Is J. Alfred Prufrock a Murderer? And What DOES "Jilted" Mean?!

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SWBAT identify and evaluate allusions, word choice, figurative language, and author's structural choices in "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" through class discussion and debate.

Big Idea

Explore ambiguity & allusions with discussion and student-generated questions with two of the oddest cats in literature: J. Alfred Prufrock & Granny Weatherall!


15 minutes

Last class period, all students were supposed to read our remaining two Imagistic poems, The Red Wheelbarrow and The Great Figure.  While reading, they were supposed to thoroughly consider what kind of imagery they had in their minds and what kind of tone the author was trying to portray.  To analyze these poems, we will discuss these scenic images as a whole group with the following series of questions:

  1. In "The Red Wheelbarrow," what were you picturing in your mind?  Someone describe the scene in your head.  (Here, I will be looking for specifically how the image in students' minds translated from the text.  In most cases, students will describe VERY similar scenes with only minor differences.  I will let several students explain what they saw and what was similar or different so that we can make comparisons between visions.  Obviously, all images will have chickens and a wheelbarrow present, but I'm mostly interested in the specifics about these images and the "extras."  Some students will see rusty wheelbarrows, some brand-spanking-new ones.  Some students will report a drenched setting from the "glazed with rain," while others report an older "glaze" that almost resembles an early-morning dew.  Get them to be as specific as possible.  What time of day is it?  What is the present weather like?  Is it a close-up shot of just a wheelbarrow and chickens?  Is there a chicken coop?  A fence?  A house?  What color?  You get the idea!  This will be very helpful for discussion in our next question.)
  2. So many of these images are shared by you all, despite reading these words in different locations and different times.  What kinds of features in the text do you think result in this phenomenon?  Is this easy to achieve as a writer?  How must you write to ensure this kind of reader-consistency?  (Students will point out that most of the things ALL students have in common come from the specific, concrete language choices of the author.  Williams only describes a limited set of information, so readers only have those images to work with.  The concrete nature of the language leaves little room for reader background or history to get in the way of building the image Williams wants readers to build, which usually isn't the case in more "complex" poetry or prose.  It's incredibly challenging to create anything with words that results in a mostly-common experience for all readers, so we should be impressed!)
  3. What accounts for the differences?  Why do YOU have a chicken coop, but you don't?  Why is your house blue when someone else's house is white?  Better yet, why is YOUR wheelbarrow rusty and hers is shiny?  Does that concern anyone?  What could that mean?  I feel like that's maybe bad...but admittedly, mine was rusty too!  (Students should infer that these subtle changes come from reader background.  I happened to picture a white chicken coop, a white farmhouse in the distance, and a rusty wheelbarrow...but interestingly enough, that's pretty much exactly what my grandparents' home looked like with their chickens!  I also like to play with students though and suggest that these little "extras" that readers are inserting into their scenes could be psychologically revealing, much like dreams.  Perhaps these are deeply symbolic?  Students enjoy this idea, and I enjoy the idea that they are now considering a "simple" poem from a broader perspective!)
  4. So how about a tone for this poem?  How did you come up with that 6+ letter tone word?  What textual evidence supports your ideas?  Does everyone have the same general tone in mind? Why does that make sense?  (Students typically say that this poem gives off a "serene" tone or something similar because of the imagery, but after further investigation, the first lines sometimes change their minds.  The idea that "so much depends on" this one item can be stressful or desperate or hopeful, depending on a variety of factors.)
  5. How about "The Great Figure"?  What were you picturing in your mind?  Someone describe the scene in your head. (Again, students will describe the same general scene: a city street at night and in the rain with a firetruck noisily zooming down the road.  I will be interested in the details again!  What kind of city did you see?  A really urban one like Chicago with skyscrapers?  A similarly urban one without skyscrapers like Springfield?  A smaller city?  How hard was it raining?  What this a modern-looking firetruck or retro?  How much traffic did you see?  What time of day was it?  What was your vantage point, like were you up above seeing it aerially?  Or on a street corner watching it unfold as a pedestrian?  In a car?  Could you see yourself, or was it more like you were watching someone else watching the firetruck?  These details are wonderful to collect, because they will give students plenty of ways to consider the poem's evidence!  I will be sure to ask students what about the poem gave them their impression as well, as sometimes words like "gong clangs" and descriptions like "figure 5" suggest visions of vintage firetrucks, etc.)
  6. So how about a tone for this poem?  How did you come up with that 6+ letter tone word?  What textual evidence supports your ideas?  (Students usually point to "anxious" or "on-edge" as tone concepts, because the firetruck signals some sort of emergency and words like "tense" and the rain make it more negative-feeling.)


Building Knowledge

40 minutes

We'll continue our study of Modern poetry by looking at T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock."  Before students take a look at this poem, they will respond to a few questions to preview the poem.  First, I'll ask students what kinds of things they might expect to see in a poem titled in this way (like content, purpose, etc.).  Usually, they expect something gushy and sappy to a partner (like a sonnet).  I love this activity, because when we start reading the poem, they're immediately taken aback that's it's completely the opposite of what they were expecting!  I love the irony.  (Again, we're teachers, so we have to love the small stuff!)  Then, I will ask them what their initial impression of a character called "J. Alfred Prufrock" might be.  Most students get this part right and report that he'd be kind of stuffy, formal, dorky, etc.  Finally, I'll ask them to consider how Eliot's chosen name impacts the poem, even based on the title.  Students should be able to connect that THIS man's "lovesong" might be a little different than your typical Robin Thicke variety!

