Teatime as Social Interaction and Fragmentation in Eliot
In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” teatime, or “the taking of a toast and tea” (line 34), represents social interaction which, for the speaker, transforms an integrated world into a fragmented one.
In the beginning of the poem, the scene is set as an, at least relatively, unified whole. Although the framework of fragmentation is present – the windowpanes separate indoors from out – it is ineffectual. The “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (15) and the “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” (16), or the fog outdoors and the (presumably tobacco) smoke indoors, merge into one. After the “soot that falls from chimneys” passes from the inside world to the out, the speaker no longer devotes two separate lines to distinguish between the fog outdoors and the smoke indoors; they have become condensed into a single line as the smoke outdoors, or “the yellow smoke that slides along the street” (24). Also, whereas the fog used to rub its back and the smoke used to rub “its muzzle on the window-panes” (16), now the smoke rubs “its back upon the window-panes” (25).
However, this unity, and the leisure to prepare for social interaction described in the fourth stanza, is only present “Before the taking of a toast and tea” (34) and, likewise, before this line in the poem, which, as such, represents the beginning of teatime. After this line, the speaker becomes agitated and his thoughts become fragmented. The leisurely notion of time described in the fourth stanza becomes perverted into describing actions with little relation to time and much relation to self-doubt. The speaker says, “time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descend the stair,” (37-39).
In addition to showing the effects of the threat of social interaction upon the speaker, through the metaphor of teatime, the poem also directly relates teatime to fragmentation. For example, the speaker says, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (51). This could refer to the habit of drinking coffee every day or the use of small spoons to stir hot beverages such as tea at teatime and points out the tendency of such daily rituals to segment one’s life. The “measuring out” of the speaker’s life implies that he is counting his days based on the time between cycles in a ritual, developing a meaningless pattern that compartmentalizes his life.
The effects of teatime on the speaker are not limited to the temporary period of social interaction, but linger “after tea and cakes and ices” (79), or after this line in the poem, signifying the end of teatime (as “before … a toast and tea” signifies the beginning). The speaker continues to doubt his worth and ability (“Should I … / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (79-80) and continues to equate this with fragmentation (“Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter” (82)). He even includes a self-deprecating remark about his (balding) head fragmented from his body. Indeed, it seems as if the social interaction of teatime has ruined him. He feels that in order to act afterwards he would have to come back from the dead, “To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead…’” (94). His head on a platter, ostensibly put there by his insecurities about its appearance, actually has killed him, at least in terms of his life as his ability to act.
To the extent that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is about an insecure character whose world fragments when social interaction forces him to think about himself or how he appears to others, teatime serves as a metonymical representation for this interaction and, through teatime’s association with fragmentation in the poem, points to this interaction’s fragmenting effects upon the speaker.