Quarantined:  The cultural physician’s approach to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Woolf’s Lily Briscoe  

Erin Johnson



Though not always sweet, fiction is often like a sugar-coated pill that encourages society to take its medicine.  The finest art is a form of truth originating in the pallets and inkwells of life, but delivered with artistic perception so that the masses must see beyond societal blindness.  Visionary creators use their works to remedy the epidemic of closed eyes by attacking the source of the ailment – a cultural plague of closed minds. 

Virginia Woolf is one such artist.  Her stories always contain a message concerning reality, even at their most fantastic.  Particularly intriguing is her fictional character Lily Briscoe of To the Lighthouse, who is an artist herself. Lily’s struggle against the lingering restraints of Victorian gender codes illustrates the stifling effect that social constrictions can have upon life and creativity.   From this perspective, she is comparable to Alfred Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” another fictional female artist at odds with the Victorian ideal of femininity.

 The two creative figures are restrained both by and from the outside world, but only Lily can endure.  Yet, it is not until Lily’s vision exceeds the restricted horizons of her patriarchally ordered environment that she can truly make art and life compatible.  Lily Briscoe’s triumph emphasizes Woolf’s point that both art and life can become more complete when released from societal shackles such as the rigidly defined gender roles.  Interestingly, her theories amplify earlier gender-related notions that Tennyson offered.  Clearly, both authors use their fictional female artists to attack an unfortunate reality, hoping to save society from choking upon its own restrictions.   

The Victorian Age is a difficult era to define.  First, Queen Victoria, the period’s monarchical namesake, was on the throne from 1837 to 1901.  Inevitably, her reign was characterized by change if for no other reason than the natural procession of time.  However, the shifts that occurred seemed neither gradual nor inconsequential: If time merely marched on, it was in the direction of an ideological war.  In fact, all of Western culture was in the midst of having its traditions challenged by the invasion of modernity.  Industry was erupting, imperialism was spreading major empires across the globe, and the questions that science posed to conventional religion were getting harder to deter.   Yet, the Victorian Age is remembered as much for its restrictive social tenets as for its turbulence – perhaps because of the Victorians’ desperate attempts to enforce order in their shaky universe. 

Gender roles were a controversial topic during this era in which women were actively struggling for more rights in an expanding world.  It was a time when the first women’s colleges were being established, but also a time when a judge could rule that a husband could lock up and beat his wife “so long as he did so without cruelty”  (Fraisse and Perrot 99).  During the era, the Women’s Suffrage Petition was placed before British government, but the one of the most popular poems in the nation was Coventy Patmore’s tribute to his wife’s sweet subservience, “Angel of the House.” 

For the most part, gender roles remained rigidly defined in mainstream society.  Men were considered to be more intelligent, analytical, and capable, while women were thought to be gentler, more emotional, and fit mainly for domestic duties.  Men were regarded as the best leaders, writers, and thinkers of society; women were considered to be the best at rearing children.  Manuals of etiquette flourished during the period, defining the codes of dress, manner, and behavior that women and men must follow in order to be proper ladies and gentlemen.  Even Victoria, though the figurative head of power, adhered to cultural laws of gender identity.  As one preacher proclaimed,               “She is a Queen – a real Queen – but she is a real Mother, and a true Wife” (Perrot 50).  Clearly, as conformity was the celebrated norm, society had little tolerance for anyone who did not fit into its predefined roles.  

When considered from a feminist perspective, “The Lady of Shalott” provides an excellent symbolic representation of the struggle faced by female artists in the Victorian period.  First, the title figure, a creative weaver, is doomed to remain an outsider to society.  A “silent isle imbowers/The Lady of Shalott” (17-18), who is not only secluded mid-river on her own island, but confined in a single tall turret.  In fact, she cannot even look directly at the outside world, but rather “through a mirror clear/[…] shadows of the world appear” (46,48), which she weaves into her tapestry.   This limited view not only shows how oppressive gender roles allow women a very limited perspective, but also that art created under such circumstances cannot fully capture truth.  Thus, the Lady of Shalott illustrates how restricted societal codes create a stifling environment that propagates the incidence of restricted minds and stifled intellect.

Next, the description of mainstream society, symbolized in the poem by Camelot, is distinctly representative of an oppressive patriarchal culture.  For instance, the village is described as “many-towered” (5), while the island of Shalott is portrayed as a “space of flowers” (16).  The poem was first published in 1832 (and then revised after a series of bad reviews), around 50 years before Freudian analysis, yet the phallic emblem of a tower and the female connection to flowers is undeniable.  Furthermore, Camelot is a city of Arthurian legend, which is undeniably the epitome of the glorification of “chivalrous” gender dichotomy.

