Goblin Market Essay - Critical Essays

Goblin Market, Christina Georgina Rossetti

Introduction

"Goblin Market" Christina Georgina Rossetti

Poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), composed in 1859 and published in 1862 in Goblin Market and Other Poems. See also, Christina Georgina Rossetti Criticism.

"Goblin Market," an early work considered to be one of Rossetti's masterpieces, was intended simply as a fairy story. Despite Rossetti's assertions that she meant nothing profound by the tale, its rich, complex, and suggestive language has caused the poem to be practically ignored as children's literature and instead regarded variously as an erotic exploration of sexual fantasy, a commentary on capitalism and Victorian market economy, a feminist glorification of "sisterhood," and a Christian allegory about temptation and redemption, among other readings. Additionally, in attempts to decode what is often described as the poem's subversive text, critics have looked to Rossetti's life for interpretive keys. The biographical aspects which have been examined by critics as means toward achieving a greater understanding of the poem include Rossetti's love affairs, her work with the Oxford Movement's "women's mission to women" in which she helped "rehabilitate" prostitutes, and her association with her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Since the language of "Goblin Market" suggests a variety of meanings, critics rarely agree on what the poem is about. Although scholars have failed to concur about something as elemental to the poem as its themes, "Goblin Market" is generally viewed as one of Rossetti's greatest works.

Biographical Information

Although Rossetti was a frequent contributor to her brother Dante's Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, she achieved immediate and significant recognition as a skilled poet with the 1862 publication of Goblin Market and Other Poems. The publication of the volume was hailed as the first literary success of the Pre-Raphaelites, earned critical and popular acclaim, and paved the way for the publication of Rossetti's next volume of poetry, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). Rossetti went on to publish religious poetry, devotional prose, and nursery rhymes for children. Due to the early success of "Goblin Market," Rossetti rarely fell out of favor with critics or her reading public and remains a focal point of critical study of nineteenth-century literary figures.

Plot and Major Characters

The story narrated in "Goblin Market" is often described as simple. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who apparently live together without parents, are taunted by goblin merchant men to buy luscious and tantalizing fruits. Lizzie is able to resist their coaxing and runs home, but Laura succumbs. She pays for the wares with a lock of her hair and gorges herself on the exotic fare, but her desire increases rather than being satisfied. She returns home and informs Lizzie that she will venture back into the glen and seek the goblins again. But Laura can no longer hear the call of the goblins and grows increasingly apathetic. She refuses to eat and begins to age prematurely. Fearing for her sister's life, Lizzie decides to seek out the goblins in order to purchase an "antidote" for her sister. When the goblins learn that Lizzie does not intend to eat the fruit herself, they throw her money back at her and verbally and physically abuse her, pinching and kicking, tearing at her clothing, and smearing the juice and pulp of their fruit on her. Lizzie refuses to open her mouth and returns home with the penny in her purse. She invites her sister to suck the juices from her body, which Laura does. The juice of the goblin fruit now tastes bitter to Laura, and she writhes in pain from having consumed it. But the antidote works. Laura returns to her former self, and the epilogue of the poem describes Laura and Lizzie as wives and mothers. Laura now tells the story to their children, reminding them that "there is no friend like a sister."

Major Themes

Critics look to the language and structure of "Goblin Market" to identify the poem's themes. The argument for the poem's erotic and sexual nature is supported by the language of the poem. The nature of the goblins' fruit is extensively detailed and described as luscious and succulent. Laura consumes the fruit ravenously ("She sucked until her lips were sore" [1. 136]) and physically pays for it with a lock of her hair. Once Lizzie decides to seek the goblin men, their taunts carry heavy sexual overtones as well. First they "Squeezed and caressed her" (1. 349) and then invite her to "Bob at our cherries / Bite at our peaches" (11. 354-55), and to "Pluck them and suck them" (1. 361). When she refuses to eat, they "Held her hands and squeezed their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat" (11. 406-07). Finally, when Lizzie returns home, battered and bruised, she invites her sister's embrace: "Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / . . . Eat me, drink me, love me; / Laura, make much of me" (11. 466-68; 471-72). This erotic language has been used to support readings of the poem as a sexual fantasy and an examination of the sexuality and cruelty of children. Some critics focus primarily on Lizzie's suffering and subsequent offering of herself to her sister, reading this not as a sexual advance but as a sacrifice similar to Christ's redemption of humanity's sins or as exemplifying the power of sisterhood in a secular or feminist sense.

