Free will and the Lack of it

“The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson is, in my opinion, a giant story about the imprisonment of the free will. The Lady, secluded in a tower, experiences the world only through reflections in a mirror, unable to directly engage with reality. Her confinement symbolizes the restrictions placed on individuals by societal expectations and norms. The lady is not allowed to be a part of society, or anything for that matter. It is –

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly


This curse that befalls her when she looks directly out of her window can be seen as a metaphor for the consequences of breaking away from societal constraints. The poem underscores the theme of self-imposed exile, suggesting that the Lady’s isolation is not solely a result of external forces, but also a consequence of her own adherence to societal expectations. Tennyson’s narrative prompts reflection on the limitations imposed on personal agency and the consequences of breaking free from societal expectations. Later in the poem, when the Lady looks out and sees Lancelot, Tennyson writes:

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.

Even in her brief moment of free will upon, the Lady of Shalott succumbs to the curse, highlighting the ongoing imprisonment of her will. The constraints of societal expectations persist, limiting her life even outside the castle. The tragic consequence of her escape underscores the pervasive nature of societal restrictions, the role of women in this time period, and the ongoing struggle for one’s own destiny, are demonstrated in this story that deprives a women of living life to the fullest. Without creativity, the ability to choose, and capability to interact with others, combines to underline the restriction of the Lady of Shallots ability to achieve a free will and in turn live a life of freedom and happiness without consequence.

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