The Lady of Shalott as commentary on women in the early 19th century

I was curious if anyone else agreed with me that Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott could be considered a commentary on gender in his time? Particularly, it seems to speak about the role of women in Europe in the early 19th century. It was socially expected for women to stay at home. On the occasion a woman attended a social event, she was expective to remain passive, awaiting the arrival of potential suitors. Women were equally as confined in society as the Lady of Shalott is in her tower. Even once married, women were expected to be wholly domestic, focused on caring for the household and children. To seek a role in the male-dominated world or to pursue any external desires was not even considered an option. As we witness in the ballad, the lady eventually meets her doom by attempting to escape her confinment.

My question is – if Tennyson did consider this theme while writing The Lady of Shalott, is he defending or condemning her for her decision to venture into the world?


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3 Responses to The Lady of Shalott as commentary on women in the early 19th century

  1. bkmilne says:

    Interesting post.
    In my opinion, Tennyson is portraying the idealized woman – domestic, working in the home – while she is stuck in the tower, but it appears she is being condemned for venturing out into the world.
    A few of Tennyson’s poems portrays the fragile woman such as “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Day Dream”, and of course “The Lady of Shallot”. In a way, it is interesting to see that Tennyson even allowed the escape of Lady Shallot.

    Did he mean anything by allowing her to escape, or merely just to provide the contrast of the domesticated woman?

  2. carlyferguson1 says:

    AH! i just wrote another comment on a blog post regarding this! I think this concept of allowing The Lady Of Shallot is super interesting, but defiantly a reflection of the time period. Interestingly enough, the idea of women having slim to no rights continues on for quite some time following this era. Women were finally considered persons in 1929 in Canada — crazy i know !

    However, i do think that the escape and death of Lady Shallot is a result of escaping.

    Regarding the comment above, I think that if Tennyson didn’t allow for the escape, there would not have been the impact on readers that was needed to define women of this time!

    – Carly

  3. Athena G. Csuti says:

    I am equally curious and I agree, that’s an interesting way to interpret it. I’d like to think it was a commentary or an observation, however it might also just be a reflection of the ideals at the time without acting as social commentary. It’s difficult to say now, and would require more research on Tennyson’s personal views. What did he think of women? Was he okay with the ideals and their role in society?

    Looking at this poem now, I would say it’s an excellent reflection of Victorian women, what was expected and desired of them. But I don’t know if this would be the intended interpretation at the time it was written.

    I also wonder how much Tennyson’s poem reflects the older Arthurian legends. Is the way Tennyson writing the lady reflecting older ideals of beauty and women?

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