In many of her poems, Rossetti explores the significance of individual agency and decision making. She shows that poor decision-making and a lack of self-mastery can lead to dire consequences.
For example, Rossetti's well-known narrative poem "Goblin Market" tells the story of two sisters, called Lizzie and Laura. The sisters are captivated and enchanted by a group of sinister Goblin merchants, who are selling a selection of exotic yet harmful fruit.
Lizzie and Laura have been warned about the dangers of the fruit before, through the story of poor Jeanie, a young woman who died after eating the Goblin's fruit. While Lizzie heeds the warning of this tale and refuses the Goblin fruit, Laura isn't quite as strong and struggles to resist the temptation.
As a result of giving in to temptation, Laura becomes addicted to the fruit. This has a detrimental impact on her health, causing her to waste away:
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.
Here, Rossetti shows the consequences of poor decision-making and a lack of self-restraint. As Laura gave into her temptations and ate the fruit, she sacrificed her health and well-being.
This is all well and good, but what exactly is Rossetti warning her readers about in this poem?
Generally, it is accepted that "Goblin Market" is a cautionary poem, warning female readers against sexual transgression. At the time Rossetti was writing, there were strict societal expectations about how women should behave, including the fact that they should remain virginal and sexually "pure." If women failed to abide by these social norms, they were branded "fallen women," and were effectively cast out by society.
As a result, the events of "Goblin Market" can be read as an allegory for female sexual transgression. Rossetti warns that giving in to temptation can lead to terrible consequences, symbolized by Laura's decline in health. In Victorian society, these consequences included humiliation, social exclusion, and an inability to get married due to a tarnished reputation.
Although this is something modern audiences might find dramatic and unnecessary, these kinds of concerns were a harsh reality for Victorian women, due to the demands placed on them by society.
This being said, Rossetti also shows sympathy towards Laura. At the end of the poem, Laura is saved by her sister, representing the potential for salvation and recovery for the "fallen woman." By doing this, Rossetti suggests that there is nothing inherently unforgivable about sexual transgression and that these decisions can be redeemed by love, acceptance, and forgiveness.