Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

"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."