“Say That I Had a Lovely Face”: The Grimms’ “Rapunzel,” Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” and Atwood’s Lady Oracle

Shuli BarzilaiThe Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 2000), pp. 231-254.

This essay examines three works, the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” (1812), Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” (1832), and Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976), for the damsel-in-distress trope and the dual contexts in which the societal control of women and their bodies are predominate. The essay draws parallels between Lady Oracle’s female protagonist, Joan, the Lady of Shalott, and Rapunzel. They are all women trapped in a tower—sometimes a literal tower, sometimes a pseudo-tower in the form of a maternal figure, and sometimes both. The tower is a contradictory structure; it provides shelter and safety for the woman, but it also traps her and symbolically represents her societal domestic destiny. For Joan, her own body is also a tower. Her weight, heavier than society’s standards mandate acceptable for a woman, is a mode of defense against her mother and also rebellion against society. Her obesity has so far kept her safe from the perils of femininity, as she sees it. This essay examines imagery in both fairy tales and Victorian literature surrounding the “fallen woman” to explore how a woman can escape her tower without losing herself.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]