Next, we will scan over the text of "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock."  I will ask students what the first thing they notice is, and they will (obviously) report the opening in a foreign language.  They will identify this as Italian (or I will tell them, although most students taking Spanish can recognize this as similar to Spanish, but slightly different), and I will tell them that it comes from Dante's Inferno.  Before we move on, we need to talk about this author choice (since it's not even translated for rude, Eliot!).  Why might he make a choice like this?  How could it help your reader to build meaning from your poem?  (Students can identify that this is an allusion--yay!--and will explain that even though they can't necessarily read it, they can explain that allusions add the meaning of the original work to the secondary work.  This will likely lead to a discussion about what the plot & idea of Dante's Inferno was, so I will ask a student to briefly explain the story to their peers.  Most students at my school are familiar with this text, but if not, I will play the video summary below.  Please be aware it does use the word "asses" during the explanation and use it at your discretion.  Some classes can handle it; some classes cannot.  Check your school policy or talk to your administrator for clarification on your school's policy.)

After the video, I will ask students how the connection with this text impacts their predictions for the tone and content of this "lovesong."  Obviously, this makes the piece darker and possibly suggests that Prufrock is equating his journey for love as a journey through hell.  For further clarification on this opener, we will also evaluate the translation of the text, which is spoken from Guido's (a prisoner in Hell) perspective in response to Dante's request to hear his story:

  • "If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy."


Students will paraphrase this text and suggest how it may be related to "Prufrock."  They should be able to connect that this opener definitely suggests that his "lovesong" is not happy, but is in fact painful and seemingly-unending.  

After this prereading, we will begin analyzing the poem stanza-by-stanza as a class.  To ensure that everyone participates, I will track comments and answers to questions using ClassDojo.  See the resources for the questions and findings from this discussion.



15 minutes

After our discussion about Prufrock, we will continue challenging ourselves with text that REQUIRES thinking to understand!  For this task, we will read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," but before we start students will need a bit of background knowledge.  First, we will talk about what "jilting" means.  I'll ask students what they think the word means or if they have ever heard it before.  Shockingly, most students have NOT heard this word!  I will still want them to take a guess at the meaning, however, and I will use it in context to help them formulate an understanding of the word.  Then, we will confirm that definition with's definition.  While viewing the definition, we will also spend a little bit of time looking at the origin of the word, considering how it evolved from a woman's name, to a derogatory word, to a verb.  It's kind of a horrible story, but students LOVE it.  Additionally, it provides a great instance to meet the Common Core requirement of looking at the evolution of language, which is something that most students never consider.  After looking a "jilting," we will also consider any other words that have morphed or are morphing in meaning or use.  We live in a time where language is changing rapidly (especially due to technology), so it shouldn't be difficult to come up with examples.  My favorite example is the word "rewind," because it's still a word that is used frequently, but NOTHING is actually being "rewound."  Back in MY day (ha!), tapes really WERE rewound!  Students laugh at this subtle change, but it usually results in a greater degree of engagement in the discussion.

Next, we will review "stream of consciousness" as a literary device, which is heavily used within Modernism and this story.  Students will recall that "stream of consciousness" is freely writing whatever comes to mind without concern for the audience's ability to necessarily follow every piece.  They will also recall that this type of writing helps readers to better understand characters, because it's coming exactly from the mind of the character.  (If they struggle to recall this, I'll give them some help with this link!)  To demonstrate this stream of consciousness idea, I will toss out a word like "apple" and students will share the first (APPROPRIATE!) word that comes to mind.  If they can, they will also explain why this particular association may exist, though many cannot consciousness point out the connection within their subconscious.  I will do this with a handful of words, pausing for discussion each time, then we will consider ways to improve reading comprehension of texts written in a stream of consciousness format.  Obviously, this format allows for a "direct window" into characters, but as we all know, sometimes windows are foggy!  If students are left to their own reading devices with this story, MANY will quit.  I've seen it.  So, taking this step to PLAN for the difficulties they will encounter is critical to helping them FACE those difficulties.  To do this, I will ask students one simple question:  If someone where going to decipher YOUR stream of consciousness, what would they have to do to better understand it?  (Phrasing this in a way that it's about THEM, not an author or character, helps them consider and own this question better!  They will happily share about themselves, then translate that to the author, but the other way around can be like pulling teeth!)  Common student answers (and wonderful reading tips!) are:

  • Really understand who I am as a person--what I like, don't like, what my past is, who the people in my life are, etc.
  • Understand pop culture and language.  I might be making references to other things, and if you thought that was my voice instead of song lyrics or something, that would be weird.
  • Read the whole thing.  I'll probably circle back.

With these tips, students will embark on the next section of the period!


20 minutes

During the remaining 20 minutes of class, students will read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" independently.  While reading, they will need to write down questions or comments they have for discussion next time.  I want to give them this time in class to get started on this project, because I know it will be difficult for them.  Getting a grip on this text while they are in a supported environment will help to ensure that they go home and actually FINISH reading it.  If students express collaborative exasperation (which has happened before), I will pause the class and remind them of their own reading suggestions.  We will also list the characters with relationships if they suggest that is a trouble spot as well.  It will depend heavily on the particular class, so I will play this by ear!

Next Steps

Next time, students will come to class with questions in hand, ready to dive into discussion about this story!  I am still working through grading research papers, so I am really limiting the amount of pencil-and-paper work I have to grade until I get those done.  Class discussion will largely substitute daily grades here, so I will be sure this change is explicitly known by students and that I track participation with tools like ClassDojo.