The Fallen Woman and the Virginal Angel: Challenging gender constraints in Goblin Market
In consequence of the poem’s overwhelming sensual imagery combined with biblical allusions, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, which describes the plight of sisters Laura and Lizzie after they are tempted by the fruit of goblin men, has often been interpreted as a cautionary tale, warning young Victorian women against the dangers of temptation while reminding them of redemption through sisterly love. However, while both of these themes are prominent, many feminist ideas lie beneath the surface. Through biblical allusions to the stories of Eve and forbidden fruit and the use of the gothic double, Rossetti not only creates themes of sin and redemption, but also challenges the gender constraints of the Victorian era.
The poem begins with the theme of temptation as the goblins cry out to maids, enticing them to eat their luscious fruits. Although Laura is fascinated, she is scolded by Lizzie who reminds her of the possible danger the fruits possess. Just as God forbid the consumption of fruit from the tree of knowledge in Eden, obedient Lizzie commands, “We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits” (Rossetti 1652). However, Laura, like Eve, is quickly pulled into temptation. Laura is described as a “sweet-tooth” depicting her hidden craving and desirous nature which the goblin’s prey upon by seducing her “in tones as smooth as honey” (Rossetti 1653). When Laura admits that she has no money, the goblins reply that she can obtain the fruits in exchange for a lock of her hair, which was considered a precious relic reserved for loved ones in Victorian society. Desperate, “She clipped a precious golden lock, she dropped a tear more rare than a pearl, then sucked their fruit globes fair or red: Sweeter than honey from the rock” (Rossetti 1653). Because of the seductive undertones in the goblin’s enticement, the sensual descriptions of the fruit and the sexually suggestive way in which Laura indulges in the them, (“She sucked and sucked and sucked the more…She sucked until her lips were sore” (Rossetti 1654)) many interpret the consuming of fruit as indulging in sexual desires. Therefore, the act of severing her precious curl in order to devour the fruit imitates the loss of innocence that occurs when losing one’s virginity. Although the goblin men do not persuade Laura with promises and reason like the serpent delivered to Eve, both women’s motivation for devouring the forbidden fruit is the same. When discussing the parallels between the two, Critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim, “Just as Eve sought knowledge through the physically gratifying act of eating the apple, Laura’s consumption is ‘enacting an affirmation of intellectual as well as sexual selfhood’ through the metaphorical ‘eating of words and enjoying the taste of power’” (Gonzales 25). Eve yields not to the temptation of disobedience but to the temptation of acquiring knowledge that has been forbidden. Similarly, Laura devours the fruit not just to fulfill sexual desires but to fulfill a desire for knowledge and experience. Just like the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, the goblin’s fruit represents all knowledge that has been denied to Victorian women including matters of sexuality, commerce and education. While Eve’s thirst for knowledge and disobedience led to the fall of Man, Laura’s desire for knowledge and loss of innocence results in her fall from society. Laura beings to age prematurely, “her hair grew thin and grey; she dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn,” furthermore she is described as no longer participating in household duties but rather she “sat down listless in the chimney-nook” (Rossetti 1657). Because of her curiosity and experience outside the proper gender constraints led to a loss of innocence, she represents the embodiment of the fallen woman. Impure and “ruined,” Laura is not only removed from the female world of domesticity but is robbed of her life completely.
The transformation of Laura into the fallen woman is important because Rossetti presents the sisters in the form of the gothic double, a tactic many gothic writers utilize to represent the dichotomy of the inner self, of good and evil. While physically similar, the sisters are initially described as opposites, “Lizzie with an open heart, Laura in an absent dream, One content, one sick in part; One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight, One longing for the night” (Rossetti 1655). Where Lizzie appears virtuous and obedient by nature, Laura appears rebellious and sinful. By describing the two sisters in this manner, Rossetti evokes the popular idealization in Victorian culture that women can only be separated into two categories of good and evil, the fallen woman and the virginal domestic angel. While Laura is presented as the fallen woman, Lizzie represents her double, the virginal angel.
However, Rossetti utilizes these gender stereotypes not to reinforce the sisters’ differences but to blur the lines of contrast between them. For example, after Laura eats the fruit and loses her innocence, she returns home and confides in her sister who does not ostracize her but embraces her. Rossetti describes the image of the two sisters in bed as “Golden head by golden head, Like two pigeons in one nest Folded in each other’s wings” (Rossetti 1655). Even after Laura’s loss of innocence, the sisters appear not as the image of opposites but as “two blossoms on one stem,” different in their decisions but still connected and equal at their core (Rossetti 1655). As the poem continues, the categorization of sisters becomes more blurred. For example, Lizzie’s self-sacrifice for her sister is Christ-like and characteristic of the virginal angel, however, in order to do so she must rebelliously cross the “domestic boundary” and display the “strength to disobey patriarchal authority” (Rolfus 51). Although she remains pure through her resistance of the fruit, the decision to actively “listen and look” for the goblins, her defiance and the experience of the encounter must result in an eye-opening, partial loss of innocence. Therefore, her actions help “erode both the ideal of the fallen woman and that of the angel of the house, as she is neither completely fallen nor completely innocent” (Rolfus 51). Furthermore, although Laura is categorized as the sinful fallen woman, she does not suffer from guilt, only anguish that the fruit has been taken from her. The absence of guilt seems to suggest that a desire for knowledge and the breaking of societies gender expectations is not something that should illicit shame. Rossetti presents the fallen woman not as pursuer of sin that must be ostracized but rather as a victim of curiosity, lack of knowledge and restricting social boundaries to be empathized. Unlike the typical fallen woman, Laura is eventually healed and accepted back into the domestic society as a wife and mother giving her an equal position to Lizzie.
By presenting Lizzie and Laura as gothic doubles of the virginal angel and the fallen woman, Rossetti attempts to break down the unrealistic extremes of feminine classification in Victorian culture. By presenting them as opposing doubles but also equals, “Rossetti offers an alternative view of women as neither uncompromising angels nor unredeemable fallen women; rather, they are unified under the title of woman” (Rolfus 52).
Gonzales, Bobbi A. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”: A Feminist Perspective, The University of Texas at El Paso, Ann Arbor, 1991. ProQuest, http://0-search.proquest.com.library.uark.edu/docview/303975943?accountid=8361.
Rolfus, Heather. Unbalancing Binaries: Re-Thinking Lilith and Eve in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and George MacDonald’s “Lilith”, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin’s Market” The Longman Anthology British Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Longman, 2010, pp. 1650-62.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Goblin Market: Sisters-Golden Head by Golden Head. 1862