December 15, 2014 no responses

The Decline of Masculinity in “The Dead” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Daniel Tosh describes in his book “A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle Class Home in Victorian England” the Victorian male as, “Becoming a man involved detaching oneself from the home and its feminine comforts. It required a level of material success in the wider world” which depends, “on the recognition of manhood by one’s peers” (Tosh 110). Both “The Dead” by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” portray men in opposition to the preconceived notion that men are at the height of culture and society and instead, Eliot and Joyce portray the men as struggling with impotency and decline in their masculinity as a result of their inadequacy brought on from their encounters with women.

In Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy begins the story as a good Victorian male who still clings to the idea that he is masculine and lives lie through the illusion. Through his epiphany he is given a second chance to reclaim his manhood (2310). On the other hand, J. Alfred Prufrock is more honest about himself and as the poem starts, his illusion has already been shattered. In his own mind, his worth is measured by the ability to talk to women around him, and since he couldn’t bring himself to talk to any women around him, he feels worthless as a man. He perceives the mermaids that won’t sing to him, hi ultimately gives up on becoming the male ideal. “I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (2527). Because he has given up and doesn’t allow himself an epiphany like Gabriel’s, he doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Before being given a second chance at reestablishing his manhood, Gabriel’s perception of himself has to be broken. The first confrontation Gabriel faces is with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, who threatens his rose-colored illusions of proper masculinity. As she helps him with his coat and shoes, Gabriel questions the young lady about her suitor and asks her when she will be marrying her young man. Lily responds bitterly that “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (2284). Gabriel is comfortable socially because of his class standing, but when Lily breaks through that wall of propriety, Gabriel is rendered impotent and uncomfortable at the girl’s words. Instead of letting the young girl destroy the illusion of his own self-worth completely, he pays her off and runs out of the room before “the girl” has a chance to give the money back. Gabriel’s ideal of social masculinity has been threatened, “He was still discomposed by the girl’s sudden and bitter retort. It had cast a gloom over him, which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie” (2285). He asserts himself by comparing his “superior education” and culture to the other inferior men at the party. “The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his” (2285).

The second blow to Gabriel’s manhood is delivered by his colleague, Miss Ivors. She is a feminist who is Gabriel’s intellectual and professional equal. He describes her as a “frank-mannered talkative young lady” who “did not wear a low-cut bodice” (2290). When Miss Ivors challenges his nationalistic loyalties, Gabriel bursts out that he is sick of his own country. Gabriel is insulted that a woman questioned his motives and called him a “West Briton.” Miss Ivors makes Gabriel intellectually impotent because of her accusations and insults. She laughs at his lack of knowledge of the Irish language by saying goodbye to him in Irish, “Beannacht libh” (2295). She is superior to him because of her nationalism and she humiliates him for being a West Briton, a traitor to Ireland. Gabriel tries to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. “The girl or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast but there was a time for all things” (2291). By dehumanizing her, Gabriel reasserts, at least in his own mind, his social dominance is reestablished. In addition to diminishing Miss Ivors socially, Gabriel begins to revise his speech to not only build himself up, but to insult Miss Ivors by calling her ungrateful. “[C]ertain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated [sic] generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack” (2293).

The third and most damning blow to Gabriel’s sense of worth as a man, is through his wife. Throughout the story, Gretta is mostly in the background and Gabriel’s excuse for being late is she, “takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (2283). He sees her as only his wife and not an equal, intellectually. Gabriel is happy in his illusion that his wife is his and was “proud of her grace and wifely carriage” (2306). Later when he sees Gretta on the stairs, he does not recognize her as she is changed by the song that reminded her of an old love, Gabriel becomes aroused sexually and desires to become the dominate her through sex. “He longed to be the master of her strange mood” (2307). Gabriel is sure that his wife will no longer reject his advances for intercourse, but Gretta flings herself onto the bed and begins crying. Angry at this rejection, Gabriel pries Gretta for more information on her sadness. As a final blow to Gabriel’s masculinity, Gretta tells him about Michael Furey and their great and passionate romance. Gabriel is rendered sexually impotent by his wife and her memories of the adoring Michael Furey (2308). He sees himself as inferior in his wife’s eyes, jealous of a dead man and incapable of such passion. “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny boy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror” (2309).

Prufrock also sees himself as a piteous fatuous fellow. He is a timid bald man who constantly reevaluates his self-worth. Like Gabriel, J. Alfred Prufrock is impotent physically and mentally. Throughout the poem, Prufrock continuously asks the question “Do I dare?” and “How should I presume?” (2525). Although Prufrock is offered the world and has the means to take it, he does not act upon his wishes. He asks the question “Do I dare to eat a peach?” but instead of taking the exotic and expensive fruit, Prufrock decides to, “wear white trousers, and walk upon the beach” (2527).

“Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force a moment to its crisis?”

When presented with the opportunity, Prufrock still does not act and he sees “the moment of [his] greatness flicker” away (2526)

Also like Gabriel, Prufrock has not lived a full life. He has “measured out [his] life in coffee spoons” (2525). Even in his imagination he is a background character. As he inserts himself into Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” he does not assign himself the position of the hero but instead a foolish attendant lord.

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two

[…] At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –

Almost, at times, the Fool” (2527)

Unlike Gabriel however, Prufrock does not start out confident in his social standing. While Gabriel sees himself as superior and is brought down by the interactions he has with Lily, Miss Ivors, and Gretta, Prufrock’s impotence is through his pre-existing feelings of inferiority. “I have heard the mermaids, singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me” (2527). Through his eyes the women he meets laugh at him and ridicule him for his thin arms and legs and balding head (2525-2526). To Prufrock, the women are either laughing at him or they are ignoring him and instead opting for the romantic ideals of beauty. “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo” (2524). What makes his feelings worse is the knowledge that he is an unmarried man which puts him in the category of impotent and inferior men according to the expectations of men in Victorian society. Tosh states that, “to form a household, to exercise authority over dependents, and to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining and protecting them – these things set the seal on a man’s gender identity” (Tosh 108)”

Duty, respectability commercial success and middle-class morality are the qualities and values expected of manhood throughout the nineteenth-century (Gillespie 5). While Gabriel’s masculinity, in Joyce’s “The Dead” was challenged by external conflicts, Prufrock, in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is constantly questioned by himself.  Regardless of the cause, whether it is externally or internally, the decline of masculinity is present in both stories. And this is a waking moment for feminism.



Appell, Felicia. “Victorian Ideals: The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships.” Scholars 18 (2012). Web.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9. Vol. F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 2524-2527. Text.

Gimenez, Yasmin Jensen. “Gabriel’s Trouble with Women.” BrightONLINE (2013). Web.

Hyman, Gwen. “Men in Charge, Men Underfoot: Nineteenth-Century Masculinities in Private and in Public.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 5.2 (2009). Web.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9. Vol. F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 2282-2311. Text.

Tosh, John. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Text.





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