Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, has clear underlying themes of female oppression and I believe it is true to see it as his argument against the established gender roles. In the presentation of the isolation and entrapment of the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson presents a specimen with which he criticises the role of women in Victorian society, and in the character of Lancelot he constructs a figure of stereotypical masculinity, the archetypal male through which he can criticise the gender role of men. Through these characters, Tennyson creates an allegory, a narrative with a hidden meaning locked within, to criticise the interaction - or rather, the lack of interaction - between men and women, the places they occupy in society and to challenge women to ‘break free of their towers’.
The character of the Lady of Shalott is a passive and isolated figure, unable to interact with the outside world. This depiction is one of the clearest ideas to support viewing this poem as an allegory against established gender roles. She is shackled by her curse, which prevents her from leaving the island and integrating herself with the outside world. This, clearly, is a metaphor, “to refer to something other other than what it was originally applied to”, and is Tennyson’s criticism of the place of women in Victorian society - immobile, trapped in the home and set to strictly controlled life. Tennyson writes that “she weaveth steadily”, suggesting a predetermined and irrevocable role, and the Lady of Shalott commits herself to it “by night and day”. The idea of her working “steadily” gives the image of a passive worker, resigned to her task. There is a sense of futility in her work; Tennyson never describes what she is weaving or any larger objective she is working towards in doing it, he describes only the action itself, presenting it simply as a mindless chore which fills her time. In this way it can be seen as a metaphor of the life of a Victorian woman, resigned to menial tasks in the home, while on another level it is a more literal presentation of this meniality.
Tennyson further creates the Lady of Shalott as an allegorical figure through the “mirror clear that hangs before her all the year”, a significant symbol that supports the allegorical nature of the Lady of Shalott’s portrayal. The mirror characterises her isolation all the more, presenting her an image of Camelot while she is prevented by her curse from seeing it in reality. Again, Tennyson can be seen to be conveying a metaphor which criticises the place of women in the Victorian world - the only image of the outside world she can see is a false, constructed one, and parts of it are obscured by “shadows” - parts of the world she will not be able to see unless she becomes part of society, paralleling the real life plight of women who are unable to see the whole picture of society which is available only to men. It is also important to note how closely to society she is isolated, being on an island in “the river” which flows “down to Camelot”. It would be easy to imagine the island being in the sea far away from the mainland, but by placing it in a river so close to Camelot itself Tennyson creates a sense of irony which seems to enforce his allegorical criticism of the place of women in Victorian society - it is truly ridiculous that she is so close to society yet is unable to integrate with it.
The idea of Victorian superficiality is important, and this would have helped play into these gender roles. There was a societal pressure to uphold a certain image within the family unit, involving the working husband out in the world and the wife at home. In keeping with this, and in stark contrast to the Lady of Shalott, Lancelot is portrayed as a far more mobile and grandiose figure. Perhaps then this is Tennyson’s attempt to form the archetypal Victorian male figure to accompany the archetype set up by the Lady of Shalott: he is described as “bold”, he is seen on horseback, gleaming and “blazon’d”, he is a societally perceived paragon of masculinity and of the ideal of “keeping up appearances” which was pressured in Victorian society. Tennyson writes that “he rode down to Camelot”, enforcing his mobility in the world. This is in complete contrast to the Lady of Shalott. In examining the differences between the two figures - the Lady of Shalott’s irrevocable and predetermined task of weaving and her entrapment in comparison to the freedom and grandiose lacquer of Lancelot - it is easier to appreciate the idea that Tennyson is examining these themes of unbalanced Victorian gender roles. Arguably, the image of a knight manages to form a successful parallel between the freedom and impressiveness of the Victorian male and the oppressed Victorian female.
Continuing the strand of the depiction of Lancelot and the idea of the Knights of Camelot being allegorical to Victorian superficiality, it is worth noting that Lancelot, even by simply appearing in his armour and on horseback, leaves perhaps a greater impression than the nameless and undistinguished Lady of Shalott. Importantly though, while Lancelot receives greater description, it is fixated with his armour, not the man underneath it; Tennyson describes that his “armour rung” but not his physical appearance. Again, this enforces not only the superficiality and fixation on surface appearances within Victorian society, but also the impenetrable defence of men which prevents them from harm and criticism, in contrast with the stereotypically delicate female form. In this poem, men are undiminishable figures of masculinity, the females are silent, subdued and entrapped.
This appears to be the most crucial idea to suggest the view of the poem as an allegory, and it seems to be the case that Tennyson is criticising it. He focuses so much of the poem on the Lady of Shalott that it is impossible not to notice her subdued nature, her silence and lack of description. The fact alone that Tennyson focuses the poem on her, entitling it “The Lady of Shalott” and ending most of the earlier stanzas with those very words puts the spotlight on her plight, exposing and drawing the reader’s attention to her silence and the void where her personality should be. This void would be far less noticeable if she was given a name and character. Her title is so broad that it can be applicable outside of the context: it is seemingly allegorical. Rather than have a name, she is simply “the Lady of Shalott”, spoken continually as if it is her defining feature. While it could be argued that Tennyson approves of her role in this allegory, describing her as “an angel” and “the fairy” as though this subdued role brings out the best in her, these descriptions can be seen as further irony, similar to the descriptions of Lancelot, once more criticising the superficiality of Victorian society and perhaps asking the reader to see more to her than this, at the very least stating it is wrong to idolise a diminished figure trapped within these “four grey walls”.
Her complaint that “I am half-sick of shadows” falls on deaf ears. She is protesting what is being obscured in the mirror. As before, the complete picture of the world is being withheld from her, and she is desperate to see it. Perhaps Tennyson is also saying that she wishes to step out of the “shadows”, out of the diminished role of Victorian women in the home. In either case, Tennyson is recognising the plight of women and, in seemingly sympathising with the Lady, he appears to be arguing against the established gender roles. It seems that he is challenging women to ‘break free of their towers’.
Another important point is that the Lady of Shalott’s escape is defiant but fatal. This seems to be part of the challenge that Tennyson is drawing. For women to break free and integrate with the outside world will be a difficult process, but it is a necessary progression to break free of the pre-defined roles and from the superficial layers which keep these roles in place. Tennyson writes that those in the palace of Camelot “crossed themselves for fear”, suggesting a difficulty to accept the Lady’s act of defiance, and by bringing in the idea of ‘crossing’ themselves, he suggests a reliance on superstition and old beliefs which are going to be difficult to challenge. He seems well aware of the challenges women will have to face to find equality, but I believe overall, in the way he structures the poem largely from the vantage point of the Lady, develops such clear cut gender stereotypes and by supporting the Lady’s defiant act of escape, he is serving up an allegorical tale to challenge these gender roles and to suggest perhaps the superficiality that enforces them needs to be crushed. Men should not oppress women and women should be defiant in the face of oppression. Communication, then, needs to be made, and isolation from one another between the genders is not helpful: they need to work together.