The Victorian period marked the first traces of progress in the feminist movement, and poet Christina Rossetti embraced the advancement as her own long-established principles slowly became publicly acceptable. Her poem 'Goblin Market' comments on the institutions in Victorian society that she and her feminist contemporaries wished to see altered, creating modern female heroines to carry out its messages. The goblins serve as malicious male figures to tempt the innocent heroines, sisters Laura and Lizzie, to corruption. According to the Victorian definition, a gentleman 'never takes unfair advantage... or insinuates evil which he dare not say out,' and possesses, among other qualities, the ability to avoid all suspicion and resentment (Lando w 4).
The goblins in Rossetti's poem succeed in contradicting every Victorian definition of a gentleman throughout the poem; the only male figures present, they represent the deleterious nature of men on the lives of women. In 'Goblin Market,' the men's' only beneficial purpose is 'impregnation. Once both sisters have gone to the goblins and acquired the juices of their fruits, they have no further need of them' (Mermin 291). The poem begins with the goblins calling the sisters' attention to their delicious, exotic fruits, which represent the proverbial forbidden fruit -- one taste leads to destruction.
But the goblins depict their fruits as enticing. Rossetti uses rich imagery such as 'Currants and gooseberries, / Bright-fire-like barberries, / Figs to fill your mouth, / Citrons from the South, / Sweet to tongue and sound to eye' (1) to stimulate the reader's senses, just as the goblins' calls provoke Laura and Lizzie. The goblins attempt to lure the sisters by cooing and purring, sounding sweet and inviting, and they constantly urge, 'Come buy, come buy' throughout the poem. They are not, however, as innocent as their countenances try to appear to the sisters.
Rossetti uses animalist ic images to dehumanize the goblins -- 'One had a cat's face, / One whisk'd a tail, / One tramp'd at a rat's pace, / One crawled like a snail' (2-3). They are not sensuous men, but deceptive creatures. Eventually the goblins succeed in stripping Laura of her restraint, and the diction shifts to 'give their strangeness a sinister and predatory quality' (Brownley 578): they are 'leering,' 'queer,' and 'sly' (Rossetti 3). When Laura relents to the temptation the goblins present, she has no money with which to pay them, so she pays with a lock of her golden hair. Reminiscent of Belinda's stolen lock in Pope's 'Rape of the Lock,' this possession of Laura's lock of hair represents a possession of her love, life, and sexual devotion. The goblins' receiving of Laura's golden curl signifies the beginning of her descent, because, through methods of deception and illusion, the male figures have prompted her 'feminine initiation into adult sexuality' (Brownley 577).
This exchange is symbolic of the unwelcome d domination of Victorian men over women, against which Rossetti appeals, establishing her poem as a 'biting mockery of male-dominated culture' (B elsey 1). Once Laura has tasted the fruit, the life begins to drain from her, and the goblin men's noxious effects become evident. Rossetti implies that Laura's demise was caused by, in addition to the trickery of the male figures, her own yield to temptation. Fear of desire was a near obsession in Victorian society; yielding was a sign of weakness, and Rossetti's poem mocks this obsession with its fairytale-like construction.
The Victorian people also viewed excessive sexuality in a negative light, associating it with the lower classes and tribal cultures. 'In the slums marriage was virtually unknown and... no form of vice or sexuality cause [d] surprise or attract [ed] attention... [This view] suggests transference of sins we fear in ourselves' (Wohl 1). When the sisters first encounter the goblins, Laura instructs, 'Lie close... We must not look at goblin men... Their offers should not charm us, / Their evil gifts would harm us' (Rossetti 2).
The sisters understand that, in accordance with their upbringing in Victorian society, they are to pay no attention to the lures of desire. So they huddle together, in search of the protection that they provide each other against committing sin, ' [w] it clasping arms and cautioning lips' (Rossetti 2). Destructive consequences arise from giving in to one's desire, and this is evident in Rossetti's depiction of Laura's demise. She cannot resist the goblins, and her initial response shows a hungry desperation for their fruits, representing a desire for the sexuality that they stand for -- ' [s] he never tasted such before, ... [s] he suck'd and suck'd and suck'd the more... [s] he suck'd until her lips were sore.
' Once she is through, she 'knew not was it night or day' (Rossetti 4). Laura has become un pure, causing her golden hair to turn gray, and her vitality to die away. Lizzie's response to her sister's delayed return home is one of dismay; she greets her by saying, 'Dear, you should not stay so late, / Twilight is not good for maidens' (Rossetti 4). She expects from Laura adherence to the Victorian code of behavior for women. Lizzie cites the example of her friend Jeanie, whose destruction was also caused by the goblins, indicating that Laura should not want to turn out like Jeanie -- 'no grass will grow / where she lies low; / [Lizzie] planted daisies there a year ago / That never blow' (Rossetti 5). Even nature has spurned those who cannot control their desires.
And now Laura's 'tree of life droop'd from the root' (Rossetti 8) when the goblins disappear, leaving her with a decaying spirit and a desperate dependence on their fruit. The Victorians would view this degradation as Laura's just desserts, theorizing that, singularly for women, 'the sexual ized imaginative world is infinitely attractive but sterile and destructive, and those who commit themselves to longing for it waste away in gloom and frustration, cut off from natural human life' (Mermin 288). This societal doctrine required upper-class ladies to remain virginal and pristine, turning them into possessions and consequently causing a repression of passions, a sentiment disputed by Rossetti in her allegorical work. Rossetti's feminist commentary on her society's male-dominated culture would not be complete without a feminine hero, or two. Rossetti recognized the lack of heroines in English literature; although female protagonists existed in small numbers, 'they [had] no outlet for heroic action. They [were] constrained by the gender-roles into which a male-dominated society has placed them' (Phillips 1).
