Use of Irony and Sarcasm in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Irony is a literary device by which a writer expresses a meaning contradictory to the stated one. There are many techniques for achieving irony. The writer may, for example, make it clear the meaning he intends is the opposite of his literal one, or he that construct a discrepancy between and expectation and its fulfillment, or between the appearance of a situation and the reality that underlies it. Irony is thus an art of indirection, juxtaposition, paradox, puns and other forms of wit in the expression of incongruities.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Whatever his technique, the writer demands that the reader should perceive the concealed meaning that lies beneath his surface statement. There the several kinds or irony, though they fall into two major categories; situational and verbal. Situational irony which is also known as structural irony or dramatic irony is mostly employed in plays. One of the forms of verbal irony is sarcasm. Under the guise of praise a caustic and bitter expression of strong and personal disapproval is given. Sarcasm is personal, jeering, intended to hurt, and is intended as a sneering taunt.

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Eliot has made an extended use of irony to communicate frustration and futility, squalor and seediness, neurosis, and loss of spirituality which are characteristics of the contemporary urban civilization. There is irony even in the title of the poem and the name of the protagonist. The name, Prufrock suggests a kind of wispy, defeated idealism, and stupidity. His tragedy is that he is a man driven by the desire for something that he cannot achieve. Thus, while he cannot abandon the illusions of his fantasy world, he cannot accept the realities of the other world in which the women talk about Michelangelo. He veers and vacillates in his decision to propose to his lady and thus lays bare his heart to her. But as he lacks courage and self-assurance, he puts off the 'overwhelming question,' i.e., the marriage proposal, as he says:

 There will be time, there will be time, To prepare a face to meet the faces that You meet.

The title of the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is ironical. Here the irony lies in contrast, what we expect and what it turns out to be. The title makes us expect that it will be a romantic love song addressed to the beloved. The protagonist will lay bare his heart, bubbling with effusions of love, at the feet of his beloved. He may even grow eloquent in her praises. But nothing happens of this sort. There is no expression of love in the poem. He has even no courage to meet the lady face to face and express his love to her. Rather, he takes delight in evading the question! That is, the declaration of love to his lady. The point of calling the poem a Love Song lies in the irony that it will never be sung; that Prufrock will never dare to voice what he feels. He himself says

Do I dare Disturb the universe? Ina minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. The poem is an expression of his boredom, frustration and impotence. The ladies talk of Michelangelo, the symbol of virility and strength, and also 'How is hair is growing thin! '

Prufrock is a middle-aged dandy. He is also a neurotic, a split personality, and the 'I' and 'you' are the two aspects of his personality. His love song is not sung in the real world. It is actually the lament of a being divided between passion and timidity. The poem is an interior monologue because Prufrock speaks to himself in a kind of daydream, rather than an intimate expression of love. He yearns for love, but because of his timidity and passivity he is incapable of attaining his love. Instead of being a bold and adventurous lover, he is a moral coward who cannot even face the eyes of the beloved. He cannot face the X-ray eyes of the ladies, and in their presence he feels like a worm wriggling on the point of a needle. He recapitulates the romantic daydreams of 'the mermaids singing, each to each', but ironically enough, he knows the mermaids will not sing to him, because they only sing to the courageous and the adventurous like Ulysses and his sailors.

Not only the title of the poem is ironical, irony as a device of the contrast between seriousness and levity, the grand and the prosaic runs throughout the poem. In the room in the salon the ladies talk of Michelangelo, which shows are artistic pretensions of the modern age. The hypocrisy of modern society is ironically exposed. The reference to ‘Works and days of hand', a poem by an ancient Greek writer brings out an ironical contrast between the hard life of a farmer, and Prufrock's life of inactivity. He cannot dare take a decision. There is a mingling of the grandiose with the trivial in the manner of Laforge, in the following oft-quoted line:

 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Prufrock begins grandiloquently but ends by saying that his whole life has been a monotonous round of coffee drinking with the same set of people. The high style in which he began 'I have measured out my life' raised the expectation that like Ulysses he might have measured out his strength with his compeers on the plains of Windy Troy, but the phrase 'with coffee spoons' produces an ironic effect. It is also an illustration of Eliot's use of bathos. Irony is also used in contrasting the trivial matter i.e. the proposal of marriage, and a lot of preparation for the task. He has 'wept and fasted, wept and prayed', but all his efforts proved abortive. He declines that he is not Prince Hamlet, but the irony lies in the fact that he also vacillates and wavers like Prince Hamlet. In both Hamlet and Prufrock intellect paralyses the will to act and breeds procrastination. The emotional impulse to act or to come to a decision is repressed by over scrupulousness. 'To be or not to be' is as good a description of Prufrock as of Hamlet.

The style and language of The Love Song also produce ironic effects. Prufrock's constant use of the pompous and grandiloquent language for the trivial is ironical. The contrast between the grandiose with the prosaic end exposes the seedy and, the triviality of modern life. Prufrock considers the trivial matter i.e. the proposal of marriage, an overwhelming question, which is likely to disturb the universe. But we know that the heavens will not fall even if Prufrock does not succeed in his love affair. He makes a fetish of an ordinary matter. The Irony lies in the fact that to us it appears a trivial matter, but to Prufrock it is all important. Lines like the following:

To have squeezed the universe into a ball, To roll it toward some overwhelming question.

 are highly ironical in their deification of the insignificant matter. The poet has also made use of sarcasm in describing Purfrock's dandyism. Though he is a middle aged person with a bald head, he is fastidious about his dress and wears the trousers of the latest fashion:

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Thus, Prufrock creates in patterned language the moods of ironic and cynical repulsion, of unromantic disillusionment, and of nervous intensity which mirror his predicament. The irony that Eliot has used in this poem to highlight the neurosis of Prufrock, reveals 'soul dampness' of modern life.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Use of Irony and Sarcasm in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." BachelorandMaster, 4 Sep. 2017,