Feminism in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, Part One
The bonds of sisterhood are powerful indeed. Sisters grow and learn together, often doing favors for one another such as sharing clothes, giving advice, being in each other’s wedding, and braving goblin men to prevent one another’s untimely death. The last is true, at least, of Laura and Lizzie from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Lizzie rescues her sister from imminent destruction by bravely confronting the goblin men responsible for Laura’s declining state. What this action signifies for women—who are all “sisters” with one another, in some sense—might be more than initially meets the eye. Laura’s poor decision in regard to the menacing goblin men and Lizzie’s heroic actions in spite of them can easily be seen as instructions for women everywhere on how to react and not react to various male temptations.
The female influence was arguably a strong factor in Rossetti’s own life. According to U. C. Knoepflmacher, Rossetti is well-known for her close relationships with her mother and sister (313). Her works were commonly dedicated to one or the other. While she did grow up with a father and two brothers, their influence was limited. Her father died in 1850, when she was only 24 years old, and had already been deceased for 12 years when Goblin Market and Other Poems was published. Her brothers’ primary role in her later life seemed to be as representatives to publishers, whom Rossetti was unable to negotiate with personally due to the fact that women were not yet considered equals in the publishing industry of the time (314). During her career, her only significant attachment to the male world was through the business of writing, working—through her brothers—with publishers such as John Ruskin, who turned her away, and Alexander Macmillan, who had a much more amiable attitude towards her poetry (15).
Outside of her life as a writer, though, Rossetti spent most of her time in the presence of other women. As Candace Ward writes, “Most of [Rossetti’s] adulthood was spent in seclusion, caring for invalid relations and doing charity work; she never married, twice turning down marriage proposals” (v). The vast majority of this charity work, according to Debra Cumberland, was spent as an associate sister, working with “fallen” women alongside Anglican sisters at the St. Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Woman at Highgate Hill (110). Rossetti’s life was saturated with the female world and female issues, while her ventures into the male world remained fairly limited. It is only reasonable, then, that her writings would have the same attachment to the feminine as well.
Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is no exception to this attachment. The poem centers around two women—sisters, whether interpreted in the literal or rhetorical sense—whose female community is threatened by the presence of goblin men selling forbidden fruits. One sister, Laura, succumbs to temptation, eats the fruit, and starts to wither away as a result. This prompts the other sister, Lizzie, to later seek out the goblin men in hopes of obtaining more fruit to restore Laura back to life. The goblin men attempt to force-feed the fruit to Lizzie, but she “Would not open lip from lip / Lest they should cram a mouthful in: / But laughed in heart to feel the drip / Of juice that syrupped all her face” (Rossetti 12). As a result of her resistance, the goblin men give up, and Lizzie is able to return to Laura’s side to deliver the juices. These juices, which had previously caused Laura’s illness, now become the antidote because they were won through the sacrifice of her sister. Since the heroes of the stories were actually heroines and the main antagonists were distinctly male, many critics can make a strong case for feminist overtones or messages in the work.
In parts to come, I will explain the most common feminist critiques of "Goblin Market," from the highly sexualized to the highly spiritual, and those that exist in between.
- Arseneau, Mary. Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillion, 2004.
- Bentley, D. M. R. “The Meretricious and the Meritorious in Goblin Market: A Conjecture and an Analysis.” The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 57-81.
- Cumberland, Debra. “Ritual and Performance in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’ Things of the Spirit. Ed. Kristina K. Groover. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. 108-127.
- Knoepflmacher, U. C. Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
- Maxwell, Catherine. “Tasting the ‘Fruit Forbidden’: Gender, Intertextuality, and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.” The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts. Ed. Mary Arseneau, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Athens: Ohio University Press, 199. 75-102.
- Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Goblin Market and Other Poems. Ed. Candace Ward. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. 1-16.
- Ward, Candace. “Note.” Goblin Market and Other Poems. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. v.
- Welter, Nancy. “Women Alone: Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Ed. Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006. 138-149.