decoratedinitial'A'n Christina Rossetti's long narrative poem, "Goblin Market," two sisters are tempted by evil goblin merchants who haunt the woods and allure maidens with sumptuous fruits, the traditional symbol of temptation in the Bible. Christina Rossetti clearly intended the fruit of the goblin merchants to symbolize the forbidden fruit in the biblical story when Laura asks Lizzie if she has tasted "for my sake the fruit forbidden." Christina Rossetti's use of meaningful religious symbolism contrasts with Dante Gabriel's tendency to take up traditionally religious symbols but leave them vague and empty of meaning.

"Goblin Market," one of Christina's most sexual poems, contains numerous analogies to sexual appetites, but it is unclear whether she was aware of these sexual innuendos. As her desire for sensuous fulfillment becomes more intense, Laura takes on the characteristics of a beast, recalling the fate of many lustful figures in Dante's Inferno:

(Laura) Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnashed her teeth for balked desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

The character of Laura closely parallels the figure of the She-Wolf which represents excessive desire: "her nature is so squalid, so malicious / that she can never sate her greedy will; / When she has fed, she's hungrier than ever" (Inferno, I, 97-99). When humans are dominated by their emotions and sensations, they are reduced to the animal level and lose their capacity for freedom. Such errant desire unchecked by reason or the will of God resulted in the fall of man (Paradiso, XXIV, 103).

Whereas Laura succumbs to the Gobin's seduction, her sister Lizzie remains firmly resistant. Fearing for her sister who has started to physically waste away, Lizzie heroically braves the temptations of the goblins and exposes herself to their abuse in order save her sister's life:

Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,
Coaxed and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,
Kicked and knocked her,
Mauled and mocked her,
Lizzie uttered not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in.

In this scene, the goblins violently taunt and torment Lizzie, but she never wavers in her resistance. Rossetti paints a picture of female resistance that is passive and silent unlike "Song" in which the woman actually "talks back." Lizzie can be viewed as a self-sacrificing martyr figure who suffers in order to save her sister's life. Although the poem ends on a feminist note, calling for female bonds and sisterhood, Lizzie cannot be simply characterized as a strong female heroine, because she passively endures the goblin brothers' transgressions of her body.

Questions

1. Does this poem have a feminist mission to condemn sensuous passion and the victimization of women? Rossetti portrays Lizzie as a self-sacrificing Christ-figure who brings "life out of death." Is this poem firmly rooted in the morality of the Christian tradition? Or does Christina use religious symbolism purely for aesthetic value in the same vein as her brother Dante Gabriel?

2. In this poem, the sensuousness of the language takes precedence over the clear depiction of objects. Tennyson, on the other hand, paints little vignettes that can be visualized. The illustrations that complement this poem depict Laura and Lizzie as full bodied and muscular, with heavy necks and other Rubenesque features. Dante Gabriel was interested in models with small features, slender necks and delicate hands. Are the "Goblin Market" illustrations meant to be a reaction against Dante Gabriel's "Fair Lady" type which he makes stand for all women?

3. For Christina Rossetti, the women's relationship to the male goblins perhaps parallels aspects of the male-female relationships espoused by her brother in which the woman usually submits to male desire. In saying no to the temptations of the male goblins, the sisters cause great danger to themselves. Is Christina Rossetti reacting against her brother's ideals of erotic love?

4. According to Professor Landow, "Goblin Market" was the most atypical poem for Christina Rossetti as was "Childe Roland" for Robert Browning, and yet both are included in all anthologies and shape the literary canon. What specifically is atypical about this poem?


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Last modified 20 October 2003