The Lady of Shalott and The Lady in the Looking Glass

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote “The Lady of Shalott” around 1830, during what is  known as the Victorian Age. Virginia Woolf published “The Lady in the Looking  Glass: A Reflection” in 1929, during what is referred to as the Modernist Age.  These works of art both deal with women who have important relationships with  mirrors. The light in these stories has a great and different effect and meaning  for each of these women. The importance and meaning of light are contrasted in  these two tales, representing a change in writer’s attitudes toward light  portrayal.

In Tennyson’s poem, the woman known as The Lady of Shalott, has been placed  in a tower and told if she ever looks directly onto Camelot, she will be cursed.  “A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot”(lines 40-41). She  relies upon a mirror to reflect to her what happens outside her tower. Light is  very important to her, as without the light there can be no reflections. It is  through the use of this mirror that she glimpses Lancelot riding by, in the  sunlight, “His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;”(line 100). She falls in  love with him, and watches him ride away causing her eye to wander from the  mirror to the road and on to Camelot. The light, which beforehand had allowed  her glimpses of the world, is her undoing and the curse is upon her. Up until  the point when the Lady decided to look toward Camelot, the light had been a  positive aspect in her life.

The light was most often friendly for The Lady of Shalott, but it does not  prove to be friendly to Isabella Tyson, the main character in Woolf’s “The Lady  in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection.” After returning from the garden, “At once  the looking-glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her; that  seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and to leave  only the truth”(2456). In this story, the light is not a good thing. The light  is too harsh and too bright, burning away all façade of Isabella and showing her  to be a hollow woman. The light is a negative aspect of her life.

It seems that between the Victorian Age and The Modernist Age, the use and  meaning of light in writing changed completely from being positive and helpful  to being harsh and unwelcome.