SENSUALITY IN “GOBLIN MARKET” CHALLENGES VICTORIAN IDEALS
While read as a children’s story throughout the nineteenth century, it seems impossible to read Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and not stop and ask yourself what is actually happening between sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and these oddly charming, yet dangerous goblin men. This poem is full of magical realism – Laura and Lizzie are living among goblin men who sell fruit “like honey to the throat but poison in the blood,” yet intentionally, or unintentionally, Rossetti continuously refers to women’s sensuality, using sexualized language and imagery that bring about very realistic questions of desire, temptation, sacrifice, redemption, and even, some critiques say, lesbianism (Rossetti 1662)? A window to alternate interpretations, this poem challenges patriarchal, societal norms for women during the Victorian era. With the help of this recurring theme of sensuality, “Goblin Market” acknowledges the danger of desire for a Victorian woman, the fall from purity, and, in this case, progressively, the redemption and rise of woman with the help of woman.
Throughout the poem, there are recurring references to “lips, cheeks, and breasts,” as well as verbs “to hug, kiss, squeeze, and suck” (Flygare). Many of these highly sexualized references occur when Laura is eating fruit as well as between the sisters, emphasizing women’s sensuality.
The poem begins with the goblins crying, “Come buy our orchard fruits, Come buy, come buy” (Rossetti 1650). Though the reader doesn’t really understand why, the way the girls speak when the goblins come informs the reader that these sisters innately know that they aren’t supposed to eat the goblins’ fruit. Right away, it is conveyed that the goblin men are not trusted, since Laura says,
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots? (Rossetti 1652)
Rossetti uses sensual language in describing their fruits, emphasizing this almost unnatural appeal to them. For example, the cherries are described as “plump unpecked cherries,” pomegranates as “pomegranates full and fine,” and peaches as “bloom-down-cheeked peaches” (Rossetti 1650-1651). Lizzie says, “Their evil gifts [fruits] will harm us” (Rossetti 1652). These fruits are “fruit forbidden” and within them, represent temptation and desire for these maidens (Rossetti 1661).
Soon after, Lizzie runs home. Laura chose to linger and her desire for the fruit overcomes her. She decides that the goblins sound “kind and full of loves” (Rossetti 1652). However, the poet describes the goblin men as “brother with sly brother,” portraying them as devious and dangerous (Rossetti 1653). When Laura tells the goblins that she has no “coin” to buy their fruit, they tell her she can pay in hair (Rossetti 1653). Laura gives up a piece of her hair in exchange to “suck their fruit globes fair or red” (Rossetti 1653). It can be inferred that the goblin men seduce her with their dishonest charm into eating their ripe fruits. Even further, this event could represent that Laura’s lust is too strong, that she has given into her desire, and she has given her virginity to the goblin men, “[dropping] a tear more rare than a pearl” as she does (Rossetti 1653). When Laura is finished indulging, the poet describes her as not knowing “was it night or day,” which could represent an ecstasy-like, or orgasmic state (Rossetti 1654).
Sally Mitchell, author of The Fallen Angel, says that for a Victorian woman, “‘virtue’ and ‘physical chastity’ were interchangeable terms” (Mitchell x). Therefore, being a poem from the Victorian era, it can be inferred that after giving the goblin men her hair in exchange for fruit, Laura becomes this “goblin-ridden,” fallen woman (Rossetti 1661). This makes sense considering in the days to come, Laura can no longer see or hear the goblins, and “she dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn to swift decay” (Rossetti 1657).
The difference between many Victorian, fallen women and Laura is the fact that Laura is redeemed in the end by another woman, her sister. This ending makes Rossetti’s poem progressive for its era.
When Laura returns home from the goblin men, the poet describes Lizzie and her in bed together as “folded in each other’s wings (arms),” and “cheek to cheek and breast to breast” (Rossetti 1655). While some critiques see lesbianism occurring, it can also be inferred that women’s love is strengthening and healing.
In the end, Lizzie can’t stand seeing Laura suffering and stands up to the goblins and even tricks them by getting enough of the goblins’ fruit juice to save her. However, Rossetti’s sensual language and imagery lend readers a different interpretation. It seems that Lizzie sacrifices her body to the goblins, as they physically abuse her. While rape is not explicitly mentioned, they do hold her hands back, tear her dress, and “squeeze their fruits against her mouth” (Rossetti 1659). When the goblin men are tired of Lizzie, Lizzie runs home with goblin fruit juice all over her, and yells for Laura to “suck her juices, eat her, drink her, love her, and to make much of her” (Rossetti 1661). When Laura sucks the juices from Lizzie’s body “with a hungry mouth,” the juice works as an antidote and she goes through a painful healing process (Rossetti 1661). This portrayal represents that it is really Lizzie’s sacrifice and love for her sister that works to redeem Laura’s fallen purity.
The poem ends with a message from Laura about the importance of sisterhood:
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or story 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 1663)
Without this recurrence of sensuality, it would be easy to read this poem for exactly what Laura says at the end. And, while Laura’s message is part of the greater message, all of Rossetti’s sensual language and imagery presses a deeper idea from the poem. It seems that Rossetti is challenging the patriarchal, Victorian society by emphasizing the taboo, but completely natural sexuality of women. Rossetti also portrays this progressive idea: that women may redeem each other or “fetch one [another] if one goes astray” if they only choose to (Rossetti 1663).
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch & Kevin J.H. Dettmar. 5th Ed. Vol. 2A. New York: Longman, 2012. 1650-63. Print.
Mitchell, Sally. The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women’s Reading 1835-1880. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981. Print.
Flygare, Julie. “Intertwining themes in ‘Goblin Market’”. The Victorian Web. Brown University, 2004. Web. 3 December 2015.
Image source: George Gershinowitz, “She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.” n.d. Web. 5 December 2015. http://hubpages.com/literature/Temptation-Redemption-and-Sisterhood-in-Rossettis-Goblin-Market-Pt-2