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Themes in The Lady of Shalott

The Victorian Ideal of Womanhood: In many ways, the Lady’s situation is evocative of the status of women in Victorian England and subtly criticizes their lack of agency. The image of a lady in a tower acts as a metaphor for the woman who is locked away from society in order to protect her purity. The Lady’s options in the poem amount to either remaining in the tower, lonely and “half-sick of shadows,” or risking a curse through interacting with society. The scene where the Lady looks out at Lancelot can be read as her proverbial “fall from grace.” Just as the slightest rumor of impropriety would have resulted in social ruin for a Victorian woman, the Lady dies for her small exertion of choice and curiosity.

The Isolated Artist and Society: The place of the artist in society has long been debated, and one recurring trope is that art thrives in isolation and is sullied by social interaction and obligation. The Lady of Shalott can be seen as an artist, for she creates a “magic web,” or tapestry, based on the sights she sees in her mirror. At the beginning of the story, she “delights” in this work and has no other cares but her art. However, as the story progresses, she begins to express her dissatisfaction with her isolation and grows “half-sick of shadows”—sick of creating images of life without actually participating in it. She eventually looks out at Camelot only to have her art fly out the window, symbolizing the central conflict between the artist’s need for solitude and the human desire for connection.

The Supernatural: Though the source is never explicitly defined or acknowledged, the poem contains a supernatural undercurrent. The Lady’s life is ruled by a curse of unknown origin that forbids her from interacting with the world outside of her tower. She spends her days weaving a “magic web” based on the sights she sees in her mirror, a kind of supernatural craft. In both instances in which someone directly reacts to the Lady, it is with a sense of fear or awe: the reapers dub her a “fairy” and the knights of Camelot cross themselves out of fear. The perception of the supernatural serves as a barrier between the Lady and human connection, isolating her not only physically but also conceptually.

Freedom Comes at a Cost: Regardless of the lens with which readers approach “The Lady of Shalott,” the concept of freedom is a recurrent end goal. The Lady is isolated in a tower and subject to a curse that tells her she cannot look at Camelot except in her mirror. The essential idea is that she is restricted, unable to pursue something that she wants. The price of looking out the window at Camelot, as the Lady finds out, is death. Whether it is the Victorian woman seeking social agency, the artist reaching for human connection, or an ostracized person looking for social acceptance, the choice is the same: remain safely ensconced in the lonely tower, or chase freedom at the cost of life itself.

Themes Examples in The Lady of Shalott:

Text of the Poem

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"She knows not what the curse may be..."   (Text of the Poem)

Even without knowing the source or the scope of the curse she is subject to, the Lady of Shalott obeys it unquestioningly. Her situation in this respect can be read as a commentary on unquestioning adherence to rules. In Tennyson’s Victorian context, the image of a woman adhering to social norms suggests a feminist critique of societal standards. It can also be seen as a criticism of superstition and unfounded belief, ways of understanding the world that eroded in the wake of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

"Dead-pale..."   (Text of the Poem)

One of the possible interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott” is as an indictment of Victorian culture, which conflated women’s inherent value with their sexual purity. The Lady, in her tower on Shalott, is surrounded by lilies, a frequent symbol of chastity and purity. Incidentally, lilies are white, a color traditionally associated with purity.Now that she has left the seclusion of that tower, she is still “robed in snowy white”—clothed in a marker of her inherent purity and virtue. This line, however, explicitly links that whiteness with her death, negating the potentially positive connotations of the associated purity. While the Lady has lived what the Victorians would consider a pure and virtuous life, free from improper associations, she has also been prevented from experiencing life’s color or joy. Ultimately, her great purity can be read as inseparable from her curse and her death.

"She loosed the chain, and down she lay;..."   (Text of the Poem)

The loosing of the chain that ties her boat to land is a very overt symbol for the actions the Lady is taking to free herself from her island. However, she is not indulging herself at all on this journey: rather than looking around at the river and surrounding countryside, the Lady lies down in the boat, presumably denying herself the possibility of a view. This could be an act of atonement for her misdeed or perhaps a factor of the curse. No matter how it is interpreted, her action makes clear to readers that despite the Lady’s departure from Shalott and implied approach to Camelot, she has in many ways not achieved a greater degree of freedom.

"Camelot: ..."   (Text of the Poem)

Aside from positioning the poem as a part of Arthurian legend, the use of the word “Camelot” as a refrain in almost every stanza centralizes it alongside the Lady herself. Symbolically, Camelot represents the outside world and freedom. The Lady of Shalott sees the castle only in her mirror rather than directly experiencing it. Thus Camelot takes on an unattainable quality since it can be seen and sought after, but not touched or truly experienced with the other senses.

"God in His mercy lend her grace, 170 The Lady of Shalott."..."   (Text of the Poem)

In the Arthurian tradition, knights were adventuring heroes who went on quests and rescued fair maidens. “The Lady of Shalott” is a departure from this tradition in that Lancelot is more of an object to observe than an active agent in the story. His closing lines, a standard benediction, indicate his ignorance of the Lady and of his impact on her. Ultimately, the Lady made her own choices rather than wait for a knight to save her. She dies in the same mysterious obscurity in which she lived, alone and unknown besides her title and her “lovely face.”

