The False Promise of Being a Main Character…

Nicole Peeler
8 min readSep 16, 2023

On why we should embrace being an extra

A man standing with his arm outsretched in front of a waterfall that’s creating a rainbow.
Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

I adore “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s a canonical mainstay that an English teacher has probably tortured you with, and that teacher might very well have been me.

One of my favorite parts of the poem (besides the glorious sibilance of “scuttling across the floor of silent seas” or the oft-quoted line about the coffee spoons) is the following stanza:

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,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Any professor worth their salt will teach about how this stanza is rife with the poem’s themes of alienation, desire, anxiety, and disappointment. Sound familiar?

They don’t call Eliot’s cadre “Modernists” for nothing. It’s easy to imagine Eliot alive today, reading our current headlines.

If this were written today, we might interpret this stanza as Prufrock’s disappointment that he’s not a Main Character, a term much bandied about. Instead of a Prince, Prufrock worries, what if I’m only there to start someone else’s scene? The words he dwells on, “politic, cautious, and meticulous,” are the words of (dreaded) bureaucracy.

He’s able to talk a good game, he admits (“full of high sentence”) — but what if what he says has no meaning (a bit obtuse)? As a person who loves both ideas and language and yet who finds herself thinking “what the hell am I even saying” quite often, this feeling hits home.

Am I, as Prufrock wonders, so far from a Main Character, that I’m a Fool?

Eliot prophecies a conundrum that is, arguably, one of the most interesting, disturbing, and confusing aspects of our current reality. It’s the topic of the Atlantic’s recent article “We’re Already Living in the