The Explicit and Hidden Messages of “Goblin Market” - By Nadia Stottlemyer
The Explicit and Hidden Messages of “Goblin Market”:
Hypocrisy in Victorian Gender Roles
Author: Nadia Stottlemyer
Instructor: Ellen Perry
Date: 14 April 2019
Christina Rossetti, a female writer in the Victorian era, was a person of battling natures. She defied many traditional gender roles, by “saying no--to marriage, [and] to motherhood” (Gill 43+). However, she was also a devoted, or perhaps even obsessed, Christian. Throughout her entire life, she practiced core Christian values such as self-restraint and self-sacrifice by saying no “to a room of her own, to friendship, to society, to travel, to dangerous books, to pleasure, it seems, even of the most tiny and innocuous kind” (Gill 43+). These sides of her were often pitted against one another; Victorian contemporaries wanted her to be less pious in life and in her writing, and others thought she ought to take a more traditionally feminine role as wife and mother, rather than as a spinster and writer. Although there is very little known about her childhood, some have theorized that she might have been sexually assaulted when she was growing up, resulting in her sudden withdrawal from the world (Gill 43+). Other important influences on her writing include her lifelong addiction to Laudanum (or opium dissolved in Alcohol), and her time spent volunteering at St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary, a home for “fallen” women who society had cast aside for having premarital sex (“Christina Rossetti”).
In Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” published in 1862, she tells a tale with layered meaning in the style of a simple, rhyming fable. It is the unnerving story of the consequences when a young woman, Laura, succumbs to the desire to taste the forbidden fruit sold by Goblin men at the witching hour. When Laura disregards the warnings of her sister Lizzie and tastes the otherworldly fruit sold by Goblin men, she becomes addicted to its sweet taste and is driven mad by desire when the Goblins refuse to sell to her again (Rossetti 543-545, 547-548). Laura begins to wither away, so her sister Lizzie braves the Goblin market in order to get the fruit to save Laura, and resists tasting it despite the Goblins’ forceful efforts (Rossetti 549-551). Laura consumes some of the juice from her sister’s lips and is reborn, transforming them both from old spinsters to joyful young mothers who tell the tale to their children (Rossetti 552-555). The most apparent moral in “Goblin Market” is that when women allow themselves to be seduced by men, their lives are destroyed. They become addicted to satisfying their desire for sex, they lose interest in the simple pleasures of household chores, and their chances at marriage and motherhood are destroyed. However, there are major contradictions to this moral reading throughout; such as the duality of the fruit as both poison and antidote, and the sense of freedom and joy Laura gets when she satisfies her desire for the fruit. In Christina Rossetti’s story “Goblin Market”, she creates a fable that both warns women against the dangers of giving into desire and allowing themselves to be seduced, and is an indirect criticism of and commentary on traditional Victorian gender norms.
As said before, the most apparent moral of “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti is that women should not succumb to desire and let themselves be seduced by men, or they will be destroyed by this desire. She illustrates this message in the story through the simplistic moral allegory style of the poem, and through the disastrous consequences that befall Jeanie and Laura. The poem uses central elements of a classic children’s fairytale, including: a simple A-B rhyming scheme, symbolic elements such as the fruit, or supernatural elements such as fairies. This style makes the reader look for a central moral, which is provided by the disastrous consequences Jeanie and Laura experience. In the poem, Jeanie is described as a young woman that Laura and Lizzie once knew, who embraced the pleasures offered by Goblin men. As a result, when the Goblins disappeared she was left to fade away, desperate for one more taste. Jeanie’s choice to taste the fruit leads to the loss of her ability to be a bride, her quick aging and even her death as illustrated in the lines:
She [Lizzie] thought of Jeanie in her grave,
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died (Rossetti 549).
These lines about Jeanie make a strong correlation between the fairy fruit and sex or desire, because they say that the joy Jeanie experienced is a joy “brides hope to have”, and it was an important social norm for women to wait until marriage to have sex in the Victorian era (Rossetti 549). Another example of these disastrous consequences is the ones Laura herself experiences. When Laura eats the fruit, she immediately becomes addicted to the sweet taste, saying: “I ate and ate my fill, Yet my mouth waters still” (Rossetti 545). When the sisters do their house-work, this no longer gives Laura pleasure like it used to because she is pinning away for another taste. Then, when she learns that the Goblins will never sell her fruit again, “Her tree of life drooped from the root” and she became bedridden and experienced “swift decay” (Rossetti 548). This line about Laura’s “tree of life” drooping may relate to both the loss of her own life and the ability to give life to others (fertility). These consequences warn female readers that if they have premarital sex: they will become addicted to it, lose interest in the simple pleasures of housework, and lose their ability to be wives and mothers.
