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As noted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the Industrial Revolution provided women with opportunities to work outside the home, but it also "presented an increasing challenge to traditional ideas of woman's sphere" ("Role of Women" 902). The idea of "public and private life as two 'separate spheres'... inextricably connected either with women or with men" (Gorham 4) had emerged as an upper-class Victorian ideal amongst the "strains of modernization" ("Role of Women" 902).
During this particular period in British history, the idealized "woman's sphere" was extremely limited in scope. Quite simply, a woman's place was in the home. According to Deborah Gorham, in The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal, "women were told they must remain within the domestic sphere both because their duties were to be performed there, and because contact with the wider world would damage their ability to perform those duties" (6).
To many women of the time, this expectation of domesticity made for a very boring life ("Woman Question" 1596). As Harriet Martineau commented, "young ladies ... were expected to sit down in the parlour to sew, -- during which reading aloud was permitted, -- or to practice their music" (1601). A contemporary of Martineau, Dinah Maria Mulock, made a biting critique of the social expectation in her essay on women. She wrote that despite being furnished with all the domestic comforts money could buy, well-bred young ladies were given "no solid food whatever to satisfy the mind and heart ... they literally had nothing to do" (1604).
Tennyson opens "The Lady of Shalott" by describing the disparities between the traditionally feminine, interior world of Shalott and the more masculine, exterior world of Camelot. In stanzas one and two, he paints a picture of Camelot as a pastoral setting in which there are long fields of barley and rye (line 2), whitening willows, and quivering aspens (10). Camelot is a place of many towers (5), and it is in constant activity and motion: "up and down the people go, / Gazing where the lilies blow" (6-7). This description of Camelot is in direct tension with the restricted nature of "the island of Shalott" (9).
The island represents an isolation both physical and emotional in the female sphere of Victorian England. Within the first two stanzas, it is clear that the Lady is trapped on the island. The lines "Four gray walls, and four gray towers, / Overlook a space of flowers, / and the silent isle imbowers / The Lady of Shalott" (15-19) suggest where the speaker's sympathies will lie.
As defined in Webster's Dictionary, a "bower" may refer to "boudoir," which is literally translated from French as a "pouting room" (168). In her exclusion from man's public sphere of being, and through her relegation to the "silent isle," the Lady of Shalott has good reason to pout. The lack of interaction between the private and public spheres of Victorian life are described in the next two stanzas:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes clearly
Down to towered Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, "'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott." Â Â Â Â (lines 24-35)
The narrative above is a metaphor for the way in which men viewed women and the private sphere. The proper Victorian woman was neither seen nor involved outside her private, domestic life. She was to "have preference for a life restricted to the confines of home" (Gorham 4), where she would be "protected and enshrined" ("Role of Women 904) as a sort of "angel in the house." Based on Coventry Patmore's famous poem, this "angel" was to represent the epitome of feminine tenderness and innocence. "The Lady of Shalott" supports this otherworldly image of women in its reference to the Lady as an unknown, unseen singing "fairy."
Part 2 of Tennyson's poem further details the Lady's life in the tower, showing the changing attitudes toward women's roles in society. Following are two selections from the first two stanzas in Part 2:
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web of colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down on Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
Â Â Â Â (lines 37-48)
These first few lines in Part 2 seem to imply that the Lady is perfectly content with her private role in society, which consists of "sit[ting] down in the parlour to sew." Throughout time, but particularly during the Victorian period, "to earn the status of adulthood, a girl child must [have] accept[ed] constraints on her behavior, whereas a male child, by growing older gain[ed] more freedom" (Gorham 95). As implied in line 41, merely "look[ing] down to Camelot" qualified as a rebellion against these strict social constraints of womanhood. The fact that she continues to weave with "little other care" suggests that the Lady of Shalott has no inkling to resist her containment within the male-dominated society.
However, these same lines foreshadow the Lady's rebellion: If she does not yet understand that "shadows of the world" are no substitute for the real world they reflect, she soon will. As Part 2 progresses, the Lady comes to relate with the unhappy idea that "women were taught trivial accomplishments in order to fill up days in which there was nothing important to do" ("Role of Women" 903). Tired of the gray reflections of the world in her mirror, she yearns to break out of her isolation, saying, "I am half sick of shadows" (71).
