The Dictation of Genre: Respective Failures and Successes of Communication in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”
Both Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” involve women artists as their main characters—The Lady of Shalott weaves artful, colorful webs and the narrator in “The Bloody Chamber” is a talented pianist—making them prime candidates for comparison. In Tennyson’s poem, communication breaks down between reality and art, as manifested in the mediation of the Lady’s mirror. In Carter’s story, there seems to be a more exclusive relationship between reality and art, as manifested in the blind piano-tuner who eventually becomes the narrator’s savior. The shift in art’s relationship with reality, in communication breakdown to the success of communication, in these two pieces reflects the differing attitudes of Victorian and Postmodernist writers to language and communication.
In Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” the Lady knows that she is cursed and must not “look down to Camelot” (41), but “she knows not what the curse may be” (42). That is, the Lady is not sure of what, exactly, the curse entails and therefore witnesses the city’s events through a mediated source—a mirror—and is never fully able to witness reality. The Lady abides by the curses vague bylaws, avoids looking directly at the scene below her window, and weaves her webs by watching scenes unfold through the mirror. Communication breaks down here between the Lady of Shalott and reality; her work only represents “shadows” of reality (48). The mirror through which the Lady glimpses life and reality robs the events and people she sees of their authenticity and tangibility, leaving the Lady with mere silhouettes, fabrications of the real world.
This form of pseudo-reality leaves the Lady disgruntled and unsatisfied, to the point where she says: “‘I am half-sick of shadows’” (71). The Lady of Shalott realizes this breakdown in communication and grows tired of her false reality, yearning for the actual picture of life that is opened outside her window. The Lady is the ultimate Victorian figure, sequestered to her lonely tower, completely unattainable and tragically curse to never fully glimpse the life that thrive around her. She is the epitome of the Victorian woman, and her artwork, which necessitates communication breakdown, is the epitome of Victorian art.
If the Lady is supposed to represent the artist, we see how mediated reality affects works of art. The “web” that the Lady “weaves” (64-5-65) is the result of her labors, but is not the whole of her art. The mirror plays an especially important role in the relay of object to subject, of reality to art. That is, the mirror—the inherent source of communication breakdown—is an integral part of an artist’s work. In terms of the Victorian artist, this communication breakdown is necessary in order to allow for the presence of the audience or viewer. The very nature of art is the mediation of reality; that is, art is art because it is not reality, but rather a representation of it. Art is the subject, not the object. There is room for and even a requirement of interpretation. The audience becomes the most important aspect of an art piece because it reconciles this break down of communication. When one examines a piece of art, something is mended—the artwork is granted its essence because a viewer projects meaning or significance. To say that artwork is inherently meaningful negates the position of the viewer. That is, art necessitates the viewer to reconcile the communication breakdown that occurs between reality and representation because it cannot do that in and of itself. Victorian art begs the question, If a tree falls in the middle of the woods with nobody around, will it make a sound? According to the Lady’s artwork and the communication breakdown that occurs which, in turn, necessitates a viewer, the answer to the above question would be, No.
This relationship between art and its audience then leads one to reconsider the relationship of the Lady of Shalott to her own artwork—her webs—and what role communication breakdown plays in her, as well as the Victorian artist’s, fate. The Lady is her only audience, making the cycle of reality, mediation, art, and audience internal and self-sufficient. There is no room for interpretation because the only audience to the artwork is its very creator. In this sense, the Lady of Shalott’s artwork fails because it does not successfully mediate the necessary communication breakdown on which art relies; that is, the audience has no agency because the artwork’s only audience, in this case, is the artist, herself.
Once the Lady of Shalott breaks the rule of mediation, however, the curse of mortality falls upon her and she eventually dies, though it is only then that her artwork leaves the unyielding loom behind, freed from predetermination and eligible to be interpreted fully through the formerly-absent communication breakdown. As the Lady of Shalott spies Lancelot moving through her mirror, she leaves the web and the loom behind to look out the window and glimpse reality. In doing so, the Lady upsets her loom and artwork: “out flew the web and floated wide; / the mirror cracked from side to side” (114-115). In disobeying the mandates of her curse, the constraints of her artwork, the Lady unconsciously frees her art, letting it “fly” and “float wide.” Furthermore, the mirror—the source of mediation—cracks and is destroyed because there is no longer a need for such mediation. The Lady is no longer bound to her art and her webs are free for interpretation; they are no longer objects but subjects and have transformed into true art because, finally, they allow for the communication breakdown to facilitate subjectivity and interpretation. Not until the webs were freed from their creator—until they became subjects to a breakdown of communication—could they fully realize their actual potential as art.
