Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Category: 2016 Blog Post (page 1 of 21)

The Lady of Shalott and Desire

The Lady of Shalott is a great poem that when understood in its original context has a deeply impactful meaning. There are many interpretations but I want to get at the core theme of the poem by examining the tragic mistake the Lady of Shalott makes that ultimately leads to her death. Why does the Lady die? She pursues Lancelot down the river and ends up dying on her journey. Why does she does she pursue Lancelot? She says at the end of part two “I am half-sick of shadows”. This line has tremendous meaning. It suggests that she has had unfulfilled desires before Lancelot arrived. It also suggests that she is self aware, not the avatar of a supernatural ideal but rather a real person who is conscious of the decisions she is making. Her tone is also dismissive and maybe filled with a certain amount of frustration as well (understandable given her situation). I think the dismissiveness however is indicative of a certain amount of hubris. She dismisses and expresses some contempt for the “shadows”. What do these shadows represent? They are her understanding of the world because of the curse she has which prevents her from gazing upon the world directly. She calls her image of the world a ”shadow” and that she is “half-sick” of it. However these “shadows” are a necessary condition given the curse that she is beholden to. This is why her statement contains some hubris, she believes she is not beholden to the curse or that her desire is enough to overcome it.

Goblin Market has a similar theme of capitulation to desire. “We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?”. There is the precedent set, the temptation and the succumbing to temptation eventually when the protagonist enjoys the goblin mens fruit. There is more explicit sexual imagery in Goblin Market in my opinion. “Clearer than water flow’d that juice; She never tasted such before, How should it cloy with length of use? She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; She suck’d until her lips were sore”. In The Lady of Shalott the sexual desire is more innocent but more explicit.

The Lady of Shalott is an archetypal western story. In the western tradition dating all the way back to Euripides and his play the Bacchae it has been understood that freedom is the absence of or triumph over desire and that slavery is the capitulation to desire. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is corrupted by the god Dionysus who lures him to his death by unleashing his carnal hunger. Pentheus loses control of himself and is consumed by perversion. In the end he is torn apart by his own mother, taking him for a lion in her own blind frenzy, who was also under the spell of Dionysus. The moral of the story and its traditional interpretation is that when you are consumed by desire you are held captive by a hedonism that transcends your being and ultimately leads to your destruction.


Women in “The Lady of Shalott” and ‘Dracula’

While looking at the texts of “The Lady of Shalott and Dracula, I notice a similarity between the depiction of women through a lens of female sexuality. In Dracula, Lucy demonstrates an inability to resist the temptation of an attractive man. Lucy’s beauty and flirtatious personality attracts multiple men. Following three suitors’ proposal, Lucy writes Mina, “why can’t they [Victorian society] let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 67). Lucy’s promiscuity is in some ways a curse because Dracula views her as an easy target and Lucy is vulnerable to his evil powers and vampirism. Stoker depicts Lucy to regularly demonstrate a lack of control around men.

In “The Lady of Shalott,” the Lady fails to resist the sight of the Knight of Camelot. When the Knight arrives with his gang in Shalott, she disregards the mirror and leaves the confines of her limited tower walls. The Lady believes that if she goes down to Shalott and makes contact with the Knight, he will fall madly in love with her. After “She look’d down to Camelot,” the Lady cries, “The curse is come upon me.” As soon as the Lady leaves her weave, she is cursed to death. This represents the VIctorian idea that women should be confined to the domestic sphere and should not be sexual beings seeking love and lust. Lord Tennyson portrays the Lady as defiant and profane once graced with the Knight’s presence.

Both Lucy and the Lady are temptresses and attempt to tempt men even though it leads to their deaths. Both Stoker and Lady Tennyson depict women to be uncontrollable and obsessive when around men.

The theme of desire and frustration in Rossetti’s “A Pause of Thought”

The first impression I got after reading the Rossetti’s poem “A Pause of Thought” is that it is quite related to or even seems to embody the idea of ‘five stages of grief’ which was invented by Kubler-Ross. In conjunction with this first impression, I understood that the poem is not only dealing with the theme of love but also could be seen to covering more broad range, encompassing the theme of desire, aspiration and frustration people get to experience in their life. Especially, the ‘mechanical’ terms such as “the object”, “chase” aids to form the neutral tone of the poem.

On the other hand, the repeated pattern of longing and frustration plays an important role over the poem. I think there exists double-sidedness in the mind of the narrator in that she-supposedly, because of the voice/tone of the narration-shows intense desire while not putting those desires into action. Given the restricted gender norms and roles of the Victorian era, it seems quite progressive that a woman makes her own choice-from about whom to love to what to achieve-no matter what emotional burden she has to bear, although it does not lead to certain actions in the case. Although it almost always ends with the frustration, one should have expectations in order to be frustrated by something. Also, in the process, there are specific transitional words that marks the alternating state of mind. The repetition of “but” or “yet” in first, third, fourth stanza and the use of “again” in the last stanza shows the hesitancy of the narrator despite of her realization of hopelessness. Although she seems to give up on hope of achieving one’s goal(or love) as the process goes on, the poem finally ends with “again”, implying that despite all the unstable emotions love and expectation gives us, the whole process of love and desire will repeat itself again and again, regressing back to the first moment of the poem.

