Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" translates as an allegory for Christian redemption; however, based on biographical readings, the poem seems to challenge the patriarchal perception of women within Victorian culture in terms of sexuality. Yet, many critics believe that the poem reads as a simple fairy tale for children, which very well maybe so, therefore, "Goblin Market" presents feminine sexuality through the pretext of child's fairy tale.
"Goblin Market" follows two young sisters, Laura and Lizzie, as they led into temptation by the tender fruits of the goblin merchants. At first glance, the poem interpreted as a Christian allegory, a retelling of the original sin. In this "retelling," Laura falling to temptation of the goblin men's fruit sounds familiar to the story of Eve giving into temptation of eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, while Lizzie represents "a symbol of the Christ who willingly undergoes suffering to redeem a sinner" (Brownley 183). Although this reading seems acceptable, the sexual suggestions that are scattered throughout the poem seem to have no place within a Christian allegory, though the poem's sexual nature does support the idea that "Goblin Market" was an outlet for Rossetti to speak of the role of women in the Victorian society.
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The poem opens with a detailed description of tempting fruits, which haunt the girls "morning and evening" (Rossetti lines 1-2). The tender fruits seem to be descriptive of Victorian greed and sexuality while both Laura and Lizzie represent the female role in society. For instance, the first stanza expresses the first signs of sexual suggestions as the goblin men express the fruit as mouth water and desirable, while using sexual descriptions of temptation that appeals to the sense in order to tempt the two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, into buying their fruit. In her book, Love and Sensuality in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Martine Brownley maintains that, "the description of Laura's eating the fruit adds the final touches to an experience which has as background sensuality, animalism, and sacrifice of personal essence" (180). In making this comment, Browley urges the readers to feel the frantic pleasure of the lines that describes Laura eating the fruit: "She sucked and sucked and sucked the more/ Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; / She sucked until her lips were sore" (Rossetti 34-36). Laura's fruitful meal exhibits a celebration of pleasure, so much that she appears intoxicated after her meal when the poem states, "And knew nor was it night or day/ As she turned home alone" (Lines 139-140). Brownley states that Laura's meal "results in slight physical discomfort, which suggests harmful overindulgence" (180). Moreover, the goblin men who sale the forbidden fruits also exhibit sexuality while representing everyday men tempting pure women into becoming fallen women; just like the devilish snake mentioned in the Bible. The way the goblin men use sensual descriptions of their fruits represents men's trickery in getting women into sexual situations and Laura express the importance of not falling for such tricks to her sister, Lizzie: "[w]e must not look at goblin men,/ We must not buy their fruits" (Rossetti 42-43). Laura's warning suggests the common thought that women should not engage in sexual activity before marriage; as far as the reader knows, neither Lizzie, nor Laura are married.
During Victorian culture, women played the part of the passionless angles in the house that seen as "too pure and sacred to share in the disgusting lusts that afflicted men" (Armstrong 6). Hence, Victorian society commonly believed that women of lower classes fell to prostitution for lack of money, while prostitution is a means of making a living in society, in which employment and education is limited. Prostitution helped feed families as well as their desire for material possessions as this profession quickly became one of the highest paying professions for women. Laura's fall in "The Goblin Market" is descriptive of a woman falling prey to prostitution as a means to provide herself with goods: "[s]he clipped a precious golden lock, / She dropped a tear more rare than pearl, / Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red" (Rossetti #). The proceeding lines detail the utter longing Laura has for these fruits that she cannot afford and she is being taunted by them daily until finally she is given the option to sell a piece of herself in exchange for the fruit. While the goblins encourage her to sell herself, they immediately shun her for doing so and leave her to die. The story of Jeanie in the poem signifies the consequences of falling into temptation. Lizzie describes the tragedy of Jeanie when she states:
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more but dwindled and grew grey;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low:
I planted daisies there a year ago
That never blow. (Rossetti 154-161)
The fact that no grass or daisies will grow creates significance in these lines. Brownley points out that, "to the Victorian reader, daisies stood for innocence" (179). Therefore, the daisies that do not grow on Jeanie's grave shows to the reader that involvement in sexual activity demolished Jeanie's innocence. No longer can Jeanie and Laura be innocent girls with a chance of becoming respected women. The ill treatment by the goblins is suggestive of that inflicted upon prostitutes by society who celebrated and encouraged the growth of material wealth, yet damned the fallen female for falling prey to such means of self-employment. Thankfully, for Laura, Lizzie offers herself to her sister in a non-sexual advancement and her sacrifice is similar to Christ's redemption of humanity's sins or as illustrating the power of sisterhood in a secular or feminist sense.
The link between spiritual redemption and social reformation was clearly evident at the St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate, a refuge for fallen women, where Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 (Marsh 238). Her work with these women said to have been a major influence in her writing of "Goblin Market." Lizzie's role as the sacrificing sister encouraged sisterhood amongst women in an age of female repression, much like Rossetti's role at the house of charity. Although Victorian society disapproved of prostitution, they regarded women as possessions and in turn kept their roles and education limited. Laura's redemption at the end of the poem is a reminder to all fallen women that they are still "sisters" and their fall to temptation is by no fault of their own, but rather through the encouragement of society. In the end, both sisters are married with children and are equipped with the knowledge by which to prevent the fall of another woman.
"Goblin Market" can be view as a child's story warning against falling into temptation, which explains how a Victorian writer, such as Rossetti, would have such sexual suggestions in her poem and since the poem read in either way, the sexual suggestions have a deeper meaning. While the poem read as a fairy tale, the sexual references jump out at the readers and force him/her to examine what the author is conveying. Lorraine Kooistra points out that, "'Goblin Market' is not only a cross-audience poem; it also dramatically enacts the cliché that good children's literature has no age restrictions, whereas some adult literature is accessible only to mature readers" (182). Some readers may comment that "Goblin Market" reads as a fairy tale meant for children, and, therefore, the sexual references are overly examined and not intentional. In reality, the poem does exhibit common fairy tale form while expressing morals and themes to children and adults in extreme measures like so many other fairy tales. Take "Red Robin Hood" for example, the story clearly tells children not to go wonder off alone or they will end up in the woods eaten by a wolf. The story conveys a theme through extremes in order to ratify fear in children. Rossetti presents the same ideals in her fairy tale, as she expresses to young women the common fear of consequences to becoming a fallen woman.
Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" uses descriptive language and allegory of Christian redemption in the pretext of a fairy tale in order to captivate readers, while challenging the patriarchal perception of women within Victorian culture in terms of sexuality and with an extreme theme like feminine sexuality; the poem would not be as powerful without its exhibit of sexual references. However, Rossetti wrote the poem as fairy tale in order to present the fear of partaking in feminine sexuality and reminding all fallen angels that they are still "sisters" and their fall to temptation is by no fault of their own, but rather through the encouragement of society.
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