The author Dr. Irwin Edman opens his 1920 book Human Traits and Their Significance by noting that throughout civilization “two factors have remained constant” (ix). One of these factors is “the physical order of the universe”—or Nature—and the other is “the native biological equipment of man”—or human nature (ix). Together these two ideals have formed modern civilization—as Dr. Edman puts it “there is nothing new under the sun. Matter and men remain the same” (ix). Since the beginning of time there have been essential human traits—inborn distinguishing qualities--common to every society and time period. This commonality is shown in no better way than through characters in literature. Literature has the ability to mirror the society that it was written in, and by surveying this literature readers are able to discover universal human traits displayed by the characters.
American-born writer T.S. Eliot became famous in 1922 for his poem The Waste Land. The poem was highly regarded for its “poignant expressions of the alienation and despair” of the time (224). Eliot is viewed as a master of portraying “stagnation and estrangement” (225). In his early masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” composed around 1911, Eliot “addresses a middle-aged man’s anxiety over the passing of time and his own aging” while pondering the meaning of human existence (Longman Anthology 225). The main character of Prufrock is critical of his own society and focuses on the passage of time in his own life. Prufrock examines the passage of time in lines 23-34, in a way that is similar to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
And indeed there will be time
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions (23-34)
Already the similarity of theme in a piece from the 1900s to that from the Bible shows the never-changing condition of the human mind. Though it may seem in the first few passages that Prufrock is trying to console his fellow man, one common universal trait that plagues man reveals itself throughout the poem—egoism.
Egoism (or egotism) is most easily defined as “the practice of talking and thinking about oneself excessively because of and undue sense of self-importance” (Webster’s Dictionary). As “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” progresses, it becomes less a poem about a man’s concern for humanity and human existence and more about the man’s concern for his own condition. By line 40 of the poem, Prufrock begins to face his fear of aging in regards to the passing of time. Readers will notice that Prufrock uses the pronouns “I” and “me” more than any other in the poem:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?