n "Goblin Market" (1859), Christina Rossetti alludes to the traditional discourse of forbidden fruit and the biblical account of the Fall. She does so both to challenge the decidedly patriarchal perception of women within Victorian culture in terms of sexuality, education and the marketplace and also to reconstruct the Christian idea of redemption. This essay focuses primarily on the question of how female desire should be perceived, the answer depending on who or what forbids the consumption of the fruit: whether it is an immutable Divine Being, or merely the patriarchal society in which Rossetti lived. The ambiguity of the poem shows that Rossetti recognised that this issue was not easy to resolve within the cultural and ideological limitations of her society.
Female sexuality and education were constantly, although paradoxically, linked in Rossetti's time, so it seems reasonable to assume that in "Goblin Market" she considers both issues. The forbidden fruit undoubtedly refers to female sexuality, as many critics have stated, yet it can also relate to female education and knowledge. After all, it was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Eve ate. The issue for Rossetti is not wholly sexual or intellectual; rather the poem addresses all forms of female desire. This idea is reflected in Barbara Garlick's statement that within the Pre-Raphaelite movement "forbidden pleasures [were] clearly associated both with wild nature...and the secret delight of books" (109). Furthermore, Diane D'Amico points out that Eve ate the forbidden fruit in order to be like God, which is "prideful, not lustful" ("Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene" 179), and also that in none of Rossetti's work is Eve represented as "an evil seductress" (178). On the whole, Rossetti steers away from equating female sexuality with sinfulness, which in itself is a radical move: sexual pleasure was forbidden to Victorian women, for as the passionless angels in the house, they were seen as "too pure and sacred to share in the disgusting lusts that afflicted men" (Karen Armstrong 6). At the same time, they were not to be given the same education as men because it was believed that too much intellectual activity would cause their reproductive organs to malfunction, securing the double bondage of sexuality and the intellect on women.
It is interesting to note that it is Laura — perhaps named after Petrarch's courtly ideal (Bentley 72) — who becomes the fallen woman, partaking of the forbidden fruit. Karen Armstrong addresses the "angel" myth of woman being "an island of perfection in a dark world" by looking at the way Petrarch's Laura was affiliated with the Virgin Mary, contrasted with the negative connotations associated with Eve (81). Armstrong speaks of the subversive power of virginity, that defies the idea that a woman needs a man to be whole: "the virginity myth developed the image of the 'whole' female body, whose hymen remains unbroken and possessed the innocent 'integrity' or wholeness that Eve enjoyed before the Fall" (81). Marina Warner also speaks of the Catholic belief in Mary's eternal virginity: "Mary was virgo intacta post partum . . . by special privilege of God she, who was spared sex, was preserved also through childbirth in her full bodily integrity" (22). Yet, as Armstrong points out, the virginal ideal also deprives women of their sexuality, an "important and essential part of their nature" (81). I feel that Rossetti attempts to reconcile these two concepts in "Goblin Market." When Laura eats the fruit, her appetite is insatiable: "I ate my fill,/Yet my mouth waters still" (165-66). Her craving for the fruit becomes like that of an addict, her inability to be satisfied causing her to be completely debilitated. She becomes "listless" (297), and unable to work because her hope of again eating the fruit is destroyed.
Significantly, Rossetti blurs the distinction between the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and that from the Tree of Life. In the Genesis account of the Fall, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, as part of their punishment they are not allowed access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). However, in Rossetti's poem, the fruit that Laura can no longer access is the same fruit that was originally forbidden to her. Furthermore, Laura's "salvation" is actually found in tasting again the juices of the forbidden fruits, although instead of giving her an insatiable appetite as they did the first time, they perform the role of a "fiery antidote" (599), seemingly giving her enough to innoculate her, but not enough to feed her addiction. Essentially, therefore, Laura's fruit of knowledge and her fruit of life are derived from the same source, obscuring the definition between purity and sin. This image is very different from the biblical view, for Christ said that "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit" (Matt. 7:18), clearly enforcing a difference between the two "fruits."