The language of the poem is also filled with terms of commerce, economics, and exchange. The goblins sell exotic fruits to Laura, who pays for them with a lock of her hair. Lizzie attempts to pay for the fruit with money, which is refused. Such elements of the poem have been examined as statements about capitalism and the Victorian economy, as an exploration of the role of women within the economy and society, and, more specifically, as a discussion of the place of female literature within the economy. Some critics take this one step further and maintain that the poem represents Rossetti's own aesthetic theory. The theme of renunciation in the poem, demonstrated primarily through Lizzie's actions, is sometimes used to prove that Rossetti believed in the necessity of renouncing pleasure or art's gratification in order for poetry to have purpose or significance. On a more religious level, renunciation of pleasure is read as a means of achieving spiritual redemption.

The basic structure of the poem lends itself to a reading of "Goblin Market" as a Christian allegory of temptation, fall, and redemption, and some critics have contended that this is the main purpose of the tale. In this reading, Laura represents the biblical Eve who yields to temptation, and Lizzie is the Christ figure who sacrifices herself to save her sister. Yet other scholars have maintained that the sexual language of the poem compromises its reading as a moral tale. Additionally, some aspects of the poem fail to coincide with the allegory. For example, as several critics have noted, Laura's desire itself is never criticized by either the poem's narrator or by Lizzie, and Lizzie's act is not one of overcoming temptation or desire, for she never longs for goblin fruit herself. This, some critics argue, undercuts Lizzie's standing as a Christ figure.

Critical Reception

Twentieth-century criticism of "Goblin Market" is remarkably similar to its contemporary commentary. In an early review (1863), Caroline Norton wrote that the poem "is one of the works which are said to 'defy criticism.' Is it a fable—or a mere fairy story—or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love—or what is it?" These comments reflect modern criticism, as "Goblin Market" still perplexes and inspires scholars. Perhaps the most common means of investigating the poem is based in biography. Most modern analyses of "Goblin Market" refer in some way to aspects of Rossetti's life. Some critics, such as Lona Mosk Packer (1958), suggest ways in which Rossetti's romantic relationships influenced the poem. Packer describes Rossetti's "intimate friendship" with William Bell Scott, and Scott's subsequent, perhaps romantic, friendship with another woman. By Packer's account, Rossetti's sister Maria may have informed Christina of Scott's new interest and "saved" her sister from misplaced desire in much the same way that Lizzie saves Laura.

Another biographical angle from which the poem is approached is that of Rossetti's work as a "sister" within the Anglican Sisterhoods of the Oxford Movement during the 1850s and 1860s. The work of the sisterhoods involved the reform of prostitutes and the reintroduction of reformed women into mainstream society. Critics such as Mary Wilson Carpenter (1991) argue that interaction with these women accounts for both the feminism and homoeroticism of "Goblin Market." Other critics suggest that the poem was meant as a means of cautioning these women about returning to their former ways. Additionally, critics such as Janet Galligani Casey (1991) suggest a more secular interpretation of "sisterhood." Casey points to the work of Florence Nightingale, and Rossetti's interest in this work, arguing that Nightingale popularized the notion of "sisters" as nurses. Casey goes on to suggest that, having been familiar with this concept and the fact that Nightingale attempted to elevate the role of nurturer (a traditionally female role) to that of the nurtured (a traditionally male role), Rossetti perhaps intended to emphasize that Lizzie heals or nurtures Laura and that the idea of "sisterhood" is really genderless.

One other way in which critics have used Rossetti's life as a key to interpreting the poem centers on Rossetti's involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, in which Rossetti's brother Dante played a prominent role. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was primarily Christian in emphasis and was a reaction against both Victorian materialism and artistic neoclassicism. At the time of its publication, "Goblin Market" was considered to be the first major literary achievement of the movement. Dorothy Mermin (1983) described "Goblin Market" as a "vision of a Pre-Raphaelite world from a woman's point of view." Furthermore, Mermin supports a biographical reading of the poem in which Rossetti imagines a Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood which she did not feel existed in reality.

