The Lady of Shalott as a weak female character?

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.

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10 Responses to The Lady of Shalott as a weak female character?

  1. carlyferguson1 says:

    I think it is super interesting that you have pointed out the treatment and depiction of Lady Shallot. Everything that you have stated about the way women are portrayed/ treated in the Victorian era summarized from Tennyson’s work happens to be the way society actually was. Lately, all my courses seem to be covering the same issues on women’s rights back in the day. The Victorian era, ending in 1900 (I think) would mean basically women were not considered persons which often lead to working in the home, violence, and no rights (voting rights, divorce etc) ,where women were seen second in the hierarchy to men. I don’t think that we as readers should be surprised about the reliance of Lady Shallot on a king, nor the fact that she was literally left to her loom watching the outside world pass her by.

    Great post !

  2. teresastapor says:

    First of all, great Post! I completely agree with the Lady of Shalott as being depicted as fragile, weak character. (It maybe that’s why I initially thought Disney).. After doing some classes that focus on women during the era, I know it is repressive and very controlled for women. The woman’s place was the home and her husband, free thought was frowned upon and so was questioning all that is “male”; business, economy, etc. So I can see why Tennyson writes the Lady as a quiet, weak woman. My question is: why is she cursed? Is the curse that all females are trapped into their homes to do menial jobs?
    I really like how you picked out the mirror and all the symbolic meaning it seems to have. I found the mirror played a part with her metaphorical fragility, and her view on the world. She cannot experience Camelot like most can, so she see’s it through a mirror. Does that change her view out the town or the men? Does she know more since she is cursed to her work and her task, therefore making her a silent observer?
    All in all, great post!

  3. hayleydunmire says:

    Hey great post!

    When I read the Lady of Shallot I thought it was sad that the lady was doomed to spend her life weaving and looking through a mirror. I think it would be a very boring life and useless way to live. I think you are completely correct in the way that she is dictated in a weak character dependent on others. I think the best thing that could have happened to her was seeing Lancelot. Even though the sight of him brought her dimise she was able to venture out into the world for the first time and see a little piece of life without feeling guilty since she was bound to die. Although it is sad that she spent her life waiting for someone to save her and nobody came. In a sense though she kind of brought herself free by going out onto the lake to die. She was able to get out of the tower and get into a boat and see something other than the 4 walls of the castle and a reflection of the outside world through a mirror. I think by her choosing to go outside and sail into the lake was her way of dictating her own life without waiting for someone to come save her.

    Although from reading Teresa’s comment I also have the similar questions about the curse. Like, what the curse was, how exactly was it suppose to be broken, who gave her the curse and why does she have to weave?

  4. Athena G. Csuti says:

    Considering the time period and context (the weak, beautiful woman who was submissive was highly valued) his depiction of the lady is not a negative. Obviously it is negative to us, in this day and age, with feminism in mind. But I don’t think Tennyson meant it that way because he would not have seen it as we do now. Perhaps she is a reflection of what was valued from women during that time. We also have to consider Tennyson’s source, he’s not working with original material. It might be wishful thinking to say that this is a commentary on Victorian women (their perceived helplessness and compliance to this idea leads them to resemble a dead women, simply going where the current leads); I don’t know what Tennyson’s views were on women and their role in society. My point is that there are many ways to interpret his portrayal of the lady, and it is important to think of historical context as well as our own modern views.

    I think it’s interesting and good that you included the counter argument, how she could be viewed as a strong character. This is a good post overall, but I have to disagree with your conclusion.

  5. kirstymcg says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    I think that the question of why exactly the curse has been put on her and what it means that she broke the curse are definitely interesting questions. It’s a long shot but perhaps Tennyson was foreshadowing the women’s suffrage movement that kind of developed towards the end of the Victorian era, maybe the way in which the lady breaks the curse is metaphorical for Victorian women about to break the curse of their position in society in the same manner that the Lady of Shalott breaks her curse? But then seeing as she dies when she breaks her curse, you would have to question what that would mean Tennyson is suggesting would happen if women broke out of their roles…

    Thanks for your comment Athena, nothing like a bit of disagreeing to inspire a response! Haha. I do understand the importance of considering the time period and that this was just how it was in regards to women and was perhaps not perceived as ‘negative’ by Tennyson. However, I still think that adjectives such as ‘weak’, ‘helpless’ and ‘vulnerable’ that the Lady of Shalott is portrayed as are adjectives with timelessly negative connotations. I think it’s somewhat impossible to suggest that an image evoked by those words is a positive one, regardless of the time period.

  6. thetheresak says:

    I think you wrote a great post! It was well written and I applaud you for looking at The Lady of Shalott through the feminist theory looking glass. I must say though, that your post really led me to think about two things: Tennyson’s audience and my understanding/ knowledge of Victorian Women and their livelihoods.

    It came up about halfway through your post when I thought of who (what part of society, if not all) would be reading this piece at the time that it was published. Who was Tennyson’s audience? Who would he be directing his works towards?

