The literary concept of repeating the same task over and over is not unique to “The Lady of Shalott.” As we discussed in class, the Lady of Shalott’s weaving closely resembles that of Penelope in the Iliad. It also parallels Scheherazade’s storytelling and Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the Lady of Shalott, the lady’s routine comes to an abrupt halt when she looks out of her window for the first time. She has clearly made up her mind to leave to Camelot, and her spontaneity is rewarded with catastrophe: “She look’d down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott” (Tennyson Part III). The room in which the lady has been rotting now self-destructs in a very theatrical and magical sense. What is this saying about the reality she lived in and the reality she wished to discover?
In Plato’s cave allegory, the men in the cave are cursed to experience the world through shadows on the wall. When one prisoner escapes the cave, he is instantly met with blindness from the sun, leaving his fellow prisoners with the impression that leaving the cave will lead to harm. In the Lady of Shalott, the lady experiences the world not through shadows but through a mirror. When she yearns to experience her true reality and escape the monotony of her daily weaving, she is met not with blindness but with death. Why is it that curiosity is met with punishment in this text? Why should there not be a happy ending where these individuals reach an improved state of being? In the case of Scheherazade, her tenacity in her storytelling prompts Shahryar to spare her. Her telling of 1,000 intriguing stories leads the monarch to fall in love and marry her despite beheading a long line of women before her. In this text, the protagonist and the reader receive the happy ending that we feel is earned.
The Lady of Shalott ends on a sad note. The curse is realized and the lady dies, experiencing the world, not through the intermediary of the mirror, only for a brief moment. The answer to the question “why does she die?” is a convoluted one. I would presume that Tennyson is making a commentary on the inherent isolation of the lady working on her weaving; though, more broadly speaking, on devoting one’s life to one task. Perhaps he is suggesting humans should branch out and strive for new experiences despite the risk/reward nature of it all.