The Sacrificial Love of Women
Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, has been viewed as a children’s poem or an erotic adult fantasy, with the poem’s audience often determined less by Rossetti’s words and more by the illustrations accompanying them. John Bolton’s 1984 graphic novel depiction of Rossetti’s poem clarifies his audience as definitively adult.
Bolton’s graphic novel begins innocently with two young women collecting water, their loose hair swinging softly against their dresses (Rossetti Bolton 1). While golden hair was viewed as “the crowning glory of the mythologized Victorian grand woman,” red hair was often seen as a signifier of wantonness, which may explain Bolton’s choice of red hair for Laura rather than the gold Rossetti stipulates (Gitter 936). Laura is drawn looking longingly for the unseen goblins who urge maidens to purchase their wares (Rossetti Bolton1). The goblins are described as “little men” with the faces of “cats,” “ratels” and “wombats,” who “tramp” and “crawl,” “tumble” and “prowl” through the countryside (Rossetti 1652). Though Rossetti’s description of the goblins could be construed as whimsical, Bolton renders them malignant, with pointed faces, leering grins, and demoniacal eyes, intent on evil (Rossetti Bolton 2). Rossetti states the price for their goods is “a golden curl,” but Bolton portrays Laura with her hair completely shorn (Rossetti 1653; Rossetti Bolton 2). For Victorians long hair signified a woman’s “crowning glory” and her “marriageability,” while Laura’s cropped hair, a signifier of prostitution, visually illustrates her loss of “a tear more rare than pearl” (Gitter 936; Rossetti 1653).
Page three of Bolton’s novel portrays the two sisters lying innocently naked together but Laura’s addiction to the goblin wares soon makes sleep impossible. It becomes Laura’s lot to save her sister from “dwindl[ing],” and so she, “for the first time in her life / Began to listen and look” for the temptations the goblins offered (1657-8). While red-headed Laura failed to see her virginal worth, giving herself up to sexual pleasures with men, her golden-haired sister’s refusal to acquiesce to the goblins also has a price. Instead of a night of pleasure, Lizzie is subjected to heinous treatment as the goblins force themselves upon her. While Rossetti’s poem implies the goblins “bullied and besought” Lizzie, Bolton’s novel shows Lizzie’s clothes being torn from her body, signifying attempted gang rape (Rossetti 1659; Rossetti Bolton 6).
When Lizzie returns to her sister, Bolton’s representation of Laura’s lusty acceptance of her sister’s sacrifice is highly erotic, with the two women caught in each other’s arms, Laura’s protuberant tongue reaching for her sister’s breasts (8). The lesbian overture of the final four frames of the graphic novel question Rossetti’s meaning in the poem’s last five lines (8-9). Though there may be “no friend like a sister,” we might also wonderif there is no lover like a sister as the goblins are depicted as shadows departing from the sisters embracing in their bed, their breasts uncovered (Rossetti 1663). Bolton is perhaps implying both sisters have lost their maidenhood; one to men, the other to her sister (Rossetti Bolton 9).
What might have been a children’s tale is, according to Bolton’s portrayal, instead a tale of incestuous lesbianism. The pleasures offered by men in Rossetti’s poem, according to Bolton’s illustrations, appear heinous, while pleasures offered by women are sacrificial and life-giving.
Gitter, Elisabeth G. “The Power of Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” PMLA 99.5 (1984): 936-954. Print.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed.Volume 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 1650-1663. Print.
Rossetti, Christina. John Bolton, Ill. Carrie McCarthy, Let. Goblin Market. San Diego, CA: Pacific Comics, 1984. Print.