‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti was written in 1862 and has been the subject of numerous readings focusing on the nature of desire and its corruption of Man. Many scholars see the poem as a Christian allegory with an almost Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, a filter through which much of the poet’s work is viewed. This essayist would argue that there is a nuanced metaphorical potency to the tale that makes it much more than a limited religious fable. The critic Jerome McGann calls Rossetti a ‘morally committed artist’ who places her characters ‘in situations where they are asked to distinguish the real from the illusory.’ There is much Christian symbolism in the text, evident to anyone who pays it a glance, but this is by no means where the true power of ‘Goblin Market’ lies.
The hypothetical reader may be inclined to speculate about an interrelationship between desire and self-abuse, a theme implied through the juxtaposition of the two main characters. Laura’s hunger for the goblin fruit, her desire for possession, to be possessed, is set beside Lizzie’s supposed self-control and moral certitude. In lines 65-71 of the poem the reader is made to see this conceit quite starkly:
“No,” said Lizzie: “No, no, no;
Their offers should charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut her eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
Perhaps this apparent simplicity is deceptive. The most engaging works of art have a multiplicity of meanings that are interconnected, bringing forth different interpretations based on the varying beliefs and associations of the hypothetical reader. Is this especially true of a poet as canny, driven and complex as Rossetti? One salient fact seems evident. The girls’ motivations in ‘Goblin Market’ are not as contradictory or obvious as they may first appear. Despite their seemingly polarised natures, they both share a dangerous, potentially redemptive desire to move beyond their own perceived limitations, a deeply human urge for communion with something greater. It is a spiritual hunger that is made emblematic through a nuanced Christian framework that invokes the Eucharist. Marylu Hill discusses this theme in an insightful essay and says this of the poem:
Desire, however, remains for both Rossetti and [Saint] Augustine something right and necessary, and its proper fulfilment will be better yet when God “awakest us to delight” in Augustine’s terms, which is sometimes also translated as “arouse us”.
It is a misplaced desire that leads Laura to briefly fall from grace, not the desire itself, and as such Rossetti is tender towards the girl, leading the reader to appreciate that there is nothing inherently immoral in her. Jerome McGann is aware that Rossetti is sympathetic to the plight of the exploited, but he posits that she ‘focuses on that material condition as a sign, or revelation, of an inward and spiritual corruption.’
Laura and Lizzie are two friends who begin to find themselves intrigued by merchant goblin men who sell their wares. What they appear to be selling is delicious fruit that the two girls are expected to crave. However, it seems that these merchant men are selling more than just fruit. They are selling the secret promise of liberation, awakening, and sated temptation. These things will ultimately come at a price greater than shiny coins, as Laura will discover as the poem progresses. The ‘liberation’ sold by the goblin men is insubstantial and illusory. The sinister fruits offer only an increased appetite that cannot be sated because they are not the true fruit that the girls seek. In lines 164-168 we see this vividly implied:
“Nay, hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
Tomorrow night I will
Like Satan wearing the beguiling face of Adam, the goblin men fool innocent Laura into thinking that the beauty and promise of the fruit is a mark of its ability to provide spiritual sustenance. The reader can find echoes of this Ideal-Real conflict in the depictions of tortured femininity seen in much Pre-Raphaelite art. Jerome McGann understands that this apparent ‘power over women comes ultimately from the women’s (erroneous) belief that the goblins have something which the women need, that the women are incomplete.’ With this in mind, it is important to note that it is not just unbridled sexual desire that lies beneath the actions of the main characters but also a pseudo-awareness of the awful price of such ‘liberation’, a fear that it might birth an Eve within them, a fallen woman in the goblin eyes of society.
Delores Rosenblum says this in her poignant essay: ‘The woman vampirized by art, in life more dead than alive, in art endowed with ghostly life, suggests the kind of depersonalisation that woman-as-model experiences. The watcher commemorates her symbolic death.’ This kind of sentiment might seem insightful but irretrievably bleak if taken out of context. Earlier in the essay she says: ‘By stylising certain literary and scriptural conventions, and by exaggerating the renunciatory pose, Rossetti expresses at once her extreme alienation and her self-possession.’ In this way the artist can use an aesthetic of negation to preserve a secret of personal integrity, as a rebuttal to an enforced identity of degradation.
Jerome McGann says this of the goblin paradigm: ‘Indeed, they do not merely fail in their promises, they punish the women who accept these promises as true.’ This betrayal does not make the women passive victims because their strength, like Rossetti’s, is something that can exist beyond that paradigm. They may be forced to live in a corrupt goblin world but they do not have to see through corrupted eyes, nor feel it through a goblin heart. This then puts their souls, in a Christian sense, beyond the reach of spiritual perversion. The power of the merchants’ seduction is incomplete and therefore ultimately an illusion.
The poem uses a sexualised imagery of food to underscore the eroticisation of addictions and self-abuse that is hoped for by the goblin men, and Laura’s almost unknowing complicity in these transgressions. In lines 126-128 we see the following:
She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Although the merchants seek to foster an insatiable hunger for their fruits and hence their ideology, the text presents an ambiguous depiction of this appetite as simultaneously creative and destructive, forcing the characters into new areas while also endangering them. Taking a Christian perspective this idea seems to gravitate towards an inversion; Lizzie acts as a Eucharistic agent for Laura, taking the poisonous essence of the goblin fruit and transmuting it through love and self-sacrifice into an antidote, creating a regenerative communion where the erotic and the spiritual co-exist, feeding and expanding each other. In effect they collapse the authority of the goblin paradigm, as can be seen in lines 521-523:
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?
As McGann clearly states: ‘The definitive sign of their dialectical relationship appears in the simple fact that Laura is not finally victimised.’ Laura consumes and imbibes her sister, now offered up Christ-like and self-conscious, so that an incorruptible spiritual beauty can spring from the corruption. This is a subtle and profound transformation; humble, devoted and unwavering, unlike the sinister glamour and bombast of the perverse goblin men. McGann goes on to say this:
Lizzie’s behaviour is also a stylistic metaphor standing for Rossetti’s poetry, whose correct beauty judges, particularly through its modest address, all that is pretentious and illusory. The fruits, the language, the behaviour of the goblin merchants are all metaphors for what John Keats had earlier called ‘careless hectors in proud, bad verse’.
This suggests that ‘Goblin Market’ is not just a Christian allegory, although it powerfully employs such a framework. More accurately it is a critique of the poetic literary impulse itself, exploring the relationship it has to the psychological-symbolic power of the human soul and its capacity for simultaneous regeneration, innocence and self-awareness.
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