"they cross'd themselves for fear,..."   (Text of the Poem)

To “cross” oneself is to trace the shape of the Christian cross across one’s head or upper body using the hand. It is often accompanied by a quick prayer or invocation to God. Making the sign of the cross is a form of blessing and is often done prior to or during prayer. In this instance, the knights of Camelot are invoking a blessing out of fear that the Lady’s corpse is a bad omen or evil presence that they need divine protection from. Rather than being received warmly by the world, the Lady is again perceived as a supernatural presence and the people of Camelot react with fear, cementing her isolation even in death.

"they read her name..."   (Text of the Poem)

Looking at the poem as an allegory for the conflict of the artist, the Lady’s death can be read as representing her inability to transcend her life through art and escape isolation. Tennyson makes sure to describe her vividly, from her “snowy white” robe to the “gleaming shape” she becomes in death, evoking images of white marble statues. It is also not her name that she writes on the boat, but her title, which is far less personal. In the end, despite her attempts to escape her isolation and seek out human connection, even in death the Lady is only able to interact with Camelot artificially.

"Out flew the web ..."   (Text of the Poem)

In contrast to the “delight” in her art from the earlier parts of the poem, the Lady now cries out as her weaving is destroyed. One interpretation is that this is a metaphor for a loss of artistic inspiration resulting from emotional interference. For many Victorian authors, writing poetry was more of an intellectual pursuit than an emotional one. Tennyson himself wrote several ruminations on the conflict between aesthetic isolation and social involvement. Scholars often view “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Palace of Art,” which were both originally published in Tennyson’s 1832 collection Poems, as records of his conflicting views on the same topic.

"She looked down to Camelot...."   (Text of the Poem)

When the Lady looks outside, her gaze first passes over the surrounding water lilies, flowers associated with purity. She then sees Lancelot’s plumed helmet, an object associated with masculinity and sexuality. In Malory’s story, after Lancelot rejects Elaine and says he will never marry, she disgraces herself by offering to become his illicit lover. These details can combine with Lancelot’s suggestive song for an interpretation of the curse as a symbolic loss of innocence for the Lady, which would have resulted in social ruin during the Victorian era. In both Tennyson’s poem and Elaine’s story, Lancelot unwittingly becomes the downfall for a lady who begins the story as the Victorian ideal of womanhood, isolated and pure.

""I am half sick of shadows,"..."   (Text of the Poem)

This is an important moment of agency for the Lady. Her declaration that she is tired of seeing only “shadows” of the world opens up the interpretation that she may be reconsidering her situation and waiting for something worth looking at. It also marks the turning point where her “cheer” and “delight” in her life and work begin to wane. It is notable how soon this moment arises after the statement of her “delight” just at the beginning of this stanza; it is possible that the “delight” is a false report and that the Lady has long felt dissatisfied.

" she still delights To weave..."   (Text of the Poem)

The thoughts and feelings of the Lady are not deeply explored within the poem, so readers must trust the narrator’s report that she is content to sit in her tower and weave. The “delight” she feels could be a thematic reference to the satisfaction of the artistic process, regardless of the imposed distance from her subject. This reading portrays the Lady as a working artist, whose artistic sensibility isolates her from the world around her but allows her a pure relationship with her weaving that provides a happiness of its own.

"the river eddy whirls. ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The river is a recurring visual image in the poem that carries a symbolic meaning. Literally, the river is a physical presence surrounding the island of Shalott. It flows on all sides of her, transporting other people to Camelot. It is constantly associated with movement through the use of words like “flowing” and “whirling.” In contrast, the Lady herself remains stagnant, “imbowered” within the “grey walls” of her tower. Symbolically, the river is connected with the flow of life and the passage of time, realities from which the Lady of Shalott is sheltered.

"look down..."   (Text of the Poem)

Tennyson is often counted as a successor to the Romantic poets, who rejected the reason-driven, Enlightenment-inspired poetry popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Instead, Romantics foregrounded emotionally-driven reflections on man’s relationship with nature. This required the poet to retain a certain distance from society in order to maintain the purity of the artistic soul. Here, the curse on the Lady can be read as the call of her artistic sensibility to retain the necessary distance from Camelot, and society, in order to protect the purity of her relationship with her art.

"if she stay..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this case, the verb “stay” means to stop or delay doing something. If the Lady stops weaving in order to look out at Camelot, the unknown curse will activate. Readers are not told what the terms of the curse are and the Lady herself does not even know where it came from. The lack of detail allows the conflict of the story to be contained within the Lady herself. She is the one who must make the choice between continuing her lonely existence or taking a risk and claiming a moment of freedom.

"“’Tis the fairy 35 Lady of Shalott."..."   (Text of the Poem)

The reapers, or field harvesters, see in the Lady a supernatural air and compare her to a fairy. Rather than a lonely woman trapped in a tower, she is an inhuman fairy unknown outside of whispered legends. Beyond her physical isolation, the Lady is also isolated from her own humanity.