Also, it is presumably Victorian ideals concerning women’s proper role that leads to the Lady of Shalott’s demise.  At first, “she weaveth steadily/And little other care hath she” (43-44), including the fact that “she hath no loyal knight and true” (62).  However, after watching “two young lovers lately wed” (70) she feels stirrings of discontent.  When Lancelot appears in her mirror, she is immediately drawn to this figure of virile masculinity and defies the curse to look directly at Camelot.  While some scholars maintain that her decision suggests sexual desire, there is no denying that these images could also signify the Lady’s realization that she was an outsider from traditional Victorian standards for femininity.  Lancelot is a classical representation of the “knight in shining armor” mythology that instantly degrades women as either treacherous witches or “damsels in distress.” Thus, when the Lady looks to him, she is seeking someone to “save” her from her tormenting isolation.  Even Thomas L. Jeffers, who argues that it is sexual passion that drives the Lady to defy the curse, must admit “The Lady certainly wants Lancelot, but she may also wish simply to mix on equal terms with the people who work and play, love, marry, and die in the world beyond her studio” (60).  When images remind her that she is painfully exiled from society because she does not fit cultural molds, she turns (both literally and figuratively) towards a more traditional form of female existence. However, the narrowly defined society has no place for the creative female and consequently, destroys her.   

Thus, the Lady of Shalott remains more witch than damsel.  The masculine response to the Lady of Shalott is representative of the distaste that Victorian society had for female artists, who did not correspond with their preconceived roles.  For instance, reapers in the fields commonly refer to her as “the fairy Lady of Shalott” (35-36), and when her body floats into Camelot, the knights “cross themselves for fear” (166). Moreover, when Lancelot gazes upon her body, he declares “She has a lovely face/God in his mercy lend her grace” (168-169). Inevitably, this formerly independent and creative woman is reduced to just another pretty face in the eyes of Victorian standards. Therefore, the man she expected to “save” her not only takes her life, but ultimately destroys her prized artistic identity.  

This feminist viewpoint is particularly valid to understanding this poem that also represents the struggle of Tennyson’s own poetic sensibility.  As explained by Joseph Chadwick, “The same split between public and private that confined women to domesticity also made culture itself – aesthetic activity – separate from the public world […] and thus allied it with femininity” (Bristow 41).  In fact, Tennyson’s poems were often criticized for revolving too heavily around women and supposedly feminine emotions.  As contemporary critic Alfred Austin condemned, “If we were to sum up the characteristics of Mr. Tennyson’s compositions in a single word, the word we should employ would be ‘feminine’” (Parker 12).  Thus, Tennyson adopts the Lady of Shalott to represent his poeticism because, as a woman, she magnifies the separation he himself felt from his society’s rigid gender roles.  Furthermore, she symbolizes the very fragile relationship between Tennyson and this distant – but still very dominant -- mainstream society.  As Chadwick states, “both women and artists are dependent on the public world from which they seem to be separated and safe, a world ‘which accords them no stable or certain value at all’ ” (Bristow 41).       

Yet, even when considered outside of feminist perspective, “The Lady of Shalott” addresses the necessity of absolute freedom in the quest for true knowledge and a fully experienced life.  In many ways, the underlying message of the poem compares to “The Allegory of the Cave” that is found in Plato’s The Republic, a classic work that Tennyson undoubtedly studied.  In this parable, there is a society of people chained together in a cave, their backs to its narrow mouth.  Just as the Lady’s mirror provides her only knowledge of reality, these cave people can learn about reality only through shadows cast from a parapet behind them.  Yet, even these silhouettes are imitations of life, as they represent carved figures manipulated by other humans, and are cast upon the wall not by the sun, but by a manufactured fire.  Yet, they recognize these counterfeit designs as reality because to them the truth “would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (Plato 229).  It is not until the cave’s inhabitants are unshackled and forced into the outside world that they finally realize their earlier perceptions were so terribly altered.  This metaphor, like the one Tennyson uses in “The Lady of Shalott,” illustrates how seclusion from the outside world inevitably leads to a shaky sense of reality.     

Initially, Lily Briscoe is quite like The Lady of Shalott.  She also exists as an outsider.  Although the story is set just after World War I, her hosts Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay establish an extremely Victorian home.  He acts as the typical dominating male and she as the nurturing female, making a rigidly organized environment in which the independent and artistic Lily is an abnormality.  She is perceived as “cold and aloof and rather self-sufficing,” or more bluntly stated, “out of things” (104).  Correspondingly, she is always painting at the edge of the lawn -- the concrete and symbolic outskirts of the traditional Victorian home. 

