Beyond Consequence: Prufrock as a Transgender Character in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

We who love, read and write Western literature adore dualities: Dark/light, passion/apathy, action/inaction, and especially male/female among others. T.S. Eliot is no exception. Our beloved would-be Briton was enamored with expressing his poetry in sets, quartets, pairs. There is no question that he was extremely interested in the interaction and intersection of male and female, even the blurring between them. Eliot’s relationship with gender is one of confusion, fascination and often discomforting dissection, particularly with Prufrock in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. I believe that J. Alfred Prufrock is a transgender character, one who transgresses rigid, socially-constructed concepts of sex and gender identity. To fully connect with this character “requires that we go beyond the limited homo/hetero binary…that is, the ways in which that taboo, in conjunction with his sense of masculine affiliation and his troubled relation to femininity, generated the most remarkable poetry of the early twentieth century” (Laity 26). I feel that any transgender reader can find a kindred spirit in Prufrock’s anxious, dithering sweetness.

For decades it was thought by critics and scholars that T.S. Eliot had a very rigid and often misogynistic treatment of gender and sexuality in his poems, but rather than at all rigid I feel that Eliot can be read as “queering” the experiences of his characters, specifically Prufrock, before second-wave feminism or Queer theory ever existed. A brief synopsis of queer theory: “To “queer” becomes an act by which stable boundaries of sexual identity are transgressed, reversed, mimicked, or otherwise critiqued. “Queering” can be enacted on behalf of all non-normative sexualities and identities as well, all that is considered by the dominant paradigms of culture to be alien, strange, unfamiliar, transgressive, odd—in short, queer” (Brewton). Very few of Eliot’s male characters can be said to be stereotypically masculine, but in this paper I will be taking special notice of Prufrock. This is one of Eliot’s most well-known characters and showcases his ability to “play with gender in order to highlight its social construction,” or “genderfuck” (Larkin). Ze# pushes the boundaries of gender to a degree none of Eliot’s other characters quite attain.

The "overwhelming question" that Prufrock repeatedly references and which resonates so deeply with Eliot readers and scholars, I believe, is that of hir gender.

In other papers I’ve submitted in this class, I’ve asserted that the females around Prufrock, including the “arms that are braceleted, white and bare”, the “one,” and the mermaids catch hir attention not because ze desires them sexually, but because ze, to a certain degree, desires their sexuality (Eliot 5-7). Ze admires, even covets the Female and experiences something we call “gender dysphoria,” which can be defined as “unhappiness or discomfort about one’s gender role assigned by society based on one’s physical sex” (Larkin). At no point within this work can Prufrock be said to feel at all comfortable with hir assigned maleness. A close reading can shore up any argument to this effect.

We see an example of the two-spirited or bigendered individual in the very first line of this sexually ambiguous poem: “Let us go then, you and I” (Eliot 3). Many trans-identifying individuals find the gender binary extremely limiting, and so orient themselves as though orbiting two suns: they bounce back and forth irregularly, identifying as both or neither as they feel is appropriate. Prufrock is having a conversation throughout this poem with hir own gender identity, struggling with external forces and hir own inner feelings. “You and I” represent the two gender forces within hir, the male and the female. The “overwhelming question” that Prufrock repeatedly references and which resonates so deeply with Eliot readers and scholars, I believe, is that of hir gender. The existential questions that confront every trans or questioning person: “What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man?” The question is certainly not found within the next line: “What is it?” “It” is a term that is found to be very derogatory by trans individuals, and the question of “So…what are you?” is one that they are frequently so frustratingly confronted with. Thus, in the first stanza alone, there are numerous examples of the trans experience.

“Eliot emerges in his letters as a psychosexually conflicted man, torn and tormented by conventional demands of masculinity,” says Suzanne Churchill in “Outing T.S. Eliot”. The poem clearly reflects this: “There will be time / to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / There will be time to murder and create” (Eliot 4). Trans individuals often experience a process wherein they experience a manual creation of self. They, in response to their gender confusion, often overshoot the mark, “a hundred visions and revisions,” expressing in over-the-top and sensational ways the gender opposite them simply because they do not identify with their physical sex (Eliot 4). Drag kings and queens are examples of this experience, murdering, in a way, their past selves and creating new ones. They feel an overwhelming pressure to appear in accordance or in rebellion with their sex: many begin to present either hyper-masculine or -feminine. Gender becomes a performance, as Cyrena Pondrom puts forth in her article.