    This would be important when we think about your two questions: “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?”

    With Queen Victoria being a fan of Tennyson, I imagine that a majority of his audience was of nobility, higher-class, and some higher-working class. If that is so, I think your questions are focused (almost) perfectly. A good amount of those women would be “confined” to ‘lady-like’ living – excluding housework or overworked motherly duties. Although, there are a few incongruities: most were highly educated, involved in ‘manly’ duties, or held significant powers from family ties.

    But, if the audience included the middle, lower-working, and poor classes, I think the questions are a little off track. For by the 1840-50s (give or take) most of the working poor had almost all members of the family working, including women and children. It was the only way to maintain those good old Victorian values.

    Women in the Victorian era cannot really be generalised as socio-economic classes divided them greatly.

    The Lady of Shalott could arguably be directed towards those higher women of the era, but I think Tennyson just wouldn’t make that argument or idea if it was towards Victorian women in general. And if that was his purpose to place a negative view on the inequality of those upper-class women, would he subject that idea onto his upper-class audience?

    I agree with Athena that we must remember to look at the poem in the perspective of the time of its creation. So, with that in mind, I’ve attached a link here if anyone wants to learn more about women in the Victorian era. I swear, it is interesting!

    Once again, great post. It was very thought-provoking.

  7. npelletier says:

    That was a very interesting post. I really liked that you thought of the status of women in depth because of the way Lady Shallot is described in this poem. I however do not believe that Lady Shallot is totally weak and helpless because she does decide to try and break the spell cast over her by leaving her tower and pursuing love. It takes courage and strength for anybody to face adversity when the odds are stacked so highly against them, nobody would jeopardize their life if they were faint of heart. Although I also do believe that can be looked at as a commentary of how women are viewed in the Victorian Era. At the time a lot of emphasis was placed on fashion and looks, women were in society mostly to be seen and not heard, and only a “true lady” would stay at home and not work. Women were also not viewed as contributors to society at the time and there probably were many men who viewed them as weak and helpless due to the fact that because most women didn’t work outside the home, they required a man to support and protect them. I think it is really interesting that you made the connection between the stereotype of women Lady Shallot represents in the poem and how women were viewed in society during the Victorian Era.

  8. mrubling says:

    Interesting post! Looking at this work by Tennyson through a feminist lens, I’d interpret the poem as illustrating the divide between the gender roles of men and women in the Victorian era through Arthurian context. It was a time in which women were isolated from the outside world (a politically and socially male-dominated world), confined to the private space of their household. We see this in the Lady of Shalott who lives in her private and engages only in the domestic work of weaving.

    I also agree on your counter argument to Athena’s comment. The poem takes place in Arthurian settings while still based on Victorian England’s principals, value and patriarchal norms. Personally I don’t find Tennyson provides any options of freedom for his ‘cloistered woman’ nor does he try to break this construction of society’s ideal woman at the time. I agree that he’s not working with ‘original material’ but personally I find his portrayal women simply a reiteration of Arthurian/Shakespeare heroines. Why does he does he portray the female subject entrapped? Why does he not offer the female subject freedom rather than meeting a tragic end? Why a ‘Lady Shalott’ and not a ‘Lord’?

  9. mdrvodelic says:

    I really enjoyed your post!
    I completely agree with you! I too found that The Lady of Shalott is presented in a way that makes it seem like her looks are all that really matter. Like you pointed out, when Sir Lancelot says “she has a beautiful face” just reinforces the idea that her courage to break the curse and attempt to be strong is totally overlooked. Lacelot sees her beauty and moves on, never thinking twice about what she had to do to get there.
    I think your conclusion is quite interesting and accurate. I didn’t think of it like that at first but the more I think about it the more I see your point. I think Tennyson is really highlighting exactly what it was like to be a woman during the Victorian Age. Her life consisted of being locked up in a tower, weaving a tapistry all day, and forced to look into her mirror. I think this mimics just how regulated womens lives were back then. It’s clever on Tennysons part.
    Great, great post!

  10. jcdegner says:

    I really loved your post! I thought you brought up a great point about how Tennyson depicts women in his poem. I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Paradise Lost” when you were discussing the mirror. Just as Lord Tennyson seemed to focus on the Lady of Shalott’s beauty as her redeeming feature, I think Milton also focused on Eve’s beauty. This appears to be the characteristic that Eve herself notices when she looks in the water at her own reflection. She becomes slightly self-obsessed, and believes that she is better looking than Adam. This implies that Eve is rather vain. I think, in a way, that Tennyson was getting at a similar point in his poem. The Lady of Shalott simply stares at a mirror all day, and is constantly described as extremely beautiful. Eventually, would her mind not lead to similar thoughts as Eve’s? Perhaps both Tennyson and Milton believed that beauty was the best quality of women and wanted to emphasize it for their readers to notice. I thought it was an interesting parallel between the two pieces of literature.

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