Temptation, Redemption and Sisterhood in Rossetti’s Goblin Market Pt. 1
As is the case with many great works of literature, there seem to be about as many interpretations of C.G. Rossetti’s Goblin Market as there are readers to interpret it. Forbidden romance, vampirism, sisterhood, feminine power, Victorian capitalism, sin, redemption and lesbian love are a few of the themes that can be construed from the poem. Though some seem to have more merit than others, the only explanation listed above that seems completely improbable is that of lesbian love. As a devout Anglo-Catholic (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1643), it is highly unlikely that C.G. Rossetti would write any work glorifying such a relationship. Given her experience laboring amongst former prostitutes and other “fallen women” at the Highgate House of Charity (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1643), it is reasonable to infer some reference in Goblin Market to the trauma suffered by such women. Goblin Market could well be read as a tale of temptation, unrequited love, loss of innocence and, ultimately, spiritual and societal redemption aided by the love of a sister.
Analysis of the Text, Part 1
In his essay, "Their fruits like honey in the throat / But poison in the blood": Christina Rossetti and The Vampyre” Doctor Ronald D. Morrison explores the idea, earlier posited by David F. Morrill, that the “goblin men” of Goblin Market are, in fact, a type of vampire (Morrison). John Polidori, the author of The Vampyre (1819) also happened to be Rossetti’s uncle on her mother’s side (Morrison). It is theorized that The Vampyre influenced Rossetti’s own tale. It is certainly true that Goblin Market contains no human men anywhere in the story. The only human characters are women and their children, whose gender is not mentioned. The goblins, though, are referred to several times in the poem as “goblin men” (42,49,88,146…). The “goblin men” who entice Laura with their succulent, exotic fruits do bear a certain resemblance in their characteristics to the seductive and, ultimately, destructive vampires of 19th century English literature. But, while “…Polidori’s tale is one possible source for Goblin Market…” it does not explain every aspect of the poem (Morrison).
Returning to the theme of “fallen women” and Rossetti’s interest in their rehabilitation, it seems much more likely that Rossetti’s goblins symbolize amoral men who take advantage of the innocence, curiosity and affections of young women. Like a seducer who woos a young woman only to leave her after he is sexually satisfied, the goblins appear to Laura no more after she buys their fruit (269-275). Rossetti gives to “each merchant man” (70) the physical features of some animal, as seen in the quote below:
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry. (71-76)
By describing the goblins thus, Rossetti clearly separates them both from the race of actual men, and from her uncle’s vampire, who had the appearance of a human gentleman (Morrison). Thus, she is sure to steer clear of any inference that men in general are evil or bad news for women, as embittered women have intimated or outright proclaimed at times. Giving the “goblin men” such an unusual appearance also serves to establish their exotic nature and appeal, as does the description of their wares, which includes, along with fruits native to England, such tropical and foreign produce as “Pine-apples,” “Lemons and oranges,” “Pomegranates”, “Dates”, “Figs” and “Citrons from the South” (6,13,21,22, 28,29).
Also worth noting is the apparent wealth of Rossetti’s merchant men, who bear their produce upon golden plates and dishes (58,59,103). Though this interpretation of Goblin Market focuses more on the sexual nature of Laura’s seduction by the goblins, there is an undeniable element of economic commentary in the poem. In her article, “Consumer Power and the Utopia of Desire: Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market’”, Elizabeth K. Helsinger draws a convincing connection between the innocence and morality of Victorian women, and their removal from the public sphere of commerce (Helsinger 903). Amongst the more genteel classes of Victorian society, women are not encouraged to participate in trade or to involve themselves in the realm of finance (Helsinger 903). Prostitutes, with whom Rossetti worked closely in the course of her charity work, are some of the only women who openly transgress the boundary between the male and female spheres (Helsinger 903). Trading their bodies for financial gain, prostitutes are not only immoral in a purely sexual sense, but also “sin” against their female natures by entering into the realm of commerce and are therefore “cast out from the company of moral women” (Helsinger 903).
“...Laura is not a prostitute; she is never excluded from the company of moral women by Lizzie or by her author” (Helsinger 903). Laura is representative of the young woman who, lured by the exotic appeal and sweet-sounding promises of strange men, trades her virtue and innocence for excitement and pleasure, only to find “…that her own body is ultimately consumed” (Helsinger 903). If the reprehensible character of the “goblin men” is not already obvious, the following lines of the poem provide a very strong hint.
When they reached where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother (91-96).
The goblins are clearly up to no good, but Laura cannot see it; she already longs to taste their proffered fruits (106). Having no money to pay the strange merchants, Laura is persuaded to part with a lock of her golden hair, shedding “…a tear more rare than pearl” as she does so (125). This very physical and personal form of payment signifies a loss of innocence on Laura’s part, as well as the predatory nature of the goblins.
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Helsinger, Elizabeth K. "Consumer Power and the Utopia of Desire: Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”." ELH. 58.4 (1991): 903. Print.
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