Seeing Beyond the Mirror: A Lacanian Reading of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”

Anne Hill (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences)

Seeing Beyond the Mirror: A Lacanian Reading of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”

             Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott is the story of a woman’s fall from an elevated symbolic realm to the world of reality. While the story is typically read as a treatise on art and Platonic philosophy, it also bears a striking resemblance to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the child passing through the mirror stage. However, the Lady moves through this transformation backwards, passing from an Imaginary understanding of symbol and selfhood to Real experience and lack of identity. Initially, the Lady lives in a world of pure symbolism: she only views the world as it is reflected in her mirror, and creates an even more mediated version of it in her tapestry. This state strongly resembles the Imaginary phase which Lacan’s child enters after the mirror stage. Like the Lady, the child is held captive by symbolism and is unable to access the world of the Real. In a similar way, the Lady of Shalott is like the post-mirror stage child in her developed sense of self. Lacan posits that the mirror stage unifies the child’s scattered impressions, but also creates a new anxiety of being seen as an object: these factors catalyze a desire to differentiate the self from the surrounding world. Tennyson’s Lady enters the poem in this state. Living in a symbolic citadel of selfhood, she is forever unseen and therefore cannot be viewed as an object. However, the sexual libido counters the Lady’s desire to maintain this selfhood, and drives her out of her fortress and into the dangerous world of reality. Once she leaves her castle of selfhood, the Lady’s identity is destroyed both figuratively and literally, and she is ultimately viewed as a mere aesthetic object. Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott presents a reversal of the Lacanian mirror stage: while the Lady initially has a stable identity and views the world Imaginatively, the curse of seeing the unmediated Real shatters her symbolic world and turns her from a self to an object.

             To Lacan, the mirror stage is the phase of human development which inspires the formation of a stable sense of self, a dividing wall between the I and the Other. When a child is around the age of six months, it begins to see itself in a mirror and recognize the connection between its body and the reflection (644). Initially, the baby believes that there is another infant within the mirror, and tries to engage with it; however, the child eventually realizes that the mirror provides a likeness of itself (Gasparyan 11). Rather than losing interest in the mirror because the image within it is unreal, the child continues to be fascinated by the reflection and experiments to observe how the image changes in response to reality (Lacan 644). Before the mirror stage, the child does not distinguish between I and Other: it simply experiences a tumbled mass of stimuli which Lacan calls the Real. The Real is the world as it exist outside of the schemas which humans impose on it: “That which is foreign to Imaginary-Symbolic reality—this reality is the realm containing conscious apprehension, communicable significance, and the like —the Real is intrinsically elusive, resisting by nature capture in the comprehensibly meaningful formulations of concatenations of Imaginary-Symbolic signs” (Johnston 2.1.3). The Real is a unified whole unbroken by the lines of symbolic thought––hence, the self is not separated from the outside world. But when the infant sees itself in the mirror, it begins to draw distinctions between itself and its surroundings. On seeing its reflection, the baby also realizes that it can be observed as well as observer. While it is a subject to itself, it is an object to others. Hence, the child does more than recognize selfhood: it begins to desire to assert its identity and defend the lines between self and other (Gallop 123-124). Essentially, the mirror stage catalyzes “the assumption of the armor of an alienating identity” (Lacan 646).

          As the child moves out of the Real, it enters the Imaginary realm of symbolic thinking. By observing its body in the mirror, the infant learns that the reflection represents, but is not, its physical body (Lacan 644). This early recognition teaches the child to make sense of life through symbols rather than looking to the unintelligible Real, and prepares the way for language. Soon, this method of figurative thinking becomes inseparable from the child’s mind. The infant is no longer able to access the Real; instead, it sees the world through Imaginary symbols which break the unified but incomprehensible Real into intelligible bits. By gaining the ability to organize and understand life through symbolic thought, the child banishes itself from Reality.

             While many Lacanian concepts are applicable to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, the poem reverses Lacan’s trajectory. Rather than moving from Real to Imaginary-Symbolic, the Lady of Shalott enters the poem in a purely symbolic world. Initially, the Lady only views the world through the mirror behind her weaving: “And moving through a mirror clear / That hangs before her all the year, / Shadows of the world appear” (48). The Lady further distances herself from the real world by weaving the images she sees in the mirror, creating a symbol that is yet another step removed from reality. Lacan argues that the mirror image introduces children to figurative thinking; the Lady of Shalott exists in a state of complete symbolism. Isolated in a world of artistic symbol, the Lady of Shalott enters the poem in an exaggerated version of the mirror stage’s conclusion.

