(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The theme of Tirra Lirra by the River, the woman artist’s search for self within the constraints of the traditional female role, is connected to Jessica Anderson’s use of imagery from Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot.” Tennyson’s main character is a weaver, as Nora is an embroiderer. Nora is as much an outsider in her hometown on the Brisbane river as the Lady in her island tower. Nora, too, sees the world through the reflection in a mirror, the mirror of books, and yearns for Camelot, some larger life away from the constraints of post-World War I suburbia. Her incomplete childhood memory of “the nod of a plume” also conjures up the image of a Lancelot. Nora, however, does not heed the poem’s warning: that following Lancelot’s song would mean her death and that even the mythical Camelot offered no equitable place for women.

Nora’s physical and mental journeys echo the quests undertaken by medieval knights. As she travels from Brisbane to Sydney, then to London, and back to Brisbane, she takes many wrong turns and faces many dangerous trials. Her difficulties stem from the fact that her life choices are limited by the traditional female role, a role to which she generally submits passively. Also, her decisions are often made without any understanding of herself or the world, just as the Lady, unaware of the consequences of the curse, rushes to the window at the sound of Lancelot’s song. That look at the world results in her death.

Nora’s journey toward spiritual death begins with her marriage. She first looks at her husband as her knight in shining armor, but she soon learns the repressiveness of the female role in patriarchal marriage, with its traditions of legal,...

(The entire section is 708 words.)