Alienation of Modern Man in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Mann’s Death in Venice

-Anup Joshi

Alienation of Modern Man in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Mann’s Death in Venice

This paper explores how modern city life leads to the alienated life of Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice. Though both the characters wander excitingly around the extravagant city and observe the multitudes of people, they fail to communicate with any of them and appear as an isolated forlorn persona. Published in 1915, Eliot’s poem follows the Evening adventure of protagonist Prufrock which begins with delightful remark “Let us go then you and I” (1), but later in that evening instead of partaking in the sophisticated night parties and talking to his beloved, indulges full-time in self-introspection. As a result of routine and mundane city life which is also directed by hierarchy, Prufrock does not “dare” (56) to open up himself in front of his beloved due to his timidity fearing that he may be ridiculed and remains an alienated persona throughout the poem. Similarly, published in 1912, Mann’s novel follows the journey of disciplined middle-aged man, Aschenbach from village of Germany to metropolitan city Venice, where he becomes obsessed in infatuation with a boy Tadzio, follows him everywhere, but alike Prufrock, cannot express his true feelings to him and acts as a stranger. Due to his aristocratic “good breeding” (92), he pretends to be indifferent to the nonchalant city dwellers, though deep inside his heart he carries the affection from where he comes.
Eliot’s Prufrock is a modern man affected by mechanized city life. In the beginning of the poem, he appeals to the second person “you” (1) which is probably the reader or his beloved to make a visit with him. He shows his hesitancy by comparing the sky with “a patient etherized upon a table” (3) which is very distorted form of comparison. He portrays the city roads as “half deserted streets” (4) which might have been filled with multitudes of people but as they all appear strangers, he finds the streets deserted and lonely. As Magher puts it, “Closely related to the questions of self in modernist works was a sense of alienation. Without that strong sense of meaning, many authors expressed a sense of being disconnected. This is one of the central themes of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (par. 3). Prufrock also feels disconnected from the crowd and hustle and bustle of the city. He critiques “cheap hotels”, “sawdust restaurants”, “yellow fog” which signal to the corruption, pollution, and prostitution in the city. He observes the happenings of the diverse city as an outsider and cannot find anyone with whom he can be intimate. As a result, he becomes lonely.
Similarly, in his journey to Venice, Aschenbach encounters people who are indifferent to each other. A gondolier on whose gondola he travels, turns out to be working illegally and “took off” (41) before he could pay him as “he saw the official waiting for him” (41). In Venice, people conceal the information about the spreading of lethal disease cholera to him. They are corrupt, degenerate, money minded and indifferent to other’s suffering. Due to such atmosphere of city, Ashcenbach who is a prominent aristocratic writer, finds himself alienated. His only passion there is to watch over Tadzio, with whom he was highly infatuated. Had it been a rural setting, he would have approached Tadzio easily. But in the city, where selfish people mind of their own business, Aschenbach found it difficult to communicate. “Aschenbach looked forward to Tadzio’s entrance and at times pretended to be busy when it occurred and let the boy pass seemingly unnoticed” (93). A highly disciplined Apollonian figure at the beginning who “travelled to seek emotional release and literary regeneration” (Mitchell 165), Aschenbach loses his control self-control and turns out to be Dyonossian figure as he meets Tadzio. In his emotional release, he loses the tuning with the nonchalant city life and finally dies alienated from the sickness of the city.
In city arena, people are stranger to each other and one has no access about other’s background. So, they pretend themselves to be something else walking in a crowd. As Simmel puts it, “The metropolitan type of man – which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants – develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart” (410). Though Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio, his love is unusual and distorted and we come to question if it really is the feeling of love that he has developed in himself. The homosexual infatuation is in itself distorted form of love and when it is with a person who is decades junior to him, it is more problematic. Prufrock also talks about the hypocrisy of modern man. There are women who come and go talking of Michelangelo, but in reality, they know nothing of his artifact. They are talking about art merely to exhibit they are high class people. “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;/There will be time to murder and create” (26-28). The modern people prepare themselves differently to encounter different people. They change their face very often. They use their brain instead of heart and are money minded. As one cannot present his real face to others due to the fear of being outcaste from city society, he loses his real self and becomes an indifferent, alienated figure.