It certainly is significant that the person who stirs the Lady to rebel against her confinement in Shalott is a man. Lancelot and Camelot represent the established, male- dominated social order which, ironically, both inspires and crushes the Lady.
Her inspiration to leave her loom and break into the exterior, forbidden social order comes through the vibrancy of Sir Lancelot's life. Part 3 of the poem goes into vivid detail about the virility and brightness of Lancelot, his horse, and the nature surrounding him. The lines are rich with images of dazzling colors, stars and blazing lights. This colorful imagery of life inspires the Lady to make a connection to Lancelot's world. Just as Gorham asserts that "the private sphere was not, in fact separate from the public sphere; it reflected it" (12), the Lady of Shalott realizes that her magic mirror reflects a world that is as real as her own. Thus, the Lady is compelled to embrace and to experience the "reflections" first hand:
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.
She looked down on Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott. Â Â Â Â (lines 109-17)
The last few lines of the stanza reproduced above show the consequences of the Lady's rebellion against the mandate that she stay inside the interior sphere of womanhood. It seems that "trying to cultivate her intellect beyond drawing room accomplishments was violating the order of Nature and of religious tradition" ("Woman Question" 1596). Shortly after this violation came her death.
A critical question to ask is whether or not seeing the water lily bloom and seeing the helmet and the plume was worth dying for. Part 4 of the poem presents a picture of Camelot quite unlike the previous scene of pastoral beauty. In place of the dazzling sun (75) and the "blue unclouded weather" (91), there are now stormy winds, waning woods, and a "low sky raining" (118-121). Could Tennyson be suggesting that the sphere of men is disastrously affected when women break the boundaries of social expectation?
The answer to that question lies both in the tone the speaker uses to describe the Lady's death and in the actions the Lady takes preceding her death. In lines 123 to 126, the narration reads, "Down she came and found a boat / Beneath a willow left afloat, / And round about the prow she wrote / The Lady of Shalott." This shows the Lady's desire to make her presence known outside the domestic world of Shalott. It is with defiance against her punishment for breaking into the male sphere that she boldly continues to "look to Camelot" (131). As she makes her way toward Camelot, the Lady appears to be the idealized representation of the "angel in the house":
Lying robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
She floated down to Camelot
Â Â Â Â (lines 137-40)
Nonetheless, the "angel" is now outside the house, and outside the silence of Shalott, experiencing the nature and sounds of the public sphere.
Tennyson describes the sound of the Lady's last song as "a carol mournful, holy / Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, / Till her blood was frozen slowly, / And her eyes were darkened wholly" (145-148). She seizes the chance to make herself known to the exterior world: "Singing in her song she died. / The Lady of Shalott" (151-152). Thus, her death is tragic, but not in vain. As she disrupts the social order, it is for the worthy purpose of making herself known. She succeeds in her purpose, as "out upon the wharfs they came, / knight and burgher, lord and dame, / And round the prow they read the name / The Lady of Shalott" (159-162).
Taken from the feminist critical viewpoint, Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" provides the reader with more questions than answers. It certainly is arguable that Tennyson sought only to reinforce the attitude that the well-bred woman belonged cloistered in her private sphere. After all, the Lady suffers death for her rebellion, and the tone of Lancelot's commentary in the last stanza is ambiguous as he shallowly observes that "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace" (169-170).
However, that ambiguity is overpowered as the speaker's tone in describing the Lady's last song extends into this final stanza. The people "cross[ing] themselves in fear" (166) then represent the attitudes toward the Victorian woman breaking out of her "proper" sphere, and Lancelot's last words illuminate the inability of Victorian man to understand Victorian woman's bold desire to be counted in the public sphere. Thus, "The Lady of Shalott" raises awareness of the gender conflict between the interior (feminine) and exterior (masculine) roles in society. Somewhat like the mirror in the Lady's tower, Tennyson's poem reflects the attitudes that shaped the destiny of women in Victorian England, while it further succeeds in presenting a model of an assertive Victorian woman existing, albeit briefly, within the bounds of patriarchal society.