21 pages 42 minutes read

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Lady Of Shalott

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1842

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Gender and Sexuality

Tennyson uses the story and setting of “the Lady of Shalott” to explore Victorian attitudes toward sexuality and the cultural division of men and women. First, the division between the Lady of Shalott and the surrounding land mirrors the gendered separation of life and work that was common across many cultures throughout history, and acutely defined during the Victorian era. Men like Lancelot and the reaper were allowed and expected to operate in the public sphere, while women were relegated to indoor duties. Men had a great degree of freedom, while women were expected to adhere to strict social norms. Through this lens, the Lady of Shalott’s castle is her home, and the web she weaves represents the private, domestic sphere and the duties, chores, and restrictions—the “curse”—assigned to women.

As in other ubiquitous tales about maidens trapped in towers, such as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, the Lady of Shalott’s isolation is a metaphor for virginity and sexual innocence. The ideal Victorian woman was imagined to be pure and unaffected by sexual desire. Women were expected to stay out of social and political realms so as to maintain their purity and feminine virtue.