Finally, some critics have sought to synthesize various biographical aspects in interpreting "Goblin Market." Sean C. Grass (1996) attempts to account for the "commingling" of the influences of Rossetti's love affairs, her work in the sisterhoods of the Oxford Movement, and her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, through her writing of "Goblin Market." Grass emphasizes the importance of letting the poem point to the most "fruitful" ways of approaching it and identifies the use of lists within the poem as the "interpretive key." In his analysis, Grass finds that Rossetti experienced a conflict between her love of nature's variety and her belief that reveling in nature would cloud moral judgement; this conflict, concludes Grass, is the focus of "Goblin Market."

Criticism

Caroline Norton (essay date 1863)

SOURCE: "'The Angel in the House' and 'The Goblin Market'," in Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. VIII, No. 47, September, 1863, pp. 398-404.

[In the following excerpt, Norton offers a favorable assessment of "Goblin Market," maintaining that the work is Rossetti's best and that its linking of fantastic imagery to everyday life allows "Goblin Market" to "vie with Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner'."]

The "Goblin Market," by Miss Christina Rossetti, is one of the works which are said to "defy criticism." Is it a fable—or a mere fairy story—or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love—or what is it? Let us not too rigorously inquire, but accept it in all its quaint and...

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J. Ashcroft Noble (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "The Burden of Christina Rossetti," in Impressions and Memories, J. M. Dent and Co., 1895, pp. 55-64.

[In the following excerpt, Noble praises "Goblin Market" as a "spiritual drama" about the redemptive power of love.]

For those who love letters so well that even its mere chronology has for them no barren aridity, there are certain years to which are assigned specially honourable places in the chambers of memory; and 1862 has a double claim to such honour, for it witnessed the publication of the "Last Poems" of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and of the first really representative work of Christina Rossetti. When the latter poet was but sixteen, a little collection...

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Marian Shalkhauser (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "The Feminine Christ," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 10, Autumn, 1956, pp. 19-20.

[In the following essay, Shalkhauser examines "Goblin Market" as a "Christian fairy tale" in which Lizzie represents Christ and Laura signifies sinful humanity.]

Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" is a unique Christian fairy tale in which a feminine cast of characters is substituted for the masculine cast of the Biblical sin-redemption sequence. Lizzie, the pure sister, is the symbol of Christ; Laura represents Adam-Eve and consequently all of sinful mankind.

The basic symbolic pattern begins immediately: "Morning and evening / Maids heard the goblins cry."...

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Lona Mosk Packer (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Symbol and Reality in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," in PMLA, Vol. LXXIII, No. 4, Part I, September, 1958, pp. 375-85.

[In the following essay, Packer argues that the symbolismwhich is often vaguein "Goblin Market" reflects the realities of Rossetti 's life, just as the symbols in her other works correspond with her life, and that the poem should not be read simply as a "Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece."]

I

In common with other such enduring works of art as The Faery Queen, Gulliver's Travels, and Alice in Wonderland, Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" has many levels of meaning. At the...

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Ellen Moers (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Female Gothic," in Literary Women, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 90-110.

[In the excerpt that follows, Moers regards "Goblin Market" as Rossetti 's contribution to Gothic fiction, or the "literature of the monster," and maintains that the poem serves as an examination of the cruelty and sexuality of children rather than as a Christian allegory.]

Thinking about Wuthering Heights as part of a literary women's tradition may open up a new approach to a faded classic of Victorian poetry by a woman who was in fact, as Emily Brontë certainly was not, gentle, pious, and conservative: Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." In 1859, twelve years...

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Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Renunciation," in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 539-80.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar argue that "Goblin Market" demonstrates Rossetti 's opinion of the necessity for female renunciation of the "risks and gratifications of art. "]

Like [Rossetti's]Maude, "Goblin Market" (1859) depicts multiple heroines, each representing alternative possibilities of selfhood for women. Where Maude's options were divided rather bewilderingly among Agnes, Mary, Magdalen, and Maude herself, however, "Goblin Market" offers just the...

(The entire section is 4177 words.)

Cora Kaplan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Indefinite Disclosed: Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson," in Women Writing and Writing about Women, edited by Mary Jacobus, Croom Helm, London, 1979, pp. 61-79.

[In the excerpt below, Kaplan surveys feminist readings of "Goblin Market" and argues that the poem explores female sexual fantasy.]

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and 'twill yawn the more—
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

(Emily Dickinson, c. 1862)1

This curious, compacted lyric is one of a group of...

(The entire section is 4354 words.)

Dorothy Mermin (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Heroic Sisterhood in Goblin Market," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 107-18.

