Lady Of Shallot Essay, Research Paper
The Lady of Shalott
?The greatest social difficulty in England today is the relationship between men and women? (NAEL, 1719). These words express awareness and the beginning of a change in the Victorian period. The role of the woman began its change throughout this period. Such changes seemed to only take place in the middle class. These changes caused many to question the role of the woman in society, thus the ?woman question? evolved. The woman became less and less involved with the every day drudgeries and had more and more time on her hands. How women actually felt about this change is questionable, many took a middle ground that Walter Hougton said was ?entirely characteristic of the time in its mediation between conservative and radical thinking? (349). This is where we find Tennyson. In ?The Lady of Shalott? there are times where traditional womanly characteristics are present, and at the same time we see very liberal ideas expressed. Remember that the middle class woman?s role is the one going through this transformation, and the primary focus of this ?Woman Question?. As a result of this new role we see a clash between traditional and radical thought, along with feelings of isolation, and questions of sexuality.
The ?traditional? roles of the woman as a wife and mother became increasingly more popular through the Victorian period, predominately in the middle class. Although this wasn?t the only perception of women at the time the role of woman as ?the submissive wife? (Hougton, 348) whose sole purpose was to please her lord and master is the best known. Coventry Patmore?s poem ?The Angel in the House? (NAEL, 1722) is a poem that focuses predominately on such traditional woman?s duties. He feels that he gives woman a role in the home as a wife and mother, by ?sing(ing) her worth as Maid and Wife?(NAEL, 1724). These two roles were usually the only options for a middle class woman, and there was a progression from one to the other. He wraps the poem up by saying, ?The nuptial contrasts are the poles/ On which the heavenly spheres revolve?. He again is stating that the woman is both wife and maid, but one is not complete without the other. This statement gives insight to why the Lady of Shalott felt the need to escape her personal prison; she could not progress from maid to wife. Traditionally woman was to ?love, honor, obey-and amuse-her lord and master, and to manage his household and bring up his children? (Hougton, 348). The Lady of Shalott could not progress to the role of wife because of the curse that trapped her in her tower. The writing of Sarah Stickney Ellis supports this idea of woman belonging in the home. She is to take care and comfort the man who spends the day working in the market, ?the remembrance of her character, clothed in moral beauty, has scattered the clouds before his mental vision, and sent him back to that beloved home, a wiser and better man? (1724). She is there for the pleasure of the man. I suppose that if the Lady of Shalott was a traditional reflection of a woman in the Victorian period she would have stayed in he tower and waited for her ?prince?. Since she ventured out on her own to find him and left the boredom that surrounded her in the home she is quite the opposite of the conservative views of the woman submissive. She became more of a reflection of the radical idea. Through her death Tennyson stifled this radical rebellion and leaves us standing on an intermediate ground.
In the nineteenth century the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and Nostalgia were also very prominent. Since ?they felt isolated by dividing barriers; lonely for a lost companionship, human and divine; nostalgic for an earlier world of country peace and unifying belief?(Hougton, 77) we can assume that these feelings are mirrored in the literature of the times. The Lady of Shalott is literally isolated in her tower with only the distorted view of the world through her mirror. This is a reflection of not only how women were viewed and treated; it is one of the isolation everyone felt at this time. The cause of this isolation was an effect of the invention of steam power that connected towns and led to a larger number of employees (Hougton, 78). This growth in industry broke relationships between men that they had known and worked with since childhood. They now worked along side strangers. Since there was an increase in industry there was a decrease in nature?s beauty, and man lost his traditional connection with nature that we see in poets like Wordsworth. This caused artists and architects alike to create art that functioned as a reminder of nature (Hougton, 80). This kind of art would include the tapestry that the Lady of Shalott was weaving in her tower. In this tapestry she wove all of the things she saw through the mirror, she trapped her memories of nature. The unraveling is an example of the loss of connection between (wo)man and Nature, and again a rebellion against popular traditional roles of woman. These tapestries might also be considered a reflection of the nostalgia ?which is inseparable from loneliness? (Hougton, 85). They longed for the earlier world of peace. By unraveling the tapestry she again rebels against the traditional thought.
When the Lady of Shalott tries to escape the role of maid/virgin, she meets her death. This scenario brings the Victorian views on sexuality to light. ?Victorians perceived sex as chaotic and anarchic, a threat to the social order and to the self?(Reddy, 62). Women like the prostitute that wrote to the editor of The Times question the perverted Victorian view of sex, when she points out the blame should not fall on her alone, and that it is the men of the upper and middle classes who employ her. ?The Lady of Shalott seeks to break away from the suppression of her sexuality represented by the curse, and is stopped by death. Her leaving the tower might also be of sheer boredom which was a problem faced by many women of the time since servants did most of the work for women, yet the were still expected to stay in the confines of the home so that they could
?The Lady of Shalott? is a poem that embodies both traditional and radical thoughts; this contrast results in a median between the two ideas, which is the ?woman question?. The well known traditional role of woman, as maid and wife are conflicting with the radical rebellion of many women of the time; a new role for women is the result. We also see an increase of isolation and nostalgia as a result of the loss of the connection between man and Nature, which is reflected quite literally in ?The Lady of Shalott?. Then we have questions that arise about sexuality, and the popular views of sex in the Victorian period is that it is a threat to social order. There are both traditional and radical thoughts represented in ?The Lady of Shalott?. These thoughts come together and form a middle ground that many Victorians found themselves standing on. This mediation is the sole basis of the ?Woman Question?.
Hougton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press,1957.
Reddy, Maureen. ?Sex, sexuality, and culture: not ?the other? Victorians? College Literature 22 (1995): 159-64.