April 22, 2003
The Unseen, the Unseemly and the Unspoken
Opening up a copy of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is like sinking into a hot tub full of rose scented water lined with velvet in Hawaii while sipping from a crystal chalice filled with expensive Merlot; only perhaps a little bit more laden with sensual imagery and detail. Rossetti is an extremely talented poet who uses every tool at her disposal, from symbolism to repetition to evocative images to create a world so vivid that we cannot help but be sucked in. The reader feels instantly the beauty and wonder, as well as the horrible danger, of the gifts the goblins bring. It is impossible not to feel the relief when Lizzie does not succumb to the goblin men, the joy when she comes home to save her sister from her fate. However, although “Goblin Market” is teeming with imagery and detail, there are many things that are not present in the poem. Why do only women hear the call of the goblins? Why are there no female goblins? Why are the only men seen in the poem regarded as evil? In a poem dripping with sexual imagery, why is the only mildly sexual act performed by the sisters, an act that, were it sexual in nature, would be not only lesbian, but also incestuous? And above all, if the poem is to be taken as a moral lesson to young women to beware of the evils of the world, why doesn’t Rossetti just come out and say so? Questions such as these point to society’s expectations of women at that time, both as maid, wives and mothers and as writers of children’s literature.
Women in the 1800s were expected to be just that— maids, wives or mothers. Any deviation from that mold was met with the up-most criticism. “Goblin Market” definitely upholds the idea that young, unmarried women should be chaste and not give in to temptation of any sort, be it from real men or goblin men. But “Goblin Market” takes it a step further. Only women hear the call of the goblins, men, from all indications, seem to be immune. While on the surface this seems to be because the story centers around two women, it reveals a deeper attitude about women in the 1800s. Women were supposed to be chaste and mild, but were also regarded as being easier to tempt into sin than men were (Radek). It seems that the goblins would have been wasting their time to try and seduce the men into taking the fruit from them.
Not that it would have been easy to tempt men even if men could be tempted. There are no female goblins among the group that assaults Lizzie and Laura. This points not only to an idea of men being less corruptible than women, but also to the thought that women could not be seducers. With the goblins standing for temptation, it is significant that there are no women among them. Women were regarded as having no sexual desires of their own, so they wouldn’t have been able to be aware of their ability to tempt men, and certainly wouldn’t have done so on purpose (Radek).
In the light of women being regarded as the weaker sex, it is interesting to note that “Goblin Market” seems to be aimed only at young women of the time, despite claiming to be a poem to children in general. The heroines are sisters, with no other males appearing in the poem except the goblins. The husbands of the girls aren’t even mentioned, merely alluded to by the fact that the girls are wives and have children. There is no message for men here. The children at the end of the poem are sexless, but Laura specifically says, “For there is no friend like a sister” (16) in the closing lines of the poem. Rossetti could have easily chosen the word “sibling” but does not, giving the poem no real masculine voice except that of the unnatural goblins. This omission of a male presence points both to an attitude that the main thing women are tempted by are men, and that if they can avoid being tempted sexually, they can live happy, full lives and that males do not need a cautionary tale about the temptations of the world either because they are expected to partake in the sexual and need not restrain themselves, or because they wouldn’t give into temptation easily enough to need such a fable.
The one incongruous image in the entire poem, when looked at as a cautionary tale to women only, with men as evil tempters, seducing innocent young girls away from the path that was right, is the actual act of saving Laura. When Lizzie returns home, there is a two verse long span of the poem where the imagery is overtly sexual, rather than insidiously sensual. Lines like “suck my juices” and “eat me, drink me, make much of me” (13) on their own would be enough to put a slight lesbian spin to the end of the poem, but then a usually overlooked line a little later “laughed in the old, innocent way/hugged Lizzie but not twice or thrice” (15) points even more strongly to an earlier perversion even of the love one woman can share with another in friendship or sisterhood. Perhaps this is intended to show that women need to beware “fallen” women and only keep company with others who are pure of heart. Even with the problems that homosexuals face today, much progress has been made in levels of acceptance since that time. Though the sexual nature of the lines could be somewhat unintentional, Rossetti could also be pointing deliberately to women having to face temptations from both sides. Confined to the home, able to glimpse the outside world only through her husband, the young wife would, if the family were rich enough to afford any servants at all, be drawn closer to her women friends out of boredom and a need of companionship. Deprived of male company, is it any wonder women would turn to other women for companionship and camaraderie? Rossetti may have intended those lines to subtly point out the dangers such relationships could pose.
But the elements that are both present and absent in “Goblin Market” do not just point to the culturally accepted view of women at the time, but also to the role of the woman as a writer. Many women wrote for juvenile audiences, the genre was widely regarded as an acceptable one for women to write in, and they enjoyed very little censorship in this arena, since children in that era were seen as being “secure in their innocence”. (Auerbach, 2) However, it was still true that women’s novels were censored far more than men’s, for the very reason that a woman was writing the novel, and women were expected to follow such a strict ethical standard of behavior (Auerbach, 5-6) Women were also restrained by the expectation that a novel for children would have to have some sort of a moral to it and, unlike their male contemporaries, were not allowed to go too far into the realm of the fantastic or risk being thought of as “indulging in child-like fantasies” (Auerbach, 12-13). All of these things come together to focus “Goblin Market” into what it is. The lack of censorship would have allowed the often scary, usually sensual imagery of the poem to slip by without raising eyebrows while the conventions of not deviating too far from the social norms and reinforcing the status quo with moralistic stories would have shaped the fantastical story of a young woman’s brush with death into a tale about sisterly love and devotion.
There is nothing really in the text to support any of this, in fact that is exactly why it jumps out so much. The poem as Christina Rossetti wrote it is a fantastical, sensual story about two young women trying to avoid temptation in a world where such temptation is no farther away than the next creek, the next evening. But it is the poem that Rossetti didn’t write that is even more interesting. The lack of men in the poem other than the goblins, the lack of females among the goblins and the lack of men as the tempted all point to attitudes about good ethics in a woman vs. good ethics in a man, while the absence of any overt sexual imagery other than the incestuous, lesbian over-toned scene and the fact that such a poem could be published by a woman at all, much less be published as a children’s poem, points to the perceived place of a woman and a woman’s art in the 1800s.
Auerbach, Nina. Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers”. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Radek, Kimberly M. Women in Literature. August 2001. April 22, 2003.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market” and Other Poems. New York: Dover, 1994.