Victorian Ideals in The Lady of Shalott (EC)

The Lady of Shalott; Arthur Hughes 1873

The Lady of Shalott; Arthur Hughes 1873

Throughout the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson reappropriates medieval history for Victorian audiences by bringing forth the duality of experience vs. innocence and a theme of the repercussions of sexual desire. In this poem, the Lady of Shalott represents innocence while Lancelot represents experience and her tempter. A Victorian ideal of sexual suppression is portrayed here through the desires of a cursed young woman and the loss of her innocence through the temptations of Sir Lancelot.

The poem opens with a description of the island of Shalott and it’s surroundings. There is a field near a river with a road running parallel to King Arthur’s Camelot, in the middle of this river is the secluded island of Shalott. The poem describes how there is a young woman in a protected tower on this island, and that no one has ever seen her before, seldom workers have only heard her eerie song in the early morning. Part two of the poem describes the Lady’s isolation from her perspective, and how she spends her time. We learn that she spends most of her days weaving a magic web but we never learn the purpose of this magical web, except to keep her busy. The lady is said to be under a curse where she is forbidden to look outside, so she watches the world through the reflections of her magic mirror. She continues to weave the reflections of what she sees outside of her lonely castle until Sir Lancelot comes riding along in Part three.

The majority of part three is a description of Sir Lancelot. Most of the knights before have been depicted as riding in twos, but Sir Lancelot came riding by the Island of Shalott alone in his jeweled armor singing, “Tirra Lirra”. The Lady of Shalott was drawn to the window, she left her loom and looked down to Camelot, as she did this the loom swayed and the mirror cracked, the curse was now upon her. In part 4 the Lady of Shalott, knowing that she is doomed, leaves her tower and writes her name on a boat near the river. She then proceeds to get inside and sing her last song as she rides to Camelot. She dies before she reaches Camelot, but when her boat arrives a crowd gathers around to look, Sir Lancelot says she is beautiful and says a prayer for her.

The audience is unaware of why the Lady of Shalott is under her curse, but we can infer that it is meant to keep her isolated from the outside world along with her tower and secluded island. The Lady of Shalott is the epitome of innocence; we know that she has not been stained from the outside world because she has never been able to truly experience it. Although in part two we learn that the Lady states she is getting “half sick of shadows” after seeing a funeral and a wedding through the reflection of her mirror (Tennyson 1183.) This passage here is foreshadowing what happens in part three when the lady leaves her loom to look out the window at Sir Lancelot. It is difficult not to relate this to the life of a young girl, as she is growing older. After birth she is sheltered by her parents, until she reaches puberty and is intrigued by the idea of men and romance, which is often initially discouraged by the family. This idea of encouraged sexual repression was very common throughout the Victorian era, and the exploration of the romance created behind suppression was becoming very common in texts at the time.

Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott was embodied the ideal woman at the time, one who is unattainable, virginal, spiritual and mysterious, embowered, and dedicated to her womanly tasks. The downfall of the Lady of Shalott comes when she is tempted by the voice of Sir Lancelot, “She look’d down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror cracked from side to side; ‘The curse is upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott.” her loss of innocence is symbolized by the breaking of the mirror, inevitable doom is upon her (Tennyson 1184). Sir Lancelot is presented as an object of desire throughout this poem. While he has previously been a main character in other works, he is merely an onlooker throughout this poem as he is unaware of the Lady of Shalott’s infatuation with him. This was also a popular technique throughout Victorian literature; placing a hero out of the center of attention moving the story around to a different perspective. In this way the heartbreak and internal feelings of the woman, The Lady of Shalott, are exposed to the audience.

Tennyson makes the Lady of Shallot a passive figure, focusing mostly on her surroundings and how she is subdued by her task, the lady only speaks twice throughout her poem. It is only through her conscious decision of looking out the window that she realizes what she has done. Emphasis on the domestic interior duties of women is evident as only male knights are described riding alongside the Island of Shalott. A female’s role in society is also being brought forth as the principles of Victorian society advocate for women to stay at home and maintain the household, enjoying their interior duties. It is only when the Lady of Shalott begins to push these female boundaries that her curse comes upon her and leads to her demise.

Tennyson’s poem of The Lady of Shalott can either evoke a sort of sympathy for her demise, or an idea that the neglect of her duties as a homely woman justified her punishment. Tennyson discourages the exploration of her sexual desires and curiosity towards romance here as they lead the Lady of Shalott to her untimely death.

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