With this resolution, it does not seem possible that Rossetti sets up a straightforward dichotomy of abstention as good and consumption as sinful. It is more a picture of the hope deferred, to which she often refers in her poetry (Blake 2), as becoming a hope lost — women are allowed a portion of knowledge, whether it relates to their to their sexuality or intelligence, but with that revelation they must realise that regardless of their innate gifts or abilities, society will not allow them to reach their potential. As Brad Sullivan points out, Rossetti's "'hope' for meaning and clarity and completeness must be 'deferred' until she can escape from the self-destructive cycles of worldly existence" (1). Thus it is possible that Laura's need for "salvation" is not a result of sinfulness, but of dissatisfaction with her society.
The link between spiritual redemption and social reformation was clearly evident at the St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate, a refuge for fallen women, where Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 (Marsh 238). True success in the mission of the home was found in the fulfilment of a twofold purpose: to reform penitent women into "reliable domestic servants" and to make them into active members of the Church of England (240). Marsh goes on to point out the similarities between "Goblin Market" and a story told by the Warden of Highgate, recorded in "A House of Mercy," an article published in the English Woman's Journal in 1857. The Warden's story is about several young women who, like Laura, take forbidden apples from an orchard, which leads them all to violence and death (242). A striking difference between the Warden's account and Rossetti's poem is that while the Warden's fallen women all become racked with guilt, Laura experiences neither guilt nor shame. The source of her emotional turmoil is not regret for her actions but an intensified desire to eat the fruit again. Thus the poem cannot be seen as merely a message of redemption, for that would entail Laura's feeling that she was morally wrong in acquiring the fruit in the first place. Her cure is necessary, not for her spiritual reconciliation, but for her reintegration into her society.
Further evidence for this idea can be found in the bond between Laura and Lizzie. If Lizzie is a redemptive Christ-figure, it would be necessary for there to be a relational separation between them after Laura eats the fruit, in order to symbolise the separation between God and humankind at the Fall, and this would need to be combined with a sense of shame on Laura's part. Instead, Laura openly tells Lizzie of the bliss she experienced in eating her fill of the "sugar-sweet . . . sap" of the fruit (183), without compromising their relationship at all. Rather than her confession being followed by a symbolic eviction from the Garden of Eden, in the next stanza Rossetti writes of the closeness, almost co-mingling of the sisters:
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest. [184-98]
This image is clearly not of purity foiling sinfulness, as would be expected in a traditional rhetoric of redemption, but more along the lines of what D'Amico sees in Rossetti's religious works: "Mary, the mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, the sinner, stood together at the Crucifixion. Therefore the disobedience that had cost Eve Eden need not cost her heaven" ("Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene" 175). This idea suggests a spiritual and moral equality between what is holy and what is redeemed. Yet I see Rossetti's image as even more radical, since even before a price has been paid for Laura's redemption, there is no relational discord between what can be seen as arguably divine nature and human nature: the two sisters remain equal in spite of Laura's apparently immoral act. Therefore, although Lizzie does play the role of a Christ-figure, it is not for Laura's spiritual redemption, as it is quite evident that her spiritual position — identified through her relationship with her sister — is never lost.
It appears, then, that Rossetti is not necessarily condemning the consumption of the fruit as sinful, but rather she questions whether to do so would be profitable. This interpretation ties in with St Paul's letter to the Corinthians: "all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (I Cor. 6:12). It is quite possible that Rossetti considered this verse in her attitudes toward fallen women, as well as her general perspective on life: she looked for the eternal rewards of heaven, rather than the temporal rewards of earthly life. The goblins play a deceptive role, enticing Laura into a corruptible sense of fulfilment — corruptible because it cannot last; she can only buy the fruit once, but she does not realise this until after she has eaten it, and she thus falls under its power. The goblins cry of "come buy, come buy" throughout the poem seems to reflect the biblical trope of referring to the acquisition of heavenly rewards in terms of purchasing:
Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? [Isa. 55:1-2]
The Book of Revelations echoes this idea: "I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fires, that thou mayest be rich" (Rev. 3:18). Within this discourse of buying and selling, it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven. This idea relates to Christ's words: "provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth" (Luke 12:33).