The explicit moral of “Goblin Market” lines up well with Victorian gender norms of the time, since it celebrates and encourages domesticity and abstinence until marriage. The roles of wife and mother were essential to the image of the ideal Victorian woman. Women were expected to get married as soon as they came to age, start having kids and all the while spend many hours a day maintaining the house. Very few had jobs, and it was greatly discouraged for women to do anything other than follow the traditional path of becoming a wife and mother. There were also those who pushed back against these norms, however, and contemporaries insisted that women ought to have more power over their own lives and be able to pursue goals and success outside of the home. This conflict and confusion over what role women ought to have was called the “Woman Question”, and it persisted until the beginning of the early 20th century. The “Woman Question” became a widely discussed issue in the Victorian era, when extremely rapid technological change was spurring rapid social change, and there was a general uncertainty about the direction of the future. Although society in general was beginning to start the discussion of what place women should hold, it was still widely looked down upon for women to deviate from their traditional roles. One of the deviations with the greatest consequences was if a woman had premarital sex, or indeed any kind of intimacy before marriage. Women who were caught in this act could be rejected by society, cast out by their family, or even honor beaten or killed. The image of the ideal Victorian woman was as an "Angel in the House": pious, innocent, moralistic, sweet, submissive, and takes pleasure from these roles and her house-work. However, there is an inherent hypocrisy in Victorian gender norms, because while chasteness and innocence are idealized in women, they are fetishized by men. This creates a culture where men want to take women’s virginities and women are punished for it.
In the “Goblin Market”, Rossetti illustrates these hypocrisies subtly throughout: first by illustrating the ideals, then illustrating the way they are fetishized, and then finally illustrating how women can be destroyed for not following these ideals. Rossetti illustrates the ideal of the “Angel in the House” who exist only in the domestic sphere when she describes Lizzie and Laura completing their daily tasks:
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy;
Laura rose with Lizzie;
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed,
Talked as modest maidens should
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight,
One longing for the night (546).
The comparison of Lizzie and Laura to bees creates the idea that they do housework because it is an instinct, it is part of their nature. The sense of ease with which Lizzie and Laura are shown completing these tasks, with no mention of how long it takes to do them or how difficult they might be, also creates the idea that it is natural for them to do housework. The line “one warbling for the mere bright day’s delight” shows that the girls were happy to do their chores, and the use of should in the line “talked as modest maidens should” shows that the girls are doing what is expected of them by happily completing their chores. Through this description of Lizzie and Laura, Rossetti illustrates society’s beliefs that women ought to do housework, it is in their nature to do housework, and they enjoy doing housework.
Rossetti also depicts the fetishization of idealized traits in women, including innocence and weakness.
The fetishization of innocence is shown in her description of Lizzie and Laura’s intimacy, for example, when they are tangled in each other’s embrace whilst sleeping (Rossetti 545-546). The sisters sleeping together is seen as alluring because while they are intimate, they are ignorant of sexual intimacy. Whoever engages in sexual intimacy with these women would be the first, and therefore could not be compared to any other partners. In Rossetti’s lines on Laura when she is curiously watching the Goblins, she extensively describes the beauty of Laura’s “gleaming neck” as she stretches it out to look (Rossetti 543). These odd and unsettling lines describe the beauty of Laura’s weakness and vulnerability. She is delicate, she is beautiful, and she is putting herself in danger by leaving the house and going into the world all alone. However, the lines are not framed from the perspective of worrying for Laura, but rather just admiring how beautiful she is when she’s vulnerable. Through the chilling perspective that innocence and weakness are alluring, Rossetti illustrates that Victorian gender roles are problematic because they encourage rape culture, and yet severely punishing women for losing their virginity. Men are taught to lust after and want to take the innocence of women, and women suffer the consequences.