Unlike Aschenbach, though Prufrock belongs to the modern city and he has “known known them all already, known them all:/ Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/ I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (50-52), he fails to connect to the people with whom he is already habitual. He has been living the same mundane life for a long period of time, but yet he has no self-confidence to disclose his heart to them. He has wasted his life for trivial tea parties, but never succeeded in finding a soulmate. He maintains a perpetual distance even to the girl he loves. It is an irony to call the poem love song, where there is no romance at all. Prufrock likes mermaids, who are the emblem for the women falls, to sing to him but he does “not think that they will sing to” him (127). As George Williamson alludes, Prufrock’s love song “is being divided between passion and timidity; it is never sung in the real world. For this poem develops a theme of frustration, of emotional conflict, dramatized by you and I” (66). Alike Aschenbach, Prufrock is utterly pessimistic and is self-conscious about his inferiority and disability to communicate. At the end of the poem, he imagines to be drowned which is an emblem for death until humanity wakes him up. Similarly, Aschenbach also suffers the fate of death at the end from the sickness of city. Though he discovers that the city is drowning in the sea of cholera, instead of leaving the city for safe passage or informing the family of Tadzio, so that his beloved will be saved, he “said nothing and stayed on” (125) until he ascends to “deep slumber” (141). He shows blasé attitude even to the boy he loves, perplexing the readers about the genuineness of his love. Thus, both the characters are suffering from the cynicism of city life as a result of dehumanizing nature of modernity.
Aschenbach and Prufrock do nothing to express themselves. They fail to act. They fail to connect to the world. They are reluctant to fling the gossamer thread so that it would catch someone’s heart like in Walt Whitman’s poem. As a result, they are alienated and isolated from the society. The hypocrisy of the modern city life conceals them from being open to all. As “the money economy dominates the metropolis” (Simmel 411), there are several class hierarchy prevalent. As a result, an individual does not possess free will express himself openly. Prufrock believes his personality is constructed by his hairstyle, his morning coat, color and necktie. This is a fragmented sense of identity. So, if he goes to talk with his beloved he fears if her colleagues will mock him “how his hair is growing thin” (52). He feels low self-esteem as he lacks the material looks and possession. By this example Eliot shows how people are spiritually paralyzed in city and how they have become mere consumerist in nature. 
To conclude, the low self-confidence and the alienation of Prufrock and Aschenabch in Eliot’s poem and Mann’s is due to the mundane modern city life of the modern men. Both the characters appear as flaneur or dandy and are busy in observing other people in the city crowd. They stroll around the “half deserted” city streets, but cannot open up to the people they love. To show this alienated mentality of the characters, both the writer use stream of consciousness technique in their works, where the characters thoughts are directly presented without the veil of narrator’s perception. As they cannot communicate with the other city dwellers and are all alone among the multitudes of people flowing, they indulge in self-introspection rather than talking with the people they meet. Modern men have introverted personality and have tendency to conceal their emotions in their heart. Their identity is fragmented. They are comprehended by the dress they wear and the way they appear. That’s why Aschenbach visits a saloon to refine his looks and look younger, rather than approaching Tadzio directly and expressing his inner feeling towards him. The spirituality and inner beauty of a person is dead in the modern city. Modern men are stuffed with arrogance and selfishness that they maintain hierarchy and distance with others.
If Prufrock had no criticism for corruption and hypocrisy of the city life or if Aschenbach could remain rational in Venice and had not developed the intimate feelings for the boy, they both would have adapted rightfully with the city and would not have faced the dire consequences at the end. But a man of artistic sense and reservations fails to accommodate in the city life, as a result, he disintegrates in the sickness of the city. Mann in his novel shows how writers and artists are alienated in city life. Similarly, Eliot also portrays modern man as an alienated figure in his poem. The causes behind the alienation is the blasé attitude, hypocrisy and money minded nature of the city dwellers.
Works Cited
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” T.S Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962.
New York: Harcourt Inc, 1963. Pdf.
Magher, Maria. “How Is the Poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Modernism?”. The
Pen and The Pad. 28 Aug, 2017. Web.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1995. Print.
Mitchell, Donald. Benjamin Britten Death in Venice. London: Cambridge University Press,
1987. Pdf.
Simmel, Georg. “The metropolis and mental life”. The Sociology if Georg Simmel. Ed. Kurt
H. Wolf. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964. Pdf.
Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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