mood is set with this quote and the poet proceeds to describing the protagonist’s particular hell on earth. This hell is somewhat self-induced, as the protagonist has alienated himself from all kinds of relationships. The poet reinforces this mood with the first image of the poem being that of ‘a “patient etherised upon a table” (Eliot 3). Both authors establish a certain tone through establishing a certain mood at the beginning of their work.
Neurotic behavior is exhibited by both protagonists. As we have already discussed, Emily is a strange woman. This is seen in how she responds to her environment. Her father raises her to believe certain things that cause her to experience difficulty when attempting to fit into society. He teaches her the old way but her community is now living according to a new and modern way. Emily’s father protected her from many difficulties in life but he also protected her from experiencing many of life’s joys. When he died, she was simply not prepared to handle life’s challenges. His death also assured her a life of loneliness, considering the fact that he “had driven away” (Faulkner 455) many of the men that might have been interested in a relationship with her. Emily actually has no choice about the kind of life she lives after her father dies because the only life she has ever known is the one that he taught her to live. She is a spinster in practically every aspect of the word. Homer Only brings out Emily’s strange behavior because he stirs within her a yearning for love. Homer, however, is not the kind of man that is going to settle down with someone like Emily and this is the kind of rejection that Emily cannot handle. She would rather do something rash than have to deal with his rejection. It is important to note that Emily does not seem to be bothered one bit by what she is planning to do. She buys the arsenic and follows through on her plan with little, if any, complications. The fact that she is successful is only part of the problem here. The crux of the frightening thing she has done is the fact that she can sleep with this man’s decaying flesh. There is nothing normal about this woman. She is not likely to accept no for an answer, so she simply avoids asking the question and takes matters into her own hands. She might be in love with Homer but it is safer to think that she was simply in love with the notion of being in love. Emily is a woman is denial from almost the very beginning of her adult life. She is undoubtedly on of literature’s most neurotic, compulsive women.
We find neuroses in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as well. The protagonist exhibits neurotic behavior and this is best expressed through his inner dialogue. This protagonist frets regarding decisions about such things as the clothes he is wearing – he worries about his coat, his necktie, and his bald spot. He scans the room, taking notes of many things but never actually accomplishing much at all. He considers speaking to the ladies in the room but stops short because he cannot think of a reason that would actually make the endeavor worth it. Talking to any ladies might not have been worth the trouble to have “bitten off the matter with a smile / To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question” (91-3) only to have these same ladies criticize him or worse, reject him. The protagonist is filled with a sense of dread before anything ever happens and he lets his fear of rejection stop him from uttering a word. He would rather play it safe than risk making a new friend or striking up an interesting conversation with someone. The fear of the unknown simply stalls him into a mode of being paralyzed. The interesting thing about this situation is that he is completely content to live like this. He is not filled with regret because he does not do anything. He does not care and yet, he is still plagued with doubt. This forces us to think that the protagonist is aware of what he is doing but he simply is not motivated enough to step out of his comfort zone to do anything about it.
Imagery is a literary technique that both authors utilize to convey moods of alienation. In “A Rose for Emily,” many of the images point to death. At Emily’s funeral, we are told that those that did attend were paying some sort of “respectful affection for a fallen monument” (Faulkner 451). With this image, Faulkner is reinforcing the notion that Emily is a symbol for the old ways of doing things. She represents the Old South and to add to this image, Faulkner uses Emily’s house. Her home reflects images of death and decay. While the house was once white and pretty, it now smells of “dust and disuse — a close, dank smell” (452). While the house once sat on the “most select street” (452), it is now part of a line of “garages and cotton gins” (452). Furthermore, Emily’s house is an “eyesore among eyesores” (452). These images help us see what Emily is living in. what was nice grand and popular is now run down and falling apart. This image works well with the dilapidating mentality of Emily. These images help us relate to Emily’s character. She lives in a home that is falling apart, smells dusty, and sits among the deserted areas of downtown. Emily is stuck in this old-time picture and her personality reinforces this notion. Emily is living in the past and whether she knows it or not, she does not do much to remove herself from this situation.