Not only did Rossetti indirectly criticize the hypocrisy of traditional Victorian gender roles, she also indirectly suggested that desire is not necessarily a bad thing, and encouraged women to support and protect one another. Rossetti shows desire as something that is neither good nor evil by making the Goblin fruit that symbolizes desire be both a poison and antidote. According to author Simon Humphries, Rossetti leaves the true nature of the fruit uncertain by giving it a “double power”, because even “the bread and wine [of Communion]... can have the power sometimes to bring life, [and] sometimes to bring death” (391-413, 447). Rossetti is saying that people can never be sure that anything in the world is either good or evil, harmful or helpful, because the consequences of any action will depend on their intent and whether or not you are worthy in the eyes of God (Humphries 391-413, 447). In this way, Rossetti argues that desire is not a sin that women should avoid, so long as that desire is tempered with unselfish intentions. The fruit becomes an antidote only when Lizzie uses it to save Laura, and when Laura kisses Lizzie and tastes the juice out of grief for her sister rather than selfishness. Not only does Rossetti leave the true nature of desire ambiguous, but she also describes the moment of satisfying desire as freeing and joyful for Laura. Laura “beat[s] her breast” when she receives the fiery antidote, and her hair is said to have:
...streamed like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light,
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run (Rossetti 553).
The use of these similes give the reader the sense that Laura has been freed by becoming worthy of the fruit she desires. This description of Laura demonstrates the freedom, power and even wildness that this spiritual salvation gives her, all characteristics that are not typically encouraged in women. Rossetti chooses to tell this particular story in order to explore the idea that spirituality can be empowering for women. Also, Rossetti uses generally erotic language to symbolize a spiritual salvation; phrases like “eat me, drink me, love me”, “kiss me”, and “hungry mouth” (552). These phrases illustrate that “Lizzie functions clearly as a Christ figure in her willing sacrifice of herself as an innocent victim for the sake of her sister… [L]ike Christ, she pays the price of Laura's redemption through her own body” (Hill 455-472, 513). Lastly, Rossetti wraps up “Goblin Market” with a message to women, as told by the sisters to their little children: “there is no friend like a sister”, if women rely on one another for companionship and protection, they will never go astray (554).
Christina Rossetti’s story “Goblin Market” has an explicit moral adhering to traditional Victorian gender roles, and yet also indirectly criticizes and comments on those same gender roles. Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” is about the disastrous consequences that befall young Laura when she succumbs to her temptation to taste the fruit sold by Goblins at the witching hour. However, she is saved from a slow death by her sister Lizzie’s selfless sacrifice, withstanding the tricks and torment of the Goblins in order to bring Laura the life-saving fruit juice (Rossetti 542-554). The central moral of the story, illustrated by the allegorical style and disastrous consequences, is that women should not succumb to desire or allow themselves to be seduced by men. However, Rossetti also makes an indirect criticism of the hypocrisy in Victorian gender roles; she points out that while innocence and piety are idealized in women, innocence and weakness are fetishized by men, leading to a culture of rape. She draws attention to the hypocrisy in having different standards for men and women, and in destroying the lives of women for intimacy that they may not have asked for. Finally, Rossetti includes other commentary on Victorian gender roles, she asserts that: desire is not inherently bad, women can be empowered through spiritual revelation, and that women should support one another. The complexity of “Goblin Market” reflect both the battling elements of Victorian culture and of Christina Rossetti; in the Victorian era the traditional and modern clashed, and much like today, the future was uncertain.
“Christina Rossetti.” Poetry Foundation, 2019, https://www.poertryfoundation.org/poets/christina-rossetti. Accessed 12 April 2019.
Gill, Gillian C. "Christina Rossetti: A Biography." The Women's Review of Books, July 1994, p. 43+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.lrc-proxy.abtech.edu/apps/doc/A15621391/LitRC?u=nclive&sid=LitRC&xid=8c908828. Accessed 12 Apr. 2019.
Hill, Marylu. ""Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me": Eucharist and the Erotic Body in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry, vol. 43, no. 4, 2005, pp. 455-472,513. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/223525698?accountid=8387. Accessed 13 Apr. 2019
Humphries, Simon. "The Uncertainty of Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry, vol. 45, no. 4, 2007, pp. 391-413,447. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/223517756?accountid=8387. Accessed 13 Apr. 2019
Rossetti, Christina. "Goblin Market." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, vol. E, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 542-555.