Portraying character in fiction: Lessons from J. Alfred Prufrock


Instead of dissecting the symbolism and thematic significance of a poem, this series is meant to be a practical discussion of what fiction writers can learn from poetry.

Because a poem uses so few words, each word must be meaningful and carefully chosen to have the impact the poet desires. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot creates a vivid and memorable character using only a few strokes. I’ve put a few excerpts into this post, but if you’re interested, you can read the whole poem here.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;


And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

In these two stanzas, Eliot uses repetition to drive home important character attributes. The repeated “Do I dare?” describes to us Prufrock’s hesitation and anxiety about approaching life and seeking love. “There will be time” which is repeated three times here, and in other places throughout the poem, suggest his worries about time running out.

The repetition tells us that he’s worried he’s approaching a place in his life where he can no longer seek out the things he wants, or perhaps approaching death, but the structure of the sentence “There will be time” tells us he’s lying to himself, trying to ignore and deny this fear.

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)


T. S. Eliot

Whether or not to describe a character is a source of debate among people like myself who give unqualified advice. (In fact, I’ve written a post on it.)  In this stanza, however, Eliot describes Prufrock in a way that not only makes an intriguing visual image, it builds his character.

We can see his insecurities, in “How his hair is growing thin.” We also see that he takes pride in his material success as well as his modesty–”My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.” And yet this pride is undermined in the very next line by his insecurity. “But how his arms and legs are thin!

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

Here, Eliot introduces a metaphor that has since become famous. In these short two lines, he sums up Prufrock’s life for us in a way that’s succinct and beautiful. It tells us of a life cautiously lived, a monotonous yet pleasant routine, measured out in even, moderately sized intervals. This tells us what kind of man Prufrock is and what kind of life he leads.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Because he is so timid and insecure, Prufrock could easily be perceived as a ‘wimp’ and become an unlikeable character. But Eliot gives us glimpses of his vulnerability, his hopes and his disappointments, and by the end of the poem we feel for Prufrock, we want him to succeed, to find love, even though (in my opinion) it’s not likely that he ever will.

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Another way Eliot creates a likeable character out of the timid Prufrock is by using his self-deprecating humor and giving us a sense of his humility. He understands that he’s playing the Fool. He harbors no resentment, no anger towards life, just a kind of wry resignation I find very appealing.

By the end of the poem we can picture Prufrock descending the stair, the bald spot in the middle of his hair. We understand his hopes and dreams, his failings, the sum total of the uneventful life he’s measured out in coffee spoons. By the end of this poem he’s become a living breathing person, who has lived an unremarkable life, but is no less remarkable for it.

Prufrock image by T. S. Eliot (archive.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Featured image By Emilian Robert Vicol from Com. Balanesti, Romania (Coffee-with-Milk_72966-480×360) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

T.S. Eliot by Thomas Stearns Eliot with his sister and his cousin by Lady Ottoline Morrell.jpg: Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) derivative work: Octave.H [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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