The Panopticon of Femininity

The Lady of Shalott is doomed from the start. The existential dread of her circumstances is tangible, isolation without a foreseeable end and endless work that can produce only reflections of truth making this apparent. The poem’s own structure reinforces her entrapment, sealing her fate before it is said plainly. When she breaks from her inescapable circumstances, her life is taken from her, and as she floats down the river, she dies with grace and beauty. The Lady of Shalott does not scream or cry, only sings mournfully as the curse graphically freezes her blood. She does not make a scene of herself or make an attempt to alert others to her condition, only lies down in a boat and accepts her fate idly. The Lady of Shalott is not given humanity by the people of Camelot, only shunned out of fear—that is, except for Lancelot. He takes the opportunity to admire her physical beauty while the others cower. On the surface level, Lancelot’s compliment is merely that; but underscoring Tennyson’s literary decision is a fascination that has existed for centuries involving the beautiful dead woman.

Images of women whose beauty defies the absence of life have persisted for a long time, and “The Lady of Shalott” is no exception. Tennyson details the Lady’s journey that ends in her death gorgeously, as she “[lies], robed in snowy white / that loosely [flows] to left and right.” The image is almost ghostly and otherworldly, calling to mind spectral figures robed in their own snowy white sheets. She sings as she floats, invoking tropes reflective of characters like Hamlet’s Ophelia, who herself floats down a river, singing eerily in her madness before she drowns. Unlike Ophelia, however, the Lady chooses to pass in such a dramatic manner. She paints the perfect picture to be found within, a beautiful maiden clad in innocent white floating peacefully toward Camelot. 

Once the Lady has passed, one can hope that she will be able to achieve the freedom and peace she was denied in life. The one trait that is noted about the Lady once she is found by others, besides their own anxiety regarding her origins, is her appearance: “But Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, ‘She has a lovely face.’” Before Lancelot even wonders about the Lady’s circumstances or history, he thinks to point out her beauty. She cannot exist, even in death, without being viewed for her looks over all else. The reader is not told exactly what is done with the Lady after Lancelot’s comment, but it is all too clear that Tennyson’s construction of the story around the Lady’s beautiful death suggests larger themes at play.

One thought on “The Panopticon of Femininity”

  1. The Lady of Shalott is a whimsical poem with curses, magic and the age-old trope of the ‘lady trapped in a tower’, all set up against the backdrop of Arthurian legend. Though we are given no details on what the curse is or how she acquired, she is granted the agency of having her story told. The woman referenced in Christina’s In an Artist’s Studio has no such interiority given to her. The two women seem diametrically opposed– one trapped in a castle of old and the other free to be “A queen in opal or in ruby dress.”

    But in the end their circumstances are more similar than different. Both are trapped and given no peace for their beauty. The artist’s model is given no peace after her death because her face and beauty is eternally committed in these painting which sapped her very strength: her memory will always be false. The Lady of Shallot herself will just become a story of a beautiful corpse instead of a curse victim or full fledged person. Both are denied the ability to be viewed by others as they truly are.

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