- Prufrock in St. Petersburg:The Presence of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in T. S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
From time to time he would mutter something to himself because of his habit in indulging in soliloquies, a habit to which he had just acknowledged himself to be addicted.—DOSTOYEVSKY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. 201
Writing in 1932, F. R. Leavis claimed that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" "constitutes an important event in the history of English poetry. [It] represents a complete break with the nineteenth century tradition, and a new start." (Leavis 60) Whilst they agree that the poem offered much that was new, however, more recent critics have noted that Eliot's work did have antecedents amongst nineteenth century French literature, and have cited the work of Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, Charles-Louis Philippe, and Tristan Corbiere as evidence.2 One name that is rarely mentioned in this context is that of another author whom Eliot read, in French, while living in Paris in 1910: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This article will show that, when considering Eliot's early poems, and particularly "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," we can see that Dostoyevsky greatly contributed to Eliot's view of the modern city and, in Crime and Punishment's protagonist, Raskolnikov, provided a valuable model for Prufrock's self-conscious indecision.
The existence of similarities between Raskolnikov and Prufrock was first brought to critical attention by John Pope, writing in American Literature in [End Page 1] 1945. Although Pope's article provides a useful starting point for a comparison of the two figures, it is flawed in one key respect. He proposes that Eliot's poem was written in 1914, and was therefore greatly indebted to Constance Garnett's English translation of Dostoyevsky's novel, which had appeared that year, a debt manifested in the many textual echoes that Pope singles out for attention. Although he argues cogently for Dostoyevsky as a key influence on the young Eliot, then, his argument is excessively indebted to the traces of the one particular translation that he claims to find in Eliot's poem. Pope concludes that "unless the Gods of chance have performed one of their strangest miracles, the Garnett translation [. . .] was a major source of inspiration for 'Prufrock.'" (Pope 228) He was soon to learn that the Gods of chance had indeed been active in such a manner. In a letter to the journal the following year, Eliot gave a more detailed dating of his poem, putting its origins back to the 1910–11 year that he spent in Paris. In doing so, he ruled out the possibly of his having been directly influenced by Garnett's translation, but confirmed nonetheless that there was indeed a strong trace of Dostoyevsky in Prufrock's monologue. Recalling that some of the parts of what was eventually to become "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" were drafted before his arrival in Paris (including the "Prince Hamlet" passage which Eliot attributed to his reading of Laforgue), Eliot went on:
During the period of my stay in Paris, Dostoevsky was very much a subject of interest amongst literary people and it was my friend and tutor, Alain Fournier, who introduced me to this author. Under his instigation, I read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov in the French translation during the course of that winter. These three novels made a very profound impression on me and I had read them all before Prufrock was completed.(Pope 319)
Much of the thrust of Pope's article relies on his noting textual echoes of Garnett's translation in Prufrock's words, and these connections are not so persuasive when one bears in mind that Eliot was not working with this translation. He does, however, note that Eliot's response "testifies generously to the prominence of Dostoevsky in his mind during the period of composition." (Pope 321) Although Pope's argument is limited by his slightly erroneous textual analogies, he notes some key areas in which Prufrock and Raskolnikov are similar, and these will be re-examined and taken further in this study. I...