Rossetti develops two heroines in Laura and Lizzie, to serve as a defiant smirk in the face of the evil male population represented by the goblins. Not only do her heroes overcome the explicitly male vices they encounter, but they do so while proving that sexual expression does not necessarily mean the end for a woman, and they do so with no help but each other's. In Rossetti's society, women are 'limited to observation, but [Rossetti's characters] still carr [y] on a woman-centered growth from innocence to experience' (Plowman 1). Lizzie, a typical heroine, begins the poem pure, and ends pure.
While her sister is drawn into the grasp of the goblin men, she runs, exhibiting a sign of cowardice forgivable in her society with its expectations of feminine vulnerability. Soon, however, she is to defy those expectations and behave like a hero. When Laura begins her decay, it sets up an opportunity for Lizzie's heroism -- she witnesses her sister's deterioration, and she grows anxious about her condition. 'Tender Lizzie could not bear / To watch her sister's cankerous care / Yet not to share... Long'd to buy fruit to comfort her, / But fear'd to pay too dear' (Rossetti 9). Lizzie's compassion for others -- an integral characteristic of any hero -- causes her to take action, and 'for the first time in her life/ [Lizzie] began to listen and look' (Rossetti 9).
The goblins attempt to draw her in; they 'huge'd her and kiss'd her: / Squeez'd and caress'd her' (Rossetti 10). But Lizzie has only one purpose, to help her sister. Strong in the face of temptation, she endures their taunts and eventual physical abuse, as they ' [h] eld her hands and squeeze'd their fruits/ [a] gains t her mouth to make her eat... [but o] ne may lead a horse to water, / [t] went cannot make him drink' (Rossetti 12). Lizzie shows the restraint that her sister lacked. Rossetti provides various images of her heroic strength in the face of wickedness, comparing her to a lily, a rock, a beacon, a 'fruit-crown'd orange-tree,' and a 'royal virgin town' (12). Once the offense ends, Lizzie 'knew not was it night or day' (Rossetti 13), but this disorientation is a result of her drained mental state due to her resistance, not a result of gratification, as it was in Laura's case.
As Lizzie runs from the goblin men, she fears they will follow her with more taunts, but none linger behind her. She feels vindicated as she hastens home to find her sister. Lizzie has faced precisely what caused Laura's demise, an ultimate lesson in self-sacrifice, as demonstrated in the following passage; she 'actively pursues temptation with the intention of conquering it' (Phillips 1). 'Laura,' ' our hero cries, in the speech to her sister explicating her sacrifice:' Did you miss me? Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises. Hug me, kiss me, suck my juicesSqueez'd from the goblin fruits for you, Goblin pulp and goblin dew. Eat me, drink me, love me; Laura, make much of me; For your sake I have braved the glen And had to do with goblin merchant men. ' Laura represents a different kind of hero; this one overcomes an obstacle to her purity during the course of the poem.
Both sisters are consistently described in terms of things golden and shining. Laura at the beginning of the poem resembles a jewel: pure, sparkling, and full of light; her head is 'golden,' her neck is 'gleaming,' she pays the goblins with a 'precious golden lock,' and she sheds a 'tear more rare than pearl' (Rossetti 4). Then the goblins slowly eat away at first her resolve, then her health. Rossetti shows Laura's new, distorted perception of the pure and impure when Laura uses the word 'gold' in reference to the forbidden fruit, after she has consumed it and speaks of it to her sister; this evil is the new jewel for Laura as her golden hair and her sparkle fade away. Ironically, Laura also refers to the juices as 'pure' (Rossetti 5), because her concept of right and wrong has been corrupted.
Laura plunges rapidly towards destruction, and is saved not by the gratification of her desires -- 'not because her fairy prince comes but because she ceases to want him' (Mermin 289); it is the very confrontation of her desires, and realization that she has a chance to be independent again, that cures her of her subordination. She cries, 'Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted / For my sake the fruit forbidden? / Must your light like mine be hidden, / Your young life like mine be wasted, / Undone in mine undoing, / And ruin'd in my ruin... ?' ' (Rossetti 14).
'Laura responds to something outside of herself,' (Brownley 578) overcoming the notion that her only source of pleasure and feelings of love could be the superficial love the goblins represent. Lizzie embodies a different type of love, as opposed to the physical, self-gratifying relationship Laura experiences with the goblins. Once Laura is cured, she finds ' [l] if out of death' (Rossetti 15), the near-death of her ability to love and enjoy a healthy, friendly, mutually gratifying relationship with another woman -- Lizzie. Years later, when both sisters have become mothers, their relationship still holds fast, and they tell of the goblins to their children as if it were a fairy-tale.
The sisters have always been like two halves of a whole, 'two pigeons in one nest... [like] two blossoms on one stem' (Rossetti 6), but they have proved the strength of a healthy, sisterly bond; the power of this woman-to-woman attachment is evident in Laura's words to her children: 'For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather; / To cheer one on the tedious way, / To fetch one if one goes astray, / To lift one if one totters down, / To strengthen whilst one stands' (Rossetti 16). Even a masculine figure, cunning and sly, could not permanently fragment the bond between the sisters -- they succeeded on their own. Their eventual marriage represents not the separation of the sisterly connection, but the 'separation of the parts of self into their appropriate tasks and operations within the larger integrity of sisterhood itself' (Weathers 273). 'Goblin Market' is the epitome of an allegorically feminist ic work, criticizing Victorian male-dominated culture while creating strong feminine heroes that prove the validity of Rossetti's criticism by embodying the feminist ic essence she is trying to portray.
Throughout the poem, resistance to the male figures is a part of a 'painful and strenuous quest that frees the heroine' (Mermin 292) from dependence on men and liberates her into a world of empowerment in which she can thrive.