Men and women are constantly accused of being the vehicles and the victims of seduction. In Alfred Tennyson’s “Lotos Eaters” and “The Lady of Shalott” embody this premise. Together, the characters are simultaneously the victims of seduction from an outside force: retreat. The theme of gender uses retreat as a tool to create a balance and expose contrast between the sexes. Specifically, both sets of characters leave their ordinary lives behind, recoil into another retreat, portray suicidal tendencies, and permanently give up the hassles of their former life. Through retreat, the poems’ representation of gender challenges the traditional stereotypes of men and women.
The “Lady of Shalott” uses the theme of retreat and allows her to escape from the conventions of Camelot. She escapes from the outside world into the plot of her poem. She continuously retreats into herself while exposing an assertive masculine identity. The lady takes her life into her own control by retreating from Camelot into the tower, further into her knitting, escapes from the curse with fear, and ultimately retreats from her life by death. This assertive behavior is not typical of the glittering and whimsical women in Camelot. She describes Camelot and traditional roles when she says, “a troop of damsels glad, /…and sometimes through the mirror blue, /the knight comes riding two by two:/She hath no loyal knight and true” (lines 55, 60-62). Women are bright and associated with imagery of the sun, yet she is in the dark and alone. The men even travel two by two and court the women. She has no knight, she is alone; she doesn’t represent either gender in the right way in this instance. The lady has made herself an enigma in the community by limiting her femininity.
The limits she puts on her femininity include her original escape, her knitting, and her view through the mirror. Her retreat has limited interaction with those who could provide womanly influence. She has been given employment however, not an attractive quality in a Lady and a masculine quality.
Now her desired retreat is back to her original life, out of the tower, but her autonomy is hindered by the curse. All characters are equal to each other in frivolity except for the Lady. The other ladies and Sir Lancelot are superior in both gender qualities because of their freedom. She is being stripped of all gender markers due to the retreat into the tower. Tennyson explains the curse when he writes, “She has heard a whisper say, /A curse is on her if she stay/To look down to Camelot. /She knows not what the curse may be…”(lines 40-42). By allowing her to speak, Tennyson becomes the outside source of restraint. The curse is the catalyst for further retreat into her work and confinement.
The curse is put into effect as she speaks the words and Camelot turns into tempests “The curse is come upon me”(line 116). Her unnatural behavior causes the outside world to descend into turmoil just as she experiences in...