[In the following essay, Mermin argues that "Goblin Market" explores the feminine fantasies of "freedom, heroism, and self-sufficiency," celebrates "sisterly and maternal love," and suggests the possibility of a Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.]

"Goblin Market" is usually read as an allegory of the poet's self-division that shows, in Lionel Stevenson's representative summary, the conflict between "the two sides of Christina's own character, the sensuous and the ascetic," and demonstrates "the evil of self-indulgence, the fraudulence of...

(The entire section is 5165 words.)

Jeanie Watson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "'Men Sell Not Such in Any Town': Christina Rossetti's Goblin Fruit of Fairy Tale," in Children 's Literature, Vol. 12, Yale University Press, 1984, pp. 61-77.

[In the following essay, Watson maintains that while the Christian allegorical framework of "Goblin Market" is the means by which the story is made "'acceptable," the fairy tale subtext of the poem subverts the Christian moral of renunciation and extolls the virtues of imagination and knowledge.]

Although "Goblin Market" has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest of children's poems1 and has repeatedly been labeled a fairy tale, in line with Christina Rossetti's...

(The entire section is 6291 words.)

Steven Conner (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "'Speaking Likenesses': Language and Repetition in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 439-48.

[In the following essay, Conner explores the relationships between "Goblin Market" and Rossetti's other works, maintaining that the use of repetition in Rossetti's devotional poetry establishes a sense of "confirmed redemption," while in her nursery rhymes this repetition formula creates a sense of "irresolution." Similarly, Conner suggests, this "irresolution" is the result of the use of repetition in "Goblin Market."]

"Goblin Market" remains one of the most persistently puzzling poems of the...

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Elizabeth K. Helsinger (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Consumer Power and the Utopia of Desire: Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'," in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 903-33.

[In the essay below, Helsinger reviews "Goblin Market" as a "fantasy of consumer power, where the empowered consumer is a woman," concluding that such power is gained by women through the "withholding of desire" and that the poem describes a Utopian withdrawal from the economics of sex and marriage.

The language of Christina Rossetti's best-known poem, "Goblin Market," is remarkably mercantile. "Come buy, come buy," the iterated cry of the "merchant men" that punctuates the poem, has few parallels in English poetry in the nineteenth...

(The entire section is 12795 words.)

Janet Galligani Casey (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 63-78.

[In the following essay, Casey studies the meaning of "sisterhood" in "Goblin Market," arguing that the term implies a variety of meanings and "potentially includes the experience of both sexes." Additionally, Casey examines the Victorian conception of the nature of sisterhood as popularized by the work of Florence Nightingale and suggests how Rossetti 's own work as a "sister" may have influenced her writing of "Goblin Market. "]

"For there is no friend like a sister."
1

Critics of...

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Mary Wilson Carpenter (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'Eat me, drink me, love me': The Consumable Female Body in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 415-34.

[In the following essay, Carpenter suggests that "Goblin Market" presents a radical view of women's bodies and appetites that was influenced by Rossetti 's participation in the Oxford Movement's "women's mission to women," in which she worked with prostitutes and homeless women.]

When Alice falls down the rabbit-hole she behaves, as Nancy Armstrong has pointed out, like a typical shopper—picking out and then putting back a jar of orange marmalade from the shelves of the rabbit-hole.1...

(The entire section is 9036 words.)

David B. Drake (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Rossetti's Goblin Market" in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 22-24.

[In the following essay, Drake discusses "Goblin Market" as a modified epylliona small epicin which Lizzie plays the role of the epic heroine.]

Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" exhibits several of the characteristics and conventions of epic poetry and should be studied as a somewhat modified version of the epyllion—a poem that emulates the classical epic in subject matter and technique, but is decidedly shorter (typically depicting just a single heroic episode) and narrower in scope—modified because the epyllion is ideally composed using...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Sean C. Grass (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Nature's Perilous Variety in Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 356-76.

[In the essay that follows, Grass examines the influence of various aspects of Rossetti 's life on her writing of "Goblin Market." He identifies Rossetti 's extensive use of lists as the "interpretive key" in determining which biographical events correspond to the events in "Goblin Market. "]

The critical interpretations of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" that have been advanced during the last two decades are nearly as multifarious as the goblin fruits so lavishly depicted in her verse. A cursory glance at the...

(The entire section is 6422 words.)