Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott is about a woman in a tower locked into an endless cycle of weaving. I’ve noticed that a lens of reading I have trouble putting away is that of a person with OCD. I think because OCD is such a misunderstood illness, as well as one that is so deeply ingrained in the person, many authors, especially from before the modern era, will describe a character with OCD tendencies without even meaning to. I believe the Lady of Shalott is one of these characters. The lines that made me think that come from the second stanza in part II which read, “A charmed web she weaves away. A curse is on her, if she stay Her weaving, either night or day, To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be; Therefore she weaveth steadily”(Tennyson).
I was diagnosed with OCD when I was sixteen, but am able to trace symptoms all the way back to when I was six. A phenomenon that’s been incredibly common for me, and other people with OCD is feeling an unknown force of something bad you cannot name. You know that something bad will happen when you don’t complete a compulsion, but you can’t always name what that bad thing is. The O in OCD obviously stands for obsessive which refers to an intrusive thought. The C stands for compulsive which is your response to the obsession. I believe the Lady of Shalott’s obsession is the curse, and her compulsion is not to stop weaving. As any therapist will tell you, most(if not all) obsessions about something bad happening don’t come true. But unfortunately, when the Lady of Shalott breaks the pattern, she dies, fulfilling the curse.
I don’t know enough about Tennyson or the year 1832 to say if this was intentional. But this is exactly what I mean by how OCD becomes such an ingrained part of the person. As always, one of our texts comes back to a woman who is in some way, mad, whether her particular madness is actually OCD, like I believe, another condition, or just general madness caused by being in the tower. I think the idea of this particular type of mad woman dying because she stops her compulsion should upset me in some way, but oddly, the part that sticks out to me is that I can relate to something written so long ago. I don’t think the madness of humanity has changed much, it’s just our reactions to it.