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” imagery is powerful as well. The first stanza is filled with images that are related to lifelessness and death. We have already discussed the image of death that is presented with the Dante quote and this mood is continued in the opening stanza with “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” (Eliot 7). The poet also describes the “Yellow fog that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes” (16) that lingers “upon the pools that stand in the drains” (18). The image of the fog is significant because the protagonist is comparing himself to the fog in that he skirts along the outside of what is happening. If he is like fog, moving slowly and quietly, he does not have to become involved but can still see what is going on. When he writes that there will be time to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (27), he is simply avoiding the issue by putting off the inevitable. The protagonist convinces himself that there will be time to do all that he wants to do, such as “murder and create” (28), and “drop a question on your plate” (30). Allan Burns suggests that the images are important to the reader in that they “underscore Prufrock’s low self-esteem: he identifies with the lonely working class men” (Burns 47) and the image of his dead being chopped off “indicates his fear of attractive women and its unhealthy relation to his even greater fear of death” (47). Death is alluded to as the “eternal Footman” that presents the protagonist from entering the party
Time is an essential element to both protagonists and their sense of alienation. With “A Rose for Emily,” time becomes critical to the narration of the story. The narrator shifts between the past and the present to keep us guessing about Emily and her story. By constantly shifting, the narrator allows us to have a complete picture of Emily. It is also interesting to note how the story begins and end with death. Time literally stands still from the first lines to the last, which emphasizes Emily’s primary problem with time, which is the fact that she cannot deal with the passing of time and what that means. Emily would much rather have time stand still because then she would not have to deal with the changing community around her. Emily cannot let go of the past and this is demonstrated at her funeral, when some of the old men there are wearing “brushed Confederate uniforms” (Faulkner 458). In addition, the narrator writes, “the past is not a diminishing road, but, instead a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches” (458). Another issue Emily has with time is the fact that she wants to control it. This can be seen with the men in her life. When her father dies, she wants to stop time by keeping his dead body in her home for some three days before the aldermen come to take it away. Emily’s desire to control time is best displayed with her murder of Homer. She decides that she will have him one way or another and it does not disturb her that he might be dead because at least he is with her.
With “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the protagonist is obsessed with time, which can be seen as an extension of his obsession. He worries about wasting time and he also worries about whether he should waste time going up or down the staircase. He is torn and asks himself, “Do I dare?” (Eliot 37). He is far too concerned about what others are thinking about him all of the time and he wastes time worrying about things that do not matter. He turns himself into a neurotic person incapable of moving because he is so worried about time and wasting time but the great irony is that by worrying about wasting time, he wastes even more time. He knows his greatest regret will be that he wasted time but yet he cannot do anything but stand still. His thoughts are is greatest enemy because they prevent him from action.
“A Rose for Emily” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are amazing pieces of literature because they allow us to look at the development of these characters. They are not so eccentric that we would ever think they could not exist. In fact, it is the fact that they seem so real to us that makes the works stand out. Emily could very well be a neighbor living down the street and Prufrock could be living next to her. Both pieces of literature revolve around individuals that alienate themselves from the world and, as a result, they end up mourning the loss of something they never had. Imagery and the importance of time help thee authors express their meaning. Both authors illustrate the importance of connecting with others with these characters that willingly choose to remain distant from the communities. As such, both pieces of literature serve as warnings for what can happen to individuals when they allow themselves to become so removed from the world that they begin behaving and thinking irrationally when they should instead embrace the only life they will ever have.
Burns, Allan Douglas. Thematic Guide to American Poetry. Santa Barbara: Greenwood
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature.
Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press. 1993.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. New York: W.
W. Norton and Company. 1981. pp. 4519.
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