The True Horror of Jekyll and Hyde

The setting of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde marks a shocking transition between the comfortable London setting first introduced, to a nightmarish realm brought on by Mr. Hyde. Though Jekyll and Hyde mirrors the creepy gothic settings of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles, this dramatic shift in mood is truly scary, as it shows how the familiar is altered to create the horrific. Supernatural themes are evident from the descriptions of fog, mist, and vacant London streets. Following the murder of Danvers Carew, Mr. Utterson notes how “the dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare” (16). Mr. Hyde has changed London into some sort of twisted realm by introducing his cruelty and wickedness to the scene.

All three novels describe dark, chilling settings, but only in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is there such a change between the original, lighthearted setting, to the colder, more gothic setting described later on. Essentially, London changes from a place of safety to one of darkness and emptiness. While Dracula displays a similarly mysterious and spooky setting, it seems that it has existed as such since the beginning of time; no recent development changed Transylvania into a gothic, mysterious land – it has always existed as such. Though Transylvania is undeniably creepy, with its “dark, rolling clouds overhead, and in the air the heavy, oppressive sense of thunder,” this setting is significantly less striking than the change that occurs in London after the murder of Danvers Carew (14). While Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield had previously noted how “the shop fronts [of London] stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen,” Danvers Carew’s murder seems to have completely altered London, as if his death set a gloom over the entire city (2). This transition, from the comfortable and familiar to the disturbing and strange, provokes an unsettling feeling in readers, and is perhaps what makes Jekyll and Hyde seem even more frightening than Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles, despite its lack of a supernatural monster.

Ideas of Transformation and Self-Indulgence in Dr. Jekyll and Dracula

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde takes the idea of transforming into something inhuman and turns it on its head. In Dracula, we see a few different characters become taken by vampirism, in varying ways. Lucy is obviously the most dramatic example of that, turning into a permanent vampire (until she is killed/exorcised with the help of Van Helsing). All of these transformations in Dracula, however, are involuntary, in that they are the direct result of having been bitten (or visited) by Dracula. Meanwhile, in the case of Dr. Jekyll, his transformation is a result of his own experimentation, and after the discovery he chooses to transform into Mr. Hyde whenever he wants to. Although, similarly to Lucy, Dr. Jekyll eventually loses control over his other form, at which point it takes him over completely.

The emphasis on self-indulgence in this novella reminded me of similar themes running through Dracula. We know that Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde specifically for his own pleasure: “The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified…every act and thought centred on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity” (Stevenson 46). I found it interesting how Dr. Jekyll indulges his desires without much thought, while the human characters in Dracula are shown to resist them, such as when Harker is deeply tempted by the three female vampires but does not give in. Also, in Dracula, we see the idea of indulgence with the consumption of blood, and in other words, violence against other people, just like Mr. Hyde attacking that girl or killing the old man.

How Real is Mr. Hyde?

Mr. Hyde is elusive in the fact that he is not well known by anyone, “[he] had numbered few familiars…his family could nowhere be traced; he had never been photographed”(17). By Mr. Hyde’s  unclear family history, he seems to have mysterious origins, similar to a gothic figure. In fact there is no proof of him ever existing, which makes the reader question if Mr. Hyde is even real. However, this may also be a question of sanity. The fact that there are varying accounts of Mr. Hyde is very unsettling, and makes the reader wonder if Mr. Hyde is a figment of an overactive imagination.

One thing is clear and that is his, “haunting sense of unexpressed deformity”(17). Haunting reinforces the gothic and elusive nature of Mr. Hyde. The word deformity is indicative of some sort of monstrous being, or at least some bodily incorrect aspect. There is something unspoken of Mr. Hyde’s presence that defies capture, which can be seen through the word, “unexpressed.” There is no photograph of Mr. Hyde, and from other works we have read, we know that portraits can be revealing, however there are none of Mr. Hyde. “Unexpressed” shows the inheritance of Mr. Hyde’s deformed nature, in that it is not necessarily visible but is simply there, but also that it defies description. As a result the reader knows that at the surface level there is something off about Mr. Hyde. It is beneath this facade of “unexpressed deformity, “ in which the reader will find the true Mr. Hyde.

Light vs. Dark in Rossetti’s The World

At first read, Christina Rossetti’s The World seems to be about someone describing a man’s lover and how she changes into this hellish creature at night.  However, when you take into account the title, it seems as though the author is describing her view of the world and how the world treats her.  One way to read this poem is by using the trope of light versus darkness where the woman during the daytime is a representation of light and the woman during the nighttime is a representation of darkness.  By digging even deeper into this trope, Rossetti analyzes light as a force of good and darkness as a type of hell or force of evil.