The first sentence from this influential article, “The Gender Performativity in The Waste Land,” is “One of the most influential ideas developed as American feminist theory and women's studies grew into disciplines is the assertion that gender is socially constructed” and nowhere in “Prufrock” do we see the social aspect of gender more clearly than in the sixth through eighth stanzas. In these we see Prufrock’s peers’ response to hir: “They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” and “They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’” Ze experiences an acute fear as a result of this derision, and their adherence to hir assigned gender. The tone of anxiety that pervades the poem is at its thickest here. Transgender individuals, especially those who have begun the transitioning process, almost always meet resistance in their friends and family. Judgment and cooling attitudes, among other reactions, from those who should protect and accept them alienate these people, often leading to mental states of self-loathing and despair: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling along the floors of silent seas” (Eliot 5). This extreme discomfort continues in response to “the eyes that fix you in formulated phrase,” that do not allow Prufrock to be who ze is, but instead pin hir to the imagined being that they have constructed and which is most comfortable for them (Eliot 5).

I feel that in the second half of the poem, the problem that Prufrock is struggling with is whether or not to begin the coming out process: “Should I… / have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (Eliot 6). Ze has struggled with hir own, internal acceptance of this gender truth, but one of the unfortunate facts about the transgender experience is that you must not only come out to yourself, but to the world, over and over again to every person you have known and will meet. Regrettably, it seems that Prufrock does not begin the process at this time, perhaps for fear of the often fatal persecution that trans individuals meet upon coming out: “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid” (Eliot 6).

A risk assessment takes place in the next two stanzas. First, ze weighs the risks, wondering if it would be worth it to come out, and to one woman in particular. “Would it have been worth while / To have bitten off the matter with the smile,” if the woman ze is attracted to, or cares so much about, replies by brushing hir off (Eliot, 6). Would the feeling of rejection be worth the potential for acceptance? In the next stanza we have some of the most pleasant phanopoeia in the poem, when Prufrock imagines the positive possibilities:

“Would it have been worth while, After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor- And this and so much more?-“ (Eliot, 6).

The imagery of the early days of love, little infinite moments we have all experienced, is really one of the most touching parts of the poem, but it is short-lived. If the “one” accepts what ze says, do the benefits, the cozy moments of togetherness, outweigh the risks? I would be inclined to say so, but Prufrock, returning immediately to the idea of the “one” rejecting hir. Ze is defeated before ze even begins.

The final stanzas of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” relate a sense that if ze cannot overcome hir fear and admit the truth to hirself and hir peers, ze will live a life of inconsequent nothings: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (Eliot, 7). Here I experience a kind of melopoeia, not in the musical, melodic sense but in that I can hear a very distinct tone of voice. I hear the deadpanned, completely careless apathy behind these questions.

And finally, we reach the conclusion of the poem, where Prufrock dreams of mermaids and the sea. Eliot conjures a hauntingly beautiful image here, another excellent example of phanopoeia. When I read or speak this passage I see a collage of dark waters with sea-women deftly navigating, or congregating together in the dim places of the deep, safe in their femininity, “wreathed in seaweed red and brown” and the sea itself (Eliot, 7). Prufrock does not feel that they will sing to hir, and to reiterate a point I’ve made in this class before: Sirens, who are often depicted as mermaid-esque beings, lure only male sailors and I think that hints once again towards hir gender confusion. “…human voices wake us, and we drown,” concludes the poem (Eliot, 7). Prufrock is dragged out of hir reverie, and returns to a reality in which ze is drowning in feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and alienation.

As Suzanne Churchill said in “Outing T.S. Eliot”: “My purpose here is not to pin down Eliot's sexual orientation” and the same is true for me. It is considered extremely rude in the LGBT community to attempt to use your own perspective to try to guess someone’s sexual identity, and that is not my aim. I only wish to make the point that Prufrock, to transgender readers, can be found to be very relateable. Eliot himself resisted queer readings of his work, but after reading “Prufrock” through the lens of the transgender, I find this perspective hard to ignore. Whether Eliot intended it or not, the themes of misplacement in one’s own place, the scorn of peers, the fear of love and the disbelief that one deserves to be loved, are themes to which any transgender person can strongly relate. The plight of Prufrock, the paralyzing fear that inhibits one from truly living, and which is the aim of the homo- and trans-phobic “bully” is a struggle that LGBT youth endure today. Prufrock can be, no matter Eliot’s intention, a vivid transgender literary protagonist.

Works Cited

Brewton, Vince. "Literary Theory [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. University of North Alabama, 29 June 2005. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

Churchill, Suzanne W. "Outing T.S. Eliot." Criticism 47.1 (2005): 7-30. Print. Wayne State UP. 17 Apr. 2005. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

Eliot, T. S. T S Eliot: the Complete Poems and Plays. Dent & Sons, 1969. Print.

"Gender-neutral Pronoun." Wikipedia. 10 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

Laity, Cassandra, and Nancy K. Gish. Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Larkin, Mary and Jess Mulchahy. Eastern Michigan University’s LGBT Resource Center Quicklist Definition Guide. September 2011. Eastern Michigan University Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center. Print.

Pondrom, Cyrena N. "T. S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land." Johns Hopkins UP, Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Nov. 2011.

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