The Most Irrational Lady of Shalott

In the lines 55-72 of The Lady of Shalott, it seems like the lady is musing about the lives of the people who pass by towards Camelot, and how she secretly longs to have one of her own. Seeing these “damsels glad” (55), “a curly shepherd lad” (56), and the “long-haired page in crimson clad” (58), she sees how happy ordinary folk are with their ordinary lives. Like it was already said in the post, ‘Tennyson’s Lady’, it is assumed that the Lady’s life is meant to represent that of an artist removing him/herself from society in order to stay true to what she had dedicated her life to. In order to have a full commitment to creating something truly beautiful, the ultimate sacrifice must be made. But is creating something beautiful through the medium of art as valuable than potentially creating something beautiful through the medium of life experience? It seems that this is what the Lady of Shalott is struggling with here.

I think that the idea of the ‘mirror’ (line 60) in itself (a traditional tool of vanity) represents the superficial sense of a final art form. It is a privilege to take part in an art form that creates beautiful things, but what is the point if you don’t have life experience to even compare it to? Also, in acknowledging that a mirror, in that vain sense, allows a woman to indulge in the vanity of admiring herself, Tennyson might be playing on that idea in that the Lady can only indulge in the pleasures of a life beyond her discipline (an intentional double-meaning here) through the mirror and not in reality. Vanity is frowned upon, as a modest woman in that age should not acknowledge her beauty in fear of having her worth reduced to just that. It seems that beauty plays a big part in Tennyson’s day despite this (The Lady’s value is later reduced to ‘she’s pretty’ when she is found dead), but the discipline in proving worth non-reliant on looks (on art instead) demonstrated here is what is most important.

“She hath no loyal knight and true,” (62) because the idea of ‘love’ is the most powerful force for any 19th century woman to be seduced by. It is the epitome of irrationality that women in this age had assumed into their very souls before even having the chance to prove anyone otherwise. Even in Tennyson’s The woman’s cause is man’s”, he says “For woman is not undevelopt man, but diverse: could we make her as the man,” (259-60). The genders are completely different species, according to Tennyson, which I suppose is a step in the right direction for feminism as he states that women are not necessarily worse, just different. Different, as the traditional literary idea that woman is irrational: end of story. Love is irrational: that’s a fact. Woman falls in/ desperately longs for love: she causes her own downfall and/or that of any number of others. The Lady seems to be doing well in a rational sense (male-approved… thus more desirable?) by ‘still delighting’ in her art and being more or less content with observing the world she is detached from through a mirror, but only because she is enchanted by the “plumes and lights and music” (67) or “two young lovers lately wed” (70) and the mysteries surrounding them.

I would think that the Lady must have developed quite the imagination, out of necessity, in order to construct her own stories about the things she sees in the world. But in order to assume this, we must assume that she has a basic knowledge of how things work outside her tower. But, who has taught her these things? How does she know what love is? Does she know she is beautiful? How does she have the capacity to say, “I am half sick of shadows,” (71) if she does not know any different, even if she is imagining?

Works cited:

Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “The woman’s cause is man’s” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

This entry was posted in 2: Close Reading, {G5}. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Most Irrational Lady of Shalott

  1. thetheresak says:

    Hey Ali!

    Great post. I think it is great that you were able to write two different posts on The Lady of Shalott.

    I really enjoyed your final few questions. Very interesting. Even after reading the poem a few times, I never really questioned how she had “a basic knowledge of how things work outside her tower”‘.

    Your questions made me question the Lady’s background further:

    Someone must’ve been there to watch her grow up, to supply her with weaving materials, etcetera. Who would that person be? Would it be the person who caused the curse?
    Beyond the curse, is she isolated there because of her own will or against it?
    If so, why is that person not mentioned in the poem?

    I don’t have anything close to an answer to any of the questions though.

    It also led me to think about the theme of isolation which is apparent in the poem. Her want of escape from the isolation and her desire to be part of the world, to interact, to love and be loved, is what seems to move the plot.

    It wasn’t the first theme to pop into my head, but it definitely is a guiding thought through the actions of the Lady.

    Again, great post.

  2. teresastapor says:

    Wow, fantastic post! This is definitely a post that pulls in so many interesting aspects from not only the poem but also the history of the Victorian Era. I do believe Tennyson intentionally wrote a female character that has no power over her current state. Just like in the Victorian Era, women could not choose or change anything; they could not vote and/or could not change their current situation whether at home, in relationships or their position in society. The curse to me seems more like the oppression of society on women. For the Victorian women, no matter how hard try, they cannot seem to push against it. Maybe that is why she dies? The moment she breaks her curse (or the societies oppression) she is no longer women and dies?
    As I stated in another post, I love the use of the mirror in this poem. The symbolic meanings a mirror has are infinite. I do think the mirror is a way to taunt her not to make her seem self-centered or vain. She has not choice but to look at the world through the mirror. Her life is limited to the mirror and what she can see through it. The choice and the power of choice is something that I think Tennyson was trying to point out. She did not choose her state, it was cursed upon her. Just like the women within the Victorian Era. The more and more I read and think about the poem, the more I think he was doing a socially commentary on the oppression of women.

  3. mkennedy says:

    I’ve always found it interesting to read writings from this era written by men but about women. In one respect, Tennyson is obviously sympathetic to the Lady of Shalott’s unfortunate circumstances, however, it is clear that he does indeed paint her with a rather shallow brush. The depiction of women in this time was decidedly Her fascination with the outside world is tempered through the mirror, and she longs to look fully upon the world outside her chamber. However, she seems to want only to look out at the beauty, nothing more. When Lancelot passes by, she is compelled to look upon him and his comely appearance. Although we feel for her in her tragedy, she dies for the mere desire to look upon a man. This cements the idea of ‘irrationality’ ingrained in women that Ali mentions above. Who would knowingly give their life to look upon another? The Lady of Shalott is a 19th century woman through and through, evidenced by her inability to think rationally after seeing a charming knight. Although it could be argued that she finally got frustrated after years of withholding her desire to look, and Lancelot was the ‘last straw’, she is still depicted as an incredibly shallow character. A weak woman who throws it all away for a man she does not even know. Although Tennyson wrote in sympathy of her plight, he does a disservice to the Lady of Shalott by depicting her as a shallow and one-dimensional weak woman.

Leave a Reply