"Or is she known in all the land..."   (Text of the Poem)

Tennyson’s rhetorical questions reinforce the Lady’s isolation. She is surrounded on all sides by a bustling river and the castle of Camelot, but she does not interact with the people who pass her and most of them do not even know she exists. In Tennyson’s time, Victorian women, especially those of the upper classes, were expected to remain chaste and avoid any behaviors that might result in rumors of impropriety. This meant that they were relatively isolated within their family circles and were often excluded from public life, which was seen as the domain of men.

"the silent isle imbowers..."   (Text of the Poem)

“Imbower” is the archaic form of the word “embower,” which means to enclose or surround something. The image of a lady locked away in a castle or tower has strong ties to the tradition of medieval romances and usually portends the coming of a rescuer. Here, the Lady of Shalott is enclosed within the grey walls and towers on the silent island of Shalott, isolated from lively Camelot and human contact. Images of isolation recur throughout the poem, serving to emphasize the loneliness of the Lady and characterize her situation.

"lilies..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, lilies are a frequent symbol of both physical and spiritual purity. Elaine is referred to as “Elaine le Blank,” for the French blanc, meaning “white.” The lilies growing around the tower where the Lady of Shalott lives provide a connection to the Arthurian source material and help contextualize the isolation of the character, who could be considered unsullied by external influences. This evokes the Victorian ideal of womanhood, which emphasized purity and required women to remain in the domestic sphere.

"a glassy countenance..."   (Text of the Poem)

“The Lady of Shalott” contains many moments that question the validity of personal agency. Because the curse is not well-defined to readers, it is difficult to tell how much control the Lady has over her actions once it has been invoked. This description of the Lady as being “in a trance” and having “a glassy countenance” seems to imply that she is still under the effect of an external power—especially as “glassy” relates back to the image of her mirror, destroyed by the curse—but she could also be reacting to the major emotional upheaval that would naturally follow the destruction of her artistic work. This could relate to multiple themes, perhaps describing a woman doomed to a single course of action following her “fall,” or an artist who does not know how to live without the isolation of her work.

""The curse is come upon me,"..."   (Text of the Poem)

It is worth noting the specific sequence of events that occur in this section. Lancelot is shown in the Lady’s mirror. She then leaves her work, walks across her room, and looks outside. She sees the water lilies, Lancelot (as signified by his helmet), and finally Camelot itself. Her weaving is destroyed, possibly thrown from the tower, and the mirror she has used to watch the world cracks through the middle; she implicitly attributes these events to the onset of her curse. What is unknown is whether the effects of the curse are isolated to the destruction of the Lady’s web and mirror, with her subsequent reaction being completely of her own choosing or whether the destruction of the web and mirror is simply the first stage in the onset of the curse, which will continue to control or influence the Lady until her death. This ambiguity regarding the scope of the Lady’s personal agency contributes to the difficulty of supporting any one particular thematic interpretation over another.

"the helmet and the plume..."   (Text of the Poem)

This is a literary device called synecdoche, where a part of something is used to symbolize the thing’s entirety. Here, the dashing Lancelot, whom Tennyson took four full stanzas to describe, is reduced to a symbol of his knighthood: “helmet and the plume.” When the Lady finally does look away from her mirror, she glances only briefly at Lancelot before shifting her gaze to Camelot. In fact, Lancelot is not mentioned again until the end of the poem, after the Lady is dead. Lancelot’s omission here highlights the ambiguity in the Lady’s motivation. While the content of the previous stanza would imply that Lancelot is the cause for her departure from her weaving, here he is reduced to merely an object, seen after the water-lily and before Camelot itself. The degree to which he impacts the Lady, and the nature of her relationship to or interest in him, are never made textually explicit, allowing the poem to be read on a number of thematic levels.

"Came two young lovers lately wed;..."   (Text of the Poem)

The Lady experiences the outside world through her mirror, and the level of emotional disassociation it causes renders all sights equal to her eyes. The funeral she watches lacks any emotional weight, appearing instead almost as a parade: “with plumes and lights / And music.” That funeral is then equated to the approach of “two young lovers,” arguably a more joyous sight. The Lady’s disassociation from the surrounding world goes beyond physical isolation, preventing her from reacting in an emotional manner to the events she witnesses, even as her tapestry replicates them visually.

"Pass onward..."   (Text of the Poem)

This line details people leaving Shalott, not simply moving around it. Previous images specify that the trends of motion are toward Camelot and involve inanimate objects: the river, the road, the boats. This line specifically involves humans and describes them as not just moving toward Camelot but “onward from Shalott,” essentially abandoning it. This can be read as an extension of the foreshadowing regarding the world beyond Shalott, hinting to readers that those who leave the island don’t necessarily return.

"She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her..."   (Text of the Poem)

While the curse condemning the Lady to weave without pause is arguably the inciting incident in the poem’s narrative, its source is vague. The repetition of “whispers” plays off the whisper of the reaper in the previous stanza, expanding the theme of supernatural influences on the Lady. However, it also introduces an element of uncertainty. The reaper’s description of the Lady as a fairy is implied to be a result of her isolation, rather than any innate otherworldliness on her part. This potential for misinterpretation is carried into the curse itself, which is subject to similar misconceptions.

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