             Just as the Lady already lives in the Imaginary world which the child reaches after the mirror stage, she also possesses the fortified sense of self to which the mirror stage leads. Lacan suggests that the walled citadel serves as a symbol for the I (ego) which has differentiated itself from the surrounding world: “The formation of the I is symbolized in dreams by a fortress, or a stadium–its inner area and enclosure, surrounded by marshes and rubbish-tips, dividing it into two opposed fields of contest where the subject flounders in quest of the lofty, remote inner castle” (647). In The Lady of Shalott, this idea appears in the way the Lady is walled up within her island castle:

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle embowers

The Lady of Shalott. (15-18)

In the ultimate “assumption of the armor of an alienating identity,” the Lady of Shalott is completely removed and defended from the world (Lacan 646). The people who live around her island hear her, but never see her: and because she is not seen, she can never be viewed as an object (28-36). Rather than floundering through difficulties in attempts to gain a citadel of selfhood, the Lady of Shalott is already ensconced in it. She enters the poem as the final product of the mirror stage, a well-defined self.

             But while Lacan’s child moves into the world of defined selfhood, the Lady of Shalott falls out of it because of her sexuality. Lacan argues that the desire to create a fortress of selfhood is countered by sexuality, citing what he calls a “dynamic opposition between this libido [to establish selfhood] and the sexual libido” (647). While Lacan mentions the tension between selfhood and desire as a side-note to his discussion of the mirror stage, in Tennyson’s poem sexuality is the central force which drives the Lady from the Imaginative realm to the Real. Initially, the Lady is content to experience the world only through her mirror: “But in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights” (64-65). However, after seeing a pair of lovers, the Lady is no longer satisfied with her purely symbolic world:

“‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said / The Lady of Shalott” (71-72). When she sees the reflection of his armor in her mirror, the Lady immediately falls in love with Lancelot (Shannon 215). Her love then motivates her to leave the castle, giving up her established sense of selfhood in an attempt to find union with the other (Rowlinson 86). Love leads the Lady through a reverse mirror stage, a rejection of selfhood in favor of the Real.

          Just as this reverse mirror stage corrodes the Lady of Shalott’s established sense of self, it destroys her Imaginary world of symbol. When the light reflected from Lancelot’s amour tempts her to leave her weaving and look out the window, the mirror which has mitigated her view of the world shatters:

She saw the water lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror cracked from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott. (109-117)

             The Lady’s first glimpse of the Real world brings down a “curse,” and the signs that this curse has fallen are a broken mirror and torn weaving. Unable to see the world through the mirror any longer, the lady is forced to view the Real rather than Imaginary representations of it. In a similar way, the tapestry unravels when it frees itself from the loom (Poulson 179). The world of artistic symbolism which the Lady has made disintegrates, and is replaced by the harsh Reality which eventually kills her. Much as the Lacanian child is cast out of an almost Edenic innocence when it leaves the pre-symbolic world, the Lady of Shalott loses symbolism forever as soon as she glances at reality (Parker 23). While Tennyson’s heroine moves in the opposite direction from Lacan’s child, the curse of exile from a lost world remains the same.

            As the curse of seeing reality shatters the Lady’s symbols, it also destroys her selfhood. The Lady of Shalott lives in a castle which symbolizes her sense of identity; while she lives unseen in this fortress, she is able to be a subject without being an object. However, once she has seen the unmitigated world, the Lady leaves her citadel and floats down the river in a boat. As she moves towards Camelot, she slowly turns from a living woman to a dead body: “Till her blood was frozen slowly, / And her eyes were darkened wholly” (147-148). Leaving the castle is a symbolic departure from selfhood, and the death that creeps in as she moves further away from it makes this change literal. And as the Lady becomes less of a self, she becomes more of an object. Once protected from all sight, the Lady now is gawked at by a confused public: “Out upon the wharfs they came, / Knight and burgher, lord and dame, / And round the prow they read her name” (159-161). But the ultimate objectification comes when Lancelot, the cause of the Lady’s downfall, reduces her to an aesthetic body: “But Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, ‘She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace’” (167-170). Completely oblivious to the fact that the Lady has died because she loved him, Lancelot simply sees her as a beautiful thing (McKelvy 21). The castle enabled the Lady to be a self and a subject. Having left it, she completely loses her identity in death, and is degraded to an object.

        Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott reverses Lacan’s mirror stage, and leads its Lady from the Imaginary world to a terrifying Real. The Lady moves from stable identity to objectification and a loss of selfhood, and from pure symbol to unmitigated Reality. Through her dissatisfaction with “shadows,” the Lady certainly experiences the longing Lacan associates with the inaccessible Real–yet when she finally reaches this Real, it kills her. If the tragedy of the Lacanian drama comes from nostalgia for a lost connection to the Real, then why does the Lady of Shalott die when she leaves her world of shadows? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the fact that the Lady is herself a symbol, and cannot exist in the Real. The construction of an I slices away the uncomfortable mingling of self and other within the Real, and stitches fragmented impressions into a united whole. The Lady, like her art, is a symbolic reflection of reality, and as soon as she enters the Real the borders of her selfhood begin to dissolve. By deciding to look at the Real, the Lady of Shalott gives up her ability to be an I–and like her tapestry, she unravels into nothingness.

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