Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

The Lady of Shalott’s Power to Break Free

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson seems to be about the limitations Victorian woman have, but is really about their power to break free.

The Lady of Shalott appears to resemble the confinement of Victorian women. She is trapped in the tower of Camelot, and is restricted to the outside world. The only thing she has is her duties, “There she weaves by night and day” (Tennyson, 2). She doesn’t even have a real window to see the outside world, only a mirror, “That hangs before her all the year, Shadows of the world appear” (Tennyson, 2). The mirror is ultimately an emblem of the confinement, and limited opportunities of Victorian women, because it was a constant reminder to the Lady of Shalott that she could only see the “shadows,” not the light. The mirror reflected the outside world, which implies that Victorian women needed to be protected or shielded from the real world because it was too dangerous to expose them to. This made me wonder, is the purpose of confining beautiful women and hiding them from the outside world to keep their sense of innocence and purity, or to protect the outside world from their power to unlock and become wild?

However, The Lady of Shalott is really about the power Victorian women have inside of them in order to break free from their duties. The mirror, which served to confine Lady Shalott, is the object that cracked and actually exposed the Lady of Shalott to the so desired outside world where the attractive Sir Lancelot was- “The mirror crack’d from side to side” (Tennyson, 4). When the Lady of Shalott was motivated to leave the castle because “Of bold Sir Lancelot” (Tennyson, 3), an internal power was unlocked inside of her – she had the power to break the curse. If women have an internal power to escape, and break free why is it only unlocked when an attractive man motivates them? Does this mean that men are woman’s true powers? Without the sight of a man the Lady of Shalott would not have been able to escape. It is also because of Sir Lancelot that the Lady of Shalott broke the curse and died.

What I am trying to say here is that The Lady of Shalott is really about a women’s internal power that can only be unlocked by the presence of an attractive man. However, a women’s internal power to escape is only useful in the presence of a man, therefore men determine women’s fates by mere exposure. Men are then considered, when it comes to women’s powers, not worth it because the Lady of Shalott died in response. Ultimately, the purpose of confining women is to protect them from the outside world and to keep their sense of innocence and purity.


  1. I find your point about the confinement of women in Victorian society to be very interesting. “The Lady of Shallot” reminds me of the role that women are expected to play in Victorian society. That is, women are supposed to be passive; they should be pursued by men, and not doing the pursuing themselves. The Lady Shalott’s death may symbolize the fact that Victorian women were not supposed to be suitors to men. This poem shows the danger for women when they attempt to embody male roles.

  2. You bring up a really interesting point about a woman’s reliance on a man, which I think is relevant to our other texts. For example, Lucy was dependent on four men for survival. Were it not for blood transfusions, which were only performed using the blood of men, her humanity would not have survived as long. As well, your point that “men determine women’s fates by mere exposure,” can be related to Mina. Despite Mina being responsible for transcribing journals and having direct contact with Dracula, her intelligence and strength was still undermined by the men around her. They all believed she needed to be protected, because she’s a woman, even though they would be at a severe disadvantage without her.

  3. I think you are on to something with the idea that a woman’s internal power can only be unlocked in the presence of an attractive man – but I think power may be the wrong word. It seems to me that this poem, as well as Goblin Market, seeks to communicate the dangers of love. In Victorian times, it seems to be some sort of sin to seek the opposite sex, as we see in this poem with the Lady of Shalott falling victim to the curse after becoming enamored of Lancelot, and in Goblin Market with Laura becoming a shell of herself after her contact with the goblins and their fruit.

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