Art and female agency in ‘The Lady of Shalott’

Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 version of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ explores complex ideas, twisting and intertwining art and female agency. The poem represents art as a means by which women may express agency, but also as a means that is limited, and which women seek to transcend.

Tennyson’s poem debates the nature of free will, which is ridden with contradictions regarding the female artist and her place in society. Almost immediately, the narrative informs us that the Lady is confined: ‘Four gray walls, and four gray towers’. The Lady becomes a subaltern through her imprisonment, and thus excluded from communication with others. Her inability to communicate with passers-by turns the Lady, symbolically, into a minority. She observes a culture she cannot participate in, one that is oriented towards male concerns. The grey towers represent a masculine ideology, and the image of this walled tower represents a male-dominant society as one of its most visible products. The phallic nature of the towers present a masculine contrast to the feminine eddies and whirls of the river. Hence the Lady is trapped within a male-defined space. This artificial structure removes the Lady from nature and cuts her off from her ability to achieve her own personhood.

Generally, women in the Victorian era were unable to make decisions for themselves or move freely in public places. The Lady is doomed to a life of imprisonment if she stays within the tower, and likewise doomed to death if she leaves, because a curse is upon her. Because her free will has been taken from her, the Lady’s only activity is to weave. The origin and nature of the curse on her are mysterious, but its effects are not. It restricts her to a half-life of observation and weaving, and it comes with the threat of death. The curse comes to define whatever identity she does have.

An artist has traditionally been seen as a surrendering of oneself to a higher power’, however, in the Lady’s case, it is not a voluntary surrender. She weaves because there is nothing else to do. Like the Victorian woman, she is trapped in the house and can only do household work. Thomas L. Jeffers writes that ‘The Lady of Shalott’ is ‘rife with implications about the vocation of the artist and the prospects, specifically, for any woman who wants that vocation for her own’. The narrative of the poem makes it clear that the Lady cannot have both a place in society and be an artist. She can be trapped with her art, or she can abandon it and die.

The weaving can both be viewed as one of the Lady’s only acts of agency, and a representation of her lack of agency. It is both empowering and isolating. Plasa writes that ‘art and life … indeed seem to be fatally opposed to one another’. However, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ shows that art and life are intertwined. Her weaving becomes her life: ‘there she weaves by night and day’. The act of weaving demonstrates a connection to the Victorian woman, and conversely it also upholds and dislocates, as Plasa writes, ‘the space occupied by women in society’. Both the Lady and her weaving are unseen and slip into the shadows: ‘But who hath seen her wave her hand?’ She and her art are equally unknown.  

The curse has reduced the Lady to essentially nothing to others. Her isolation has taken her identity, character, and sense of self away. Ironically, she is visible to those who read the poem but (mostly) unseen by the characters inside the narrative:

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot.

None of these characters have the power to recognise the artist in front of them.

It is not until the end of poem that the Lady is noticed. Lancelot sees the Lady’s body, but only her ‘lovely face’. Her appearance remains paramount. The Lady has gone from creating art to being an object of art, to being stared at by ‘knight and burgher, lord and dame’. A life that was once spent creating art has now become a piece of art, but that piece of art obscures recognition of the woman herself. Art exists ‘beyond the perception of the artist’ and ‘speaks of reality’. Recognition of art does not necessarily mean the recognition of its creator. The art takes on its own life, including even the image of the artist’s dead body. Even in death, the Lady has no agency.

This is the predicament of the Victorian female artist: she may send her work into society, but it is a place she can never go herself. Indeed, when the Lady’s body enters Camelot, it is met with superstitious fear: ‘who is this? And what is here … they cross’d themselves for fear’. The Lady is viewed as thing rather than person. Only Lancelot offers a fleeting recognition of her personhood: ‘But Lancelot mused … she has a lovely face’, though this recognition is limited to appearance.

Sir Lancelot easily exists in the public sphere; the Lady does not. This contrast suggests that the private space is a feminine one and the public space a masculine one. The Lady loses herself, literally, as she attempts to move into the masculine space. Here, the patriarchy is reinforced as the masculine space refuses to support her. Once the Lady takes it upon herself to leave the web, she crosses from the feminine space, Shalott, to the masculine space, Camelot. The Lady’s actions see her literally breaking the mirror, and they also break the barrier between feminine and masculine spaces.

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 to 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.

What drives the Lady to leave the role that the curse has pushed her into, even knowing that it will destroy her? It is the desire for human contact. Earlier in the poem, she mused on ‘two young lovers lately wed’, and felt ‘half sick of shadows’. The immediate cause of her departure is the sight of Lancelot, who represents life and activity. It is this life that she craves: to no longer observe and represent in weaving, but to live. Despite the courage of this act, she can leave only to perish. The structure of patriarchal society has made the seizing of agency for women self-destructive.

Like real Victorian contemporaries, the Lady struggles to exercise agency through the only channels available to her. These artistic channels are the only way to escape the feminine space that she is trapped within. And she will always yearn to escape fully, even though the outcome of her escape is death.


Image: John William Waterhouse – The Lady of Shalott / wikimedia

Katelin Farnsworth

Katelin Farnsworth loves writing, reading, bushwalking and travelling. She has been shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize twice and is currently working on a manuscript.

More by Katelin Farnsworth ›

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  1. A small point, but I feel an important one: this selective reading of Lancelot’s observation of the corpse of the Lady of Shalott omits the rest of his reflection, which is “God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.” Recording only that Lancelot says “she has a lovely face” removes the spiritual aspect which is clear when his words are left intact. It seems that in this context, the term “lovely” reflects an inner life rather than simple outward beauty.

  2. Yes. This “point” further exemplifies the male view of an enslaved woman in needing a patriarchal “god” to grant her grace or she is lost because she preferred death over imprisonment. While the description is antiquated, the premise is quite current.

  3. It has proved very helpful 4 me!! Very informative nd easy to comprehend!!
    Thnku so much for this wonderful piece!!??????

  4. I learned of this amazing work by Tennyson from an offhand comment on “Downton Abbey.” I am so glad I followed my curiosity to not only the works of Tennyson and Waterhouse but also the wonderful piece by Katelin Farnsworth. I am 75 but became aware of women’s predicament at a very young age. The lyric and later painting show a deep understanding of the painful issues women everywhere face. Thank you so much Ms. Farnsworth for such an exciting and informative piece. I am truly grateful not to have missed it.

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