            In Three Guineas, Woolf summarizes women’s limited role by stating, “our influence as outsiders can only be of the most indirect sort” (36).  Through conventional patriarchy, women are systematically restrained from power and privilege – that is to the outside or, more fittingly, to the bottom recesses of society.  However, those women who dared to rebel against prescribed gender roles, such as artists, were outcast.  Procreation was the only form of creation deemed culturally acceptable for Victorian women.  For a woman to express herself outside of biological boundaries was considered an abomination, and for her to do so by use of pen or paintbrush made her into a marginal creature who is, at best, ridiculed by society.  As Woolf explains in A Room of One’s Own, “It is fairly evident that even in the nineteenth century a woman was not encouraged to be an artist.  On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured, and exhorted” (55). 

            At the beginning of the twentieth century, gender roles were relaxing – but slightly.  Victorians still held the most esteemed places in society, so Victorian thought was still acknowledged as correct.  Women did have more opportunities, but few real models, as their predecessors were largely denied the chance to escape domestic roles.     

Thus, just as the Lady of Shalott cannot evade the presence of Camelot’s phallic towers, constant reminders of masculine domination haunt Lily Briscoe.  Although she is well liked by the other characters, none seem to acknowledge her identity as an artist. Fellow houseguest Charles Tansley, for instance, sneers that “women can’t paint, woman can’t write” (48).  The cruel words continually echo in Lily’s mind, and she is painfully aware of the distinctly masculine characters “bearing down” on her, as well as on her female companions.  Their presence debilitates her creative power; she degrades her work, and harbors a persistent feeling of self-consciousness.  When trying to paint, “[S]he kept a feeler on her surroundings lest some one should creep up, and suddenly she should find her picture looked at” (17).  Such sentiments are undoubtedly the effect of her disapproving environment.   In fact, even Mrs. Ramsay proclaims “one could not take her painting very seriously” (17) and encourages Lily to abandon her art in favor of marriage.  The clearest indication of the detrimental influence of a narrow-minded society is the fact that “there was in Lily a thread of something […] which Mrs. Ramsay liked very much indeed, but no man would, she feared” (104).  Consequently, she pushes Lily to abandon that revered sense of independence, though she admires it.  This phenomenon shows that a female artist was at odds with cultural precepts that penetrated the minds of an entire society and not just the misogynistic notions of a few domineering men.

            For this reason, the same conformist pressures faced by the Lady of Shalott attack Lily.  For instance, she realizes that “it behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man” (91).  On several occasions, Lily is torn by her desire to remain independent from her era’s manufactured gender relations and from what she identifies to be feminine duty.  It is discouraging for the artist to know that the canvas of her mind is already marred by violently scribbled Victorian tenets.  The narrator of To the Lighthouse explains:  “What happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and they fought together in her mind” (102). 

Lily, however, is determined not to sacrifice her art and independence to the ravenous idol of Victorian conformity – even thought it is not the more comfortable choice.  She wonders “why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort” (86).  Finally, she asserts to herself that “she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution” (102).  Interestingly, this revelation comes to her while she is lost in artistic thought instead of socializing at a dinner party.  In an epiphany, “she remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work” (84). 

It is symbolically fitting that she makes such a discovery at a dinner party, which serves in the story as one of the few creative outlets available for a conventional woman. As such gatherings are also the apex of pretentious Victorian ideals, it is an ironically appropriate setting for Lily to finally determine herself to overcome such conventions.   Woolf is not opposed to hosting dinners or against marriage – it is that she rejects these mere occasions as being what defines a woman.  To her, an ideal woman – an ideal human – would have a uniquely independent mind and spirit and would not be an extension of a mindless daily habit or even of another person.

Although she continues painting and never marries, it is not until she returns to the Ramsays’ house years later that she can completely escape the shadows of Victorian gender codes.  At this point, Mrs. Ramsay is dead, and Mr. Ramsay looks to Lily to fill her role and lavish him with the sympathy he desires.  She defends herself against his actions:  “[H]is immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did […] was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet” (152).

  Yet, in her resistance she feels guilt, thinking herself a “miserable sinner” (152) for ignoring the prescribed feminine duty to serve men.  Yet, in the midst of this brief interaction she has another epiphany.  Suddenly, where Lily had formerly described Mr. Ramsay as “petty, selfish, vain, egotistical,” and “a tyrant” (24), he now “seemed to her a figure of infinite pathos” (154).  While Mr. Ramsay has definitely changed – mellowed with age, in a sense, Lily has changed as well.  She no longer sees Mr. Ramsay as the model for Victorian masculinity, but as a real person.  Likewise, Lily finally actualizes Mrs. Ramsay, as more than the archetype of Victorian femininity realizing:  “Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with” (198). 