The utility and status of communication in “The Bloody Chamber” is very different from the communication breakdown that occurs in “The Lady of Shalott,” though it maintains the same sort of strident adherence to its genre’s—the postmodern—bylaws. In Carter’s short story, the art of the narrator, a talented pianist, communicates clearly and efficiently to her future lover, a blind piano tuner. While the piano tuner’s disability should limit the power and agency of art, making communication near impossible and, therefore, incurring a communication breakdown, the power of the narrator’s art makes communication possible, even unstoppable.
In the house of her new husband, the young, na?ve narrator of “The Bloody Chamber” sits down to play at her very own piano to find that “only a series of subtle discords flowed from beneath [her] fingers” (16). The narrator continues, asserting that the piano is “only a little out of tune,” but that she had “been blessed with a perfect ear and could not bear to play anymore” (16). Whereas the Lady of Shalott toils away in her tower, limited by and obedient to the curse that constricts both her and her art and, consequently, tailoring her art to reality, Carter’s narrator tailors reality to her art, making successful communication possible.
By insisting on hiring a piano tuner, though “sea breezes are bad for pianos” (16), the narrator tailors reality to her art and, consequently, encounters her future lover, the piano tuner, who eventually serves as an example of how successful communication through art can be. After hearing the narrator play, Jean-Yves, the blind piano tuner, falls in love with her art and with her. We know that Carter’s narrator is a young, na?ve virgin and that her heart is playful, but pure. Her art successfully communicates her virtue to the piano tuner, and there is not a communication breakdown that occurs, but rather a direct transfer of meaning from the artist to the audience. The communication breakdown in “The Lady of Shalott” was necessary because of the artistic medium—webs or weavings—and the ideals of Victorian literature: unobtainable objectives and external inspirations. The success of communication in “The Bloody Chamber” is partially contributed to the art form—music—but also to the ideals of postmodernist literature: that, when taken at face value, art is perhaps the only true form of communication because it defies all laws of traditional values.
After Carter’s narrator has witnessed the brutality of her new husband, she returns to her place of solace—her piano room—where Jean-Yves eavesdrops on her playing. He tells the narrator of his love for her art, flattering her: “When I heard you play this afternoon, I thought I’d never heard such a touch. Such technique. A treat for me, to hear a virtuoso!” (32). He knows that she is distraught after finding the bloody chamber and “some intuition [tells him that the narrator] could not sleep and might, perhaps, pass the insomniac hours at [her] piano” (31). In a time of confusion and unrest, Jean-Yves assumes that the narrator will resort to the clarity and efficiency of her art because the certainty and security it provides is enticing. The narrator’s art communicates clearly and fluently the intentions and attitudes of the artist. It is not a mere reflection of reality, as it is in the webs of “The Lady of Shalott,” but rather the creation of reality. Art has far more agency and effectiveness in communication in postmodernist literature, as seen in “The Bloody Chamber,” than it does in Victorian literature.
In both texts, however, the art and resulting forms of communication, or lack thereof, are not intended for a specific audience. Both the Lady of Shalott and Carter’s narrator perform their artistic tasks for themselves, yet the artwork Carter’s narrator manages to communication successfully, albeit unintentionally, to her audience—her true love. As her murderous husband prepares to decapitate her, Jean-Yves stands by the narrator, knowing he can do nothing to save her, but willing to risk his life for her. Their link is the earnest, successful communication that developed from the narrator’s artwork.
The successfulness of communication is plainly manifested in the fates of the two women. The Lady of Shalott, her artwork suffering from a cycle of disrupted and incomplete communication breakdown, dies in a boat that is slowly floating toward the man she loves. The narrator of “The Bloody Chamber,” however, survives her murderous husband by means of the successful nature of her communication. She unknowingly but effectively uses her artwork—her music—to connect with Jean-Yves, who ends of being her lifelong lover and husband. The fates of these two women are undeniably tied to their art and the effectiveness of the communication that stems from such artwork.
Communication’s shift from breakdown to success is paramount in elucidating the shift in the perception of artwork from Victorian views to postmodern views. That is, “The Lady of Shalott” showcases the communication breakdown between reality and art because Victorian artwork is based in subjectivity, thus necessitating a communication breakdown, where the audience is in a position of power and utility. In “The Bloody Chamber,” a postmodern text, art clearly communicates emotion and circumstance, making the communication between reality and art far more immediate and successful. While Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” involve two different representations of communication via artwork, they are both representative of their respective literary genres—Victorianism and postmodernism—and serve as effective examples of the evolution of communicative methods and tendencies throughout literature.
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