Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is an examination of the restrictions on unmarried girls during the Victorian era. By setting the poem in the familiar, fictional land of Camelot it is made distant in the acknowledgement that the situation recounted is decidedly impossible—the citation of Sir Lancelot, of fairies and curses, further emphasizes that the author is talking about a situation which is far enough from the reality of a modern, Victorian society to be safe subject matter. The poem’s main character, the Lady of Shalott, is cursed never to be able to look down on Camelot directly. Instead, she must look through a mirror, and the distorted, smaller version of the society that she is allowed to see is what she “weaves by night and day” (Tennyson, Part II, 1).
During the Victorian era, girls—especially those who were unmarried– were intentionally kept from much of society that was deemed dangerous or inappropriate (much like today). Even the restrictive clothing that they wore kept them from exploration or independence. Just like the reflection in the mirror, the slices of the world that English women were allowed to participate in was limited and often superficial. For the Lady of Shalott, this means literally only seeing the “shadows of the world” that the mirror can show (Tennyson, part II, 12). While the Lady of Shalott is in total isolation and supposedly cursed, she is a paradigm of morality, only weaving and working at an appropriate task all day, every day. Until, of course, temptation shows up.
For the Lady of Shalott, this temptation takes the form of Sir Lancelot (who was apparently a sexual temptation for every woman he encountered). Upon seeing his “coal-black curls” (part III, 31) amidst the bright glory of the young knight, she promptly forgets everything about the curse that has dictated her life and whips around for a better look. In doing so, she supposedly calls down the mysterious curse, but we don’t actually see any ill effects rooted in magic (unless you think that from the time she looks on Camelot and the mirror cracks she is possessed). She then commits suicide, by laying down in a boat and letting herself freeze to death on the river at night. By the time she arrives in Camelot and physically encounters Lancelot, she’s already dead. His comment that “’She has a lovely face’” (part IV, final) confirms where the encounter would have gone if she had still been living to give into her lust for him. This young woman, who becomes symbolic of all moral young women in Victorian society, is literally stuck so thoroughly between upholding societal moral standards and acting as human nature would have her, that she kills herself. The ending makes this a critique of the rigid moral standards that lead Victorian women to misery. Tennyson criticizes the social standards for girls and their negative effects, much like we regularly do today.