Like the Lady of Shalott, Lily had initially been trying to capture a mere reflection of life.  At first, she carefully detaches herself from what she viewed as one-dimensional figures, yet as Jack Stewart explains, “she has to cast away the control that distances her from emotion and plunge into the turbulent waters of experience” (5). While Lily’s own character is not restrained by gender conformity, her creative perception is definitely hampered by the limited scope these Victorian standards placed upon her view of the world.  It is not until she can understand Mr. Ramsay as more than the conventional father, and Mrs. Ramsay as more than the mother, that her artistic insight reaches its pinnacle.

  Her realization is similar to the understanding that the Ramsays’ rather androgynous son, James, comes to when he realizes that “nothing was simply one thing” (186).  James comes to this conclusion when comparing his idealistic conception of the lighthouse that he made from a distance with the harshness he observes in close proximity.   The lighthouse, is, in fact, a symbol of the understanding that Lily gains.  As Herbert Marder says, “masculine tower, feminine sea, a radiance somehow joining the two – the image of the lighthouse became a symbol of the marriage of opposites” (138).

Likewise, when Lily remembers Mrs. Ramsay, the opaque shroud of Victorian idealization is suddenly translucent.  She realizes that neither of her perceptions is wrong or right -- only their convergence allows a complete truth.  When what is and what seems to be are finally blurred together by her brushstrokes, Lily thinks, “I have had my vision” (209).  Her artistic identity can survive because she plunges into the depths of reality, whereas the Lady of Shalott attempts to dive into a dangerously shallow world. 

The reason she survives with her artistic identity intact can also be drawn from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”  As the cavern’s hostages are liberated and led into the outside world, the brilliance of the sun nearly blinds them.  They must adjust to intensity of reality, first watching the shadows, and then the more vivid reflections, and next actual objects, until finally they can bear a direct look at the sun.  In their freedom, the former captives have the time and space to ease into reality.  The Lady of Shalott did not have this luxury, as she was cursed with eternal seclusion from society.  Therefore, even the slightest step towards entering the real world is enough to destroy her and her art.  Her fatal ending is fitting, for in Tennyson’s era, it seemed that societal conventions were, in fact, more prized than creativity or intellect.  

However, Lily is a product of the twentieth century, a more liberated woman that feels societal restraints as surmountable hindrances rather than unbreakable shackles. Lily is able to free herself by capitalizing on less rigid societal constraints, on the expanded independence that women had gained in the near century between Tennyson’s first printing of “The Lady of Shalott” and Woolf’s publication of To the Lighthouse.  Therefore, she has the liberty to ease herself into reality, slowly realizing greater parts of the whole truth.  Indeed, ten years pass between the moment Lily Briscoe realizes she will choose art over conventional femininity and the point that her artistic vision is actually fulfilled.  This passage of time is so important that Woolf develops a brief but significant chapter to it, bluntly titled “Time Passes” (125). 

This division is acutely symbolic, as it creates a distention between the introduction, “The Window” (3), in which Lily captures a mere glimpse of the reality, and the final chapter, “The Lighthouse” (145), in which she can grasp absolute truth.  Just as the liberated cave dwellers focus their eyes on more powerful pieces of reality as time goes on, Lily’s perception gradually develops.  Eventually, she can see that restrictive precepts have imprisoned her entire society to the point that people’s projected identities are just another false reality.  At last, given a boundless mind’s horizon, her artistic vision is complete. 

Lily’s recognition that seeing past Victorian gender identity can make her art whole is symbolic of Woolf’s philosophy that discarding gender roles can bring humans closer to the truth.  In A Room of One’s Own, she theorizes “It is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (108).  Woolf advocates a more androgynous society, in which the best qualities that were relegated to men and women would combine for the good of all humanity. Interestingly, Tennyson offers a similar theory on gender distinctions. In The Princess, he addresses the debate over woman’s proper role.  By means of fictional characters, he “imagines a future of gradual change, by which men and women adopt the strengths of the other while maintaining their distinct natures” (Christ 1229).  It is important to note that Lily always created by first “subduing all the impressions as a woman to something much more general” in a search for truth (53).  Through her, Virginia Woolf captures the beginnings of this change by showing a modern woman who can overcome gender constraints and flourish in her freedom. 

  The fact that Lily Briscoe endures where The Lady of Shalott perishes provides evidence of progress – even in the relatively short time span between the start of the Victorian Period to the dawn of the twentieth century. Propelled by revolutionary writers such as Tennyson and Woolf, the first stages of the healing process have begun.  After all, their words are a remedy to societal wrongs and their message is an elixir of truth -- as they are swallowed and digested the disabling patriarchal plague will be weakened, perhaps wiped out entirely.  Clearly, revolutionary authors such as Tennyson and Woolf can manipulate reality into their fiction, but it is more important that they can prompt their fiction into reality.  The future is bright; now it is time to look toward it.



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