“The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.“
Forbidden from interacting with the world, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott lives a life of solitude, spending her time weaving elaborate tapestries as events of the world are reflected to her through a mirror.
Our modern eyes may read The Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings it inspired in a way vastly different from the artists’ intent.
Outside the constructs of 19th century society and far removed from the Victorian patriarchy, we no doubt experience the work differently, but are we so removed from it?
We still experience a certain degree of separation. Books written for and by women are often described as “chick lit”. Separate labels exist for “women directors”, “women writers”, “women artists”. Even the way we view aging is skewed against females: an older woman may be described as haggard, while a man is described as distinguished.
I recently read a Twitter thread that skewered The Lady of Shalott because she is shut away and is expected to spend her life weaving. If you feel outraged on behalf of The Lady of Shalott, it is because you’re supposed to. The lady is cursed, alienated, isolated.
Should we isolate her further by ignoring her and treating Tennyson’s work as an archaic representation of women? Or can it be an inspiration?
The lady’s curse comes whispered to her from an unknown source. Perhaps our form of the curse has been whispered to us so subtly that we hardly recognize it, so firm is its foothold in society – it has seeped into our subconscious, telling us to focus on looks and glamour over brains and intellect.
Instead of shadowy figures in a mirror, our curse is the repetitive images of the ideal body type and the misguided perception that as women, we should pursue what society dictates as opposed to whatever it is that makes each individual woman happy.
As long as the lady of Shalott remains in passive seclusion, she is allowed to live.
Once she actively makes her own choice to break free, the result is death.
Since girlhood we are taught to not rock the boat, to stay politely and quietly in the background. Many women still do, never learning to speak up for themselves or simply say no because they have this sense of dread. The lady’s death may have been literal, but often we fear a social death. If we forge our own path, someone may not like us.
The poem tells us that despite her curse, in her web she still delights. We have our own complicated 21st century web, a tangled skein of instagram filtered selfies, reality television, and social media influencers.
Our society has morphed into a world that craves likes, shares, and clickbait.
If we’re not careful we can become ensnared in that web, not by the invisible fictional curse of The Lady of Shalott, but by a variety of very real dangers such as social media addiction, online predators, body dysmorphia, or simply missing out on real world experiences because we are glued to our screens.
I see a concerning parallel between our screens and the lady’s mirror.
There is no shame in embracing The Lady of Shalott as a symbol to boost your own strength – to stand resolutely and say ‘I will break my own mirrors.’
Tennyson may have been using The Lady of Shalott as a commentary on the role of women in society or he may have been exploring the isolating experience of artist’s devotion to creation instead living their life.
There are multiple ways to interpret the poem, but I like the idea of using the poem to inspire modern women to have the courage to spin our own webs, inspired by our own self-worth and aspirations instead of mere reflections of what society tells us to be.