Rossetti's attitude toward unconventionality and social outcasts is significant, for she seems to encourage an ideology of acceptance rather than judgment. As D'Amico says regarding Rossetti's involvement at Highgate, "we can assume that since Rossetti was involved in a cause that sought to reform these women, even return them to the family structure, she must have believed a fallen woman need not forever be a social outcast" ("Equal Before God" 69). This attitude is a decided move away from the unforgiving dominant one in her society, as seen in "A House of Mercy," which emphasises the evils of sexual pormiscuity. In "Goblin Market" Rossetti argues that "fallen women are not only streetwalkers and sinners but also loving sisters" (Leighton, Victorian Women Poets 137). She promotes social acceptance, for Laura is able to live a "normal" life in the end, becoming a respectable wife and mother, whereas in Rossetti's society, a woman once "fallen" could not regain respectability. Rossetti seems to be saying that if a perfect God can accept these women, society, which is itself imperfect and corruptible, should also accept them. This idea directly relates to her attack against inequality in The Face of the Deep: "saints are ready to receive all sinners: all sinners are not ready to receive saints" (185).
Although the spiritual state of the fallen woman is important to Rossetti, it does seem as though she concerned herself equally, if not more so, with the way society deals with such women. Instead of ostracism, society is encouraged to sacrificially embrace them as Lizzie embraces Laura. The message of the poem therefore becomes just as much for the "Lizzies" in Rossetti's society as the "Lauras." As Marsh says, the poem was simple enough for the uneducated girls at Highate but also appropriate for the "more sophisticated listeners schooled in religious exegesis...such as the staff at Highgate" (243). The redemption portrayed in "Goblin Market," then, is not so much spiritual as social.
In challenging the interpretation of "Goblin Market" as representative of fallen women acquiring a Christian salvation, I do not mean to remove the distinct spiritual implications of the text. The poem continually alludes to Revelation 10:10 — "And I took the little book out of the angel's hand and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter." There are references to Laura being a "sweet-tooth" (GM 115), and to the fruit being "Sweet to the tongue" (30) and "Sweeter than honey" (129). Yet when Laura tastes the juices the second time, they are no longer sweet: the fruit is "like honey to the throat/But poison in the blood" (554-55). She clearly argues that although the fruits of pleasure — whether they are sexual, intellectual, or otherwise — may seem sweet, they can, in fact, be destructive. However, this does not necessarily define the fruit as an issue of sinfulness but of social morality. Consequently its lack of acceptability is defined by culture, not by a Divine Being. The imperfect society of Victorian England forbid such items to women, and therefore the consumption of these fruits brings destruction within that particular society.
Although Rossetti in working at Highgate would not have questioned the immorality of prostitution, she might have empathised with the continued ostracism of these women that occurred even after they had been "reformed," especially in relation to the double standards in nineteenth-century society regarding female sexuality and marriage. D'Amico suggests that Rossetti did not see
much difference between the woman who sells herself in marriage, who does not marry for a genuine love, and the woman who has sexual experience before marriage because she is fooled by the promises of human love. Both are guilty of placing the things of earth before God. ["Equal Before God" 77]
Furthermore, as stated earlier, Rossetti also refers at times to knowledge and education by the rhetoric of forbidden fruit; thus it seems reasonable to conflate the issues of sexuality and education within "Goblin Market," understanding the poem to be less specifically related to fallen women, and more generally related to the Woman Question. It is significant that lack of education ties in succinctly with the perception of sexual promiscuity in women during the Victorian Age, as paradoxical as that idea seems in light of the fears of over-education causing reproductive dysfunction. The education these women were required to have, however, was not the academic education available to men, but moral education: "the girls at Highgate...were perceived to have the moral immaturity of children, unable to curb their appetite or temper" (Marsh 243). In "Goblin Market," Laura and Lizzie have both been morally educated to not even "peep at goblin men" (49), let alone to enter into an economy of exchange with them. Yet Laura is "curious" (69), seeking experience and knowledge beyond the limits imposed upon her.
The problem with the fruit in "Goblin Market" is expressed by Laura herself: "Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?" (44-45). In looking at the fruit as knowledge, this could refer to dangerous, unorthodox philosophies, which Rossetti evidently feared: "it is wiser to remain ignorant than to learn evil. . . . It is better to avoid doubts than to reject them" (FD 38). This rejection of intellectual discovery also relates to women not being able to exceed the boundaries of the private sphere. Laura seeks to trespass this boundary willingly, and Lizzie does so reluctantly, yet regardless of motivation, they both go beyond society's imposed limitations.
Lizzie might not actually taste the fruit, but she does take its juices upon herself, deriving pleasure both from her "sacrifice" and from her ability to withstand the goblin men, rather than from the fruit itself. Lizzie succeeds in her purpose — to "save" her