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The Man Behind "The Lady"

Portia Favro and Marilee Devries

During the nineteenth century, the cultural expectations of women in the middle and upper class were a model of patient endurance, devotion, domesticity, and submission@- in all, a household angel. "The Lady," trapped in an exaggerated example of this type of existence, leads an empty life: “She knows not what the curse may be/ And so she weaveth steadily/ And little other care hath she/ The Lady of Shalott” (41-45). "The Lady" stays faithful to her artful weaving because she believes herself to be under a curse. The art she creates does not seem to be humanly satisfying,@and as "the Lady" watches a ‘curly shepherd-lad’ (57) followed by a ‘long-haired page’ (58) and eventually knights, her [sexual] maturation becomes apparent. And yet ‘in her web she still delights’ (64) because of the ever-present curse that is, in essence, ‘damning her if she does and damning her if she doesn’t’@follow her desires. The curse acts as a representation by Tennyson of the lack of roles for women in society. To be a household angel is to dutifully follow all of the rules expected, and to be the number one priority in a woman’s life. All else should come second or not at all.@ As Jerome Buckley says, the poem ‘explores the maladjustment of the beautiful spirit to ordinary living.'@
"Elegy for Darkness- The Lady of Shalott"
Donato Giancola- 2004
While the poem opens with a world that obeys the natural culture cycles of the time, "the Lady" breaks this cycle when she follows her desire for Lancelot.
                       “She left the web, she left the loom,
                     She made three paces through the room, 
                            She saw the water-lily bloom,
                        She saw the helmet and the plume”


"The Lady" experiences an awakening, both mental and sexual (her sexuality “blooms” as she thinks of Lancelot in his knight’s gear)@ and enjoys the freedom of her choice. However, this freedom can be seen to result in "the Lady’s" death. We would argue that Tennyson is using "the Lady’s" physical demise to signify the social death of women who went against the norm during the Victorian era. A disgraced woman would suffer ultimate social consequences in society- often, she would be sent away, and be hidden from the world in which she was once a part.@
"The new-born love for something, for someone, in the wide world from which she has been excluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities."
 -Tennyson, on "The Lady of Shallot"@
Where the greatest romantic moment of the poem lies, therein lies the greatest irony of "The Lady of Shalott." "The Lady" gives up her life, ‘her eyes darkened wholly’ (148), for her love for Lancelot. And yet, whenever the handsome knight sees the Lady, his comment is: “She has a lovely face/ God in his mercy lend her grace/ The Lady of Shalott” (169-171). This comment, “ironically defective,” as Herbert Tucker terms it,@ shows that Lancelot only sees the surface of the tragedy- the loss of a woman with a pleasing appearance. He sees her “[l]ying, robed in snowy white” (136), which symbolizes the angelic appearance of "the Lady." She would seem to be the ideal ‘household angel.’ We would argue, then, that Tennyson is making a comment on the depth in which women were valued. Simply a lovely appearance and aptitude for docility and a child-like need for protection would place a woman on a pedestal.@ Tennyson is questioning this,@ as he is commenting on the fact that there is more behind a lady than her outward appearance; there are true and valuable motives behind her actions. This is the case with "the Lady" in his poem, and Lancelot does not see that. In fact, the sketch by Rosetti, The Lady of Shalott, which we have chosen to contextualize our argument, visually depicts "the Lady" as the weaker sex and supports this point.