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  • Prufrock's Question and Roquentin's Answer
  • William Irwin

There could not be two more different literary figures than the right-wing, religious T. S. Eliot and the left-wing, atheistic Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet there are striking connections between their first major publications, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and Nausea (1938). Eliot was aware of and critical of Sartre, especially in the commentary on No Exit in The Cocktail Party, and, no doubt, Sartre became aware of Eliot.1 But as far as can be gleaned, Sartre did not read Eliot's Prufrock, prior to the publication of Nausea, despite his connection to Adrienne Monnier, the French translator of the poem. Indeed Simone de Beauvoir documents the couple's reading habits in some detail in The Prime of Life, including their admiration for Hemingway and Faulkner during that time, but there is no mention of Eliot or Prufrock.2

Both the poem and the novel present us with subjective, mood-laden impressions of the internal melancholic lives of their protagonists. Like Prufrock, Roquentin admits "My passion was dead."3Nausea is presented as a diary intended to be read by no one, and Prufrock is presented as a self-confession that no one is to hear. As Guido da Montefeltro in the poem's epigram is willing to speak to Dante because he believes Dante will never return to share what he has heard with the living, so Prufrock is solipsistically introspecting. The "you" of "Let us go then, you and I" is likely Prufrock addressing himself. But if it is addressed to another person, it can only be a reader who is as hopeless as he is, with no chance of return or redemption—only such a reader would really understand what is said. The final line of the poem "Till human voices wake us, and we drown" takes us back to the "patient etherized upon a table." Like Roquentin, Prufrock has taken himself and the reader [End Page 184] by proxy on an inner journey, a dream-like state in which the real and surreal come together.

In the opening stanza of the poem, Prufrock describes his internal cityscape as including "Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . / Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'" The question is mentioned twice more, but it is never articulated. Obviously it is an issue of great existential import concerning the meaning of life. Though Prufrock does not verbalize it, the question must be essentially Roquentin's question to himself: "Can you justify your existence then? Just a little?" (p. 177).

As we shall see, even though Sartre's philosophy as developed in Nausea and crystallized in Being and Nothingness comes later and likely with no knowledge of Prufrock, the philosophy can still shed light on the poem—and in a way that in turn elucidates the philosophy.4


Meaning for Sartre is found in existence itself, emerging through the coloring and conceptualization of consciousness.5 While this does not necessarily imply the stereotypical existential view that life is bleak, meaningless, and possibly not worth living, this does nevertheless seem to be the conclusion that Roquentin draws early in Nausea. Consider this dark concern: "My existence began to worry me seriously. Was I not a simple spectre?" (p. 86). Early in the novel Roquentin concludes "Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that's all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition" (p. 39). This life as Roquentin describes it sounds eerily like the humdrum pointless existence of Prufrock, who has measured out his life with coffee spoons and spit out the butt-ends of his days and ways amidst the monotony of women who come and go talking of Michelangelo—a great man he resembles not at all.

Later in the novel Roquentin admits "And it was true, I had always realized it; I hadn't the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant or a microbe. My life put...


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