Jay Gatsby and J. Alfred Prufrock are two modern literary protagonists who’d probably never be caught dead in the same room together. Although both turn-of-the-century men are in love with utterly unattainable women, their attitudes toward life, the universe, and everything couldn’t be more opposite. Gatsby amasses a fortune, buys a mansion, throws lavish parties, and completely reinvents himself, taking the flamboyant peacock approach to wooing his ladyfriend. Prufrock, on the other hand, reluctantly initiates a meeting, hesitates, broods, retreats, and ultimately resigns himself to a life of isolation, taking more of a unabomber approach to courtship. Yes, ladies – sometimes these are your choices.
Although Jay and J. Alfred seem to live worlds apart, chronologically speaking, they are only separated by about a decade. In fact, both characters are pioneers of a cultural period that was shortsightedly dubbed “modernism” on the off chance that nothing would ever change again. With booming cities, huge crowds, division of labor, and division of wealth suddenly becoming commonplace, people experienced an unprecedented sense of isolation, disjointedness, and anonymity in the new cultural landscape. On some level, Gatsby’s and Prufrock’s troubled romances represent a larger struggle to find their place in early twentieth-century city life, which is strongly reflected in the way they’re each narrated.
Jimmy Gatz’s humble North Dakota upbringing does nothing to prepare him for the extravagant 1920’s city life that his childhood sweetheart, Daisy, so relishes. His “Gatsby” persona is essentially an elaborate, extended performance for her and society’s benefit, so it’s only fitting that we’re forced into the position of audience by the fact that The Great Gatsby is narrated in the third person. In the style of a game of “telephone” (telegram?), we are first introduced to Gatsby by an outsider, who originally hears about Gatsby through gossip, which people have picked up from friends of friends that might as well have overheard it from a passing trolley.
Although hearsay works in Gatsby’s favor for a while, it doesn’t take long for the posh New Yorkers who crash his parties to smell that he’s not one of their own. Gradually, the narrator uncovers the truth of Gatsby’s history: Jay is a small-town, uneducated bootlegger hell-bent on winning back the (now-married) girl of his dreams. Highly damaging personal secrets aside, we nevertheless end up with very little sense of what’s going on in Jay’s head, just most of Gatsby’s party-goers have no sense of / appreciation for the good guy he really is. By playing the part of a wealthy social elite, the true Gatsby becomes just as inaccessible to big-city society as it is to him. Looks like not much has changed since the days of your brother’s tree-fort clubhouse.
In a vast departure from Gatsby, we get the sense that Prufrock was born and bred into his rigid bourgeois society – and that nothing could be more stifling. Although he longs more than anything to share his feelings with a mysterious unnamed woman, he feels crippled by social convention, ultimately deciding to tell her nothing at all. The first-person narration of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is completely inseparable from Prufrock’s innermost thoughts and feelings, leaving us with almost no objective sense of the things around him. In fact, scholars still don’t agree on whether the poem is about a romantic interlude gone wrong or an imagined scenario whose imagined failure prompts Prufrock to keep his mouth shut.
By placing an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the external reality of the poem, Prufrock forces us to share his sense of separation from the outside world, which consists of formality, routine, triviality, and lots and lots of tea. Looking out through Prufrock’s eyes is like looking through the bars of a jail: virtually everything he describes is segmented into parts, whether they be “faces that you meet,” “hands of days,” “eyes that fix you,” “[a]rms that are braceleted,” “long fingers,” “nerves in patterns,” or even the interrupted back-and-forth s tructure of the narrative itself. This moody “pair of claws” is torn over how to convey his feelings to an unfeeling culture, and it definitely shows in the dismembered bodies that surround him. Prufrock is the depressive to Gatsby’s manic – though perhaps the two could bond over a pint, a good cry, and the fact that neither of them ever gets the girl.