The woman during the day is “exceeding fair” (Rossetti 1) and is compared to “Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety” (Rossetti 6).  She is sweet and kind and good to the man during.  This can be taken that, from the outside, the world is a great place that is kind to everyone who walks on it.  As the poem continues, however, the repeated line “By day she wooes me” makes the reader think that this innocent, gentle side of the woman is all for show and she is actually hiding her true, evil self tempting the author by day only to let out her inner self at night.

The darkness is where the woman’s real side comes to view.  Rossetti portrays the woman as nearly the devil himself.  With her “hideous leprosy” and “subtle serpents gliding in her hair”, the story takes a quick change into the very hell this side of the woman originates from.  She will put on a front for others of her good side but she is nothing but a liar who turns into “A very monster void of love and prayer” (Rossetti 8) when darkness falls.

By bringing all of these details together, I think Rossetti is trying to portray how, from a surface level viewpoint, the world seems like a great place full of life and love.  Yet, Rossetti has given the world all of her and instead, it comes back a monster dragging her into its hell.  Rossetti suffered through bouts of depression during her lifetime as well many illnesses which ultimately led to her death.  Perhaps this poem is an ode to the world that she has given so much to and it only gives her misfortunes in return.


Christina Rossetti’s relatable Heartbreak

Christina Rossetti’s poem “A Pause of Thought” explores the hope of the narrator that an unrequited love might return one day. Assuming the narrator is a woman, she takes us on an emotional journey of love and heartache. In the first stanza, she is expressing the heartbreak one has when the love they give to another person is not reciprocated. In the second line she says, “And hope deferred made my heart sick…” which is an example of personification (32). The narrator gives the heart, an inanimate object, a human characteristic and places it with the word ‘sick’ to emphasize the pain and discomfort she is going through. Next, in the second stanza she describes that her faith has not died, and she has hope that one day her love will come back. The narrator says in the eighth line how she “watched and waited,” and the repetition in the words allows the reader to relate to the repetitive action of longing for a love one to return (32). Following, in the third stanza the narrator is starting to give up on love, she states in lines ten and eleven, “My expectation wearies and shall cease; I will resign it now and be at peace” (32). No matter male or female, the pain of loving someone and waiting for them to love you back becomes exhausting. In the fourth stanza, the narrator fantasizes about what it would like to be married and be loved by the person she loves, but is beginning to come to understand the reality of the situation. There comes a point where enough is enough, and although one might want to hold on, the truth will eventually be seen. Lastly, in the fifth and final stanza the narrator has come to the realization that it is not healthy to be in the position she is in. She should not have to wait for a man to confess his love her for, and instead she should move on and find the love she truly deserves from someone else.

I think this poem is easily relatable to any individual who has been broken up with by someone they were still in love with or someone who is in love with someone but knows the other feelings are not reciprocated. It is a tough journey, and ones’ emotions are usually all over the place. This poem of Christina Rossetti’s is speaking to a wide audience, even though at the time it was written it was probably meant to be relatable to only women, since women were longing to be loved and get married.

Rossetti, Christina. “A Pause of Thought.” Goblin Market and Other Poems. Ed. Candace   Ward. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 2004. Print.

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.

The Implicit Message in La Belle Dame

John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad describes a pallid knight wandering around a lake. As the knight describes La Belle Dame, he explains to the reader what the poem is implicitly saying; an enchanting woman stole a knight’s heart, but did not stay with him.

The knight describes the beautiful woman that enchants him as, “fully beautiful- a faerie’s child.” This line tells the reader that she may have the mischievous nature of a fairy, and most definitely the alluring beauty of one. Like fairies, sirens enchant men, and there is a possible connection to sirens in this line. In the next lines, the knight describes her long hair, and wild eyes. In the poem, her long, loose hair symbolizes her passionate behavior towards men, and specifically this knight.

In the lines preceding this, the knight sees, “on thy cheek a fading rose / fast withereth too.” He sees this rose on her, and it represents La Belle’s secret and taboo message for the knight. When he says that it withers quickly, the poem foreshadows her intent to leave him after she has had her way with him.

In the fifth stanza, the knight presents handmade gifts to La Belle Dame, who not only accepts the gifts, but returns the sentiment with a look of love. The following line is, “and made sweet moan.” This line indicates sexual interaction between them, and is the moment they become lovers.

For the next four stanzas, the knight sees nothing but La Belle, who tells him, “I love thee true.” Though she tells him she loves him, this is not an indication that she’ll stay faithful to him, or with him at all. She does none, and he awakes on a hillside, alone. Thus, the poem sends the message that this woman, (if not all women), are untrustworthy despite their displays of affection.


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