Whilst reading The Lady of Shalott, I couldn’t help but take somewhat of a feminist stance. I found it intriguing that Tennyson depicted her in such a helpless, somewhat weak character with the way in which he focused on her beauty and inability to do almost anything.
The way that she just sits watching the knights, shepherds and reapers who are engaging in physical labour and are defined by their jobs when we are not really shown what activities she engages in whilst in her tower apart from looking into the mirror. The jobs also have connections to being male dominated, so is Tennyson is suggesting that while the men contribute to society all that Lady Shalott does is sit and stare in the mirror? The mirror in itself has connotations of beauty and self obsession, the way in which she is constantly staring in the mirror puts a focus on her beauty as opposed to any other quality she may possess such as her willpower to not look out onto Camelot, for majority of the piece anyway.
The focus on her beauty is even reinforced when she dies and the somewhat beautiful nature of her death. Her death is described as “a gleaming shape she floated by” (line 156) and she is described to just lay down rather than to fall or injure herself, anything that would subvert that soft and sensitive image of femininity that Tennyson employs. He even describes her to be “lying, robed in snowy white” (line 136) and image of innocence and again a soft, sensitive description of her that was the stereotypical image of a woman who’s purpose merely surrounded looking beautiful.
The way in which she is waiting for a knight to save her also reiterates the helpless nature of her character. Tennyson writes that before she saw or, more accurately, heard Lancelot, “she hath no loyal knight” (line 62) to save her. The fact that she faces the outside world because of the knight and then dies, again emphasizes her vulnerability and inability to survive in the real world – What does this say about women in the Victorian Era? That their lives should be confined to the household while the men contribute to society because they would not survive?
Also, the way in which she had basically sacrificed her life for Lancelot and then all he says at the sight of her death is, “she has a lovely face” (Line 169) reinforces the idea that she is defined by her beauty and despite her actions being heroic and passionate, she is reduced back to her looks by the man she essentially died for.
I do think that the way that she has the courage to face the outside world suggests the strength of her character and it could be interpreted that her death is out of her control, it’s the curse, therefore perhaps does not suggest her inability to survive in the real world. However, personally I think that this does still make a negative comment on the status and purpose of Victorian era women.