Sisterhood and Sexual Liberation in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet born in a family of artists and writers, and she was a very devout Anglican who spent most of her time volunteering at St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for ‘fallen women’ in Highgate. She wrote “Goblin Market” while working at the Penitentiary and it became one of her most famous poems. It tells the story of two sisters and their dangerous adventures in a fairytale-like market plagued by evil goblins. Since its publication in 1862, it has been subject to what appears to be a never-ending list of interpretations by scholars over the years.


Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

The fairy tale ambiance of “Goblin Market” led many readers to interpret it as a children’s rhyme, even though the author herself claimed that “children were not among [her] suggestive subjects” (Roe, 2014). Many critics have interpreted the poem as a symbol for sexual temptation and the sisters as the “fallen women” that end up ruined when succumbing to male advances. Others argue that there are many parallels between Rossetti’s poem and the experiences of drug addiction with the topics of temptation, exotic fruits and the restlessness of Laura, the sister who is first seduced by the goblins. Another rather popular analysis deals with understanding the goblin market as a marriage market; where the goblins play the role of unwelcomed suitors who try to attract young women with their wealth. However, it has become a very popular topic to analyse “Goblin Market” from a feminist perspective, encouraging young women to indulge in sexual liberation and sorority.


“Goblin Market” begins with a goblin chant that only maids seem to hear and that will become a refrain in the poem: “Come buy our orchard fruits, / Come buy, come buy” (Rossetti, 1862) followed by a long list of exotic fruits. A very common interpretation draws parallels between the goblins trying to attract the sisters' attention to buy their fruit and the “original sin” in the Bible: the Devil tempting Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Furthermore, the concept of fruit is commonly associated with women, from fruit as something that promises pleasure to the concept of the womb and its fruit; it can also refer to the profits drawn in any kind of enterprise economic, sexual or spiritual (Carpenter, 1991).


Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

The poem introduces then the two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and the reader can already see how different they are from one another. Laura is instantly drawn by the goblins and the exotic fruits they offer, while Lizzie appears more hesitant, careful and somewhat ashamed of her sister's actions. As Mary Wilson Carpenter explains in Victorian Poetry (1991), when talking about the two sisters there are two different interpretations: on one side, Laura is interpreted as the “fallen woman” and Lizzie the “pure woman,” Laura as Eve and Lizzie as Mary; on the other side, they argue that the poet never actually situates one sister as morally superior to the other. This last argument seems more reasonable since both sisters are “redeemed” at the end of the story and the text excludes any suggestions of hierarchical difference between the two sisters.


Laura seems more reckless than her sister and falls prey to the goblins' advances; she does not suspect anything foul when the goblins tell her that she needs no money to purchase their fruit, they will be happy with just a “golden curl.” She hands over “this emblem of her virginity with only a single tear, […] her naivité about the marketplace has condemned her to a loss far greater than she knows (Carpenter, 1991). After taking the goblins fruit, Laura comes back home excited and restless, it seems like she cannot wait for another taste of the fruit. Not knowing it was already too late for Laura, Lizzie is worried about her and proceeds to tell her the story of Jennie, a girl who suffered severe consequences after falling for the promises made by the goblins. Laura can no longer hear the goblins' chant and she becomes more and more anxious for the fruit, so much so that sickness overcomes her. After learning about her sister’s bargain with the goblins, Lizzie, who can still hear the chant, decides to take action and save Laura.


Lizzie’s approach to the market is more prudent and cautious than her sister’s. She decides to take a penny with her as a precaution. Lizzie ventures into the goblin market, “And for the first time in her life / Began to listen and look” (Rossetti, 1862). Previously she covered her eyes and ears, while her sister became enamoured with the goblins and their fruit. This concept of looking is especially relevant since the author originally wanted to name the poem “A peep at the Goblins.” The text does not “condemn this voyeuristic desire in itself but rather to represent its risks in the goblin market” (Carpenter, 1991), it seems to encourage women to explore their sexuality with caution, like Lizzie, while warning the consequences of a reckless peep, like Laura.


Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Lizzie is now looking and taking everything in, but she still proves to be a worthy opponent against the goblins. She is aware of what happened to Jennie and her sister Laura. Even though she indulges in the pleasures the goblins offer, she refuses to fully lose herself. The goblins respond by harassing her, tearing down her gown and bruising her skin, they “Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat” (Rossetti, 1862). However, Lizzie keeps her mouth closed and comes out victorious, with the penny still in her pocket. When Lizzie returns home, she is excited and laughing, she offers Laura a taste of her juices “Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you, / Goblin pulp and goblin dew” (Rossetti, 1862). Laura loathes the feast at first but then she lights up “like a caged thing freed” (Rossetti, 1862). She falls into a deep sleep “pleasure past and anguish past” (Rossetti, 1862) and wakes up as innocent and healthy as ever.


Both sisters here seem to have gone through a learning process that has freed and redeemed them: “Prudent Lizzie has learned that caution must sometimes give way to bold action and that physical love is both beautiful and integral to the human experience; […] Laura discovers that daring should be tempered with prudence and that erotic love is empty without emotional commitment” (Casey, 1991). They both act as redeemed and redeemer for each other. The sisters represent the dangerous line that women were forced to walk in during Victorian society: take risks and become ruined or never step out of place and never discover the taste of desire.


The importance of sorority and women supporting other women through the path of sexual liberation becomes apparent in this poem, especially when one considers the lack of a male figure that saves the sisters from the goblins. As Janet G. Casey explains in Victorian Poetry (1991), the role of the saviour was reserved exclusively to the male, while the females were relegated to the supporting role (Mary) or the person in need of salvation (Eve); in both cases their role is inferior to the man. “Goblin Market” demonstrates how the female (and all people) can act as both the redeemer and the redeemed. The poem ends with both sisters grown up with little children who hear their mothers' story and learn from them.


Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

After reading and analysing the “Goblin Market,” one may wonder how a devout Anglican woman could have written something so easily interpreted as a symbol of sexual liberation and sorority. It must be taken into account that while writing this poem, Christina Rossetti was working with a Sisterhood that believed that prostitutes and other “fallen women” could be saved and should be respected. Her interaction with prostitutes and female religious communities may have contributed to creating an idea of “a marketplace in which ‘appetite’ puts a woman at risk, but where her salvation is to be found not in controlling her appetite but in turning to another woman” (Carpenter, 1991). With this poem, she depicts the female body and its sexual instincts in a completely different way, it is a picture drawn from the female gaze to be enjoyed by other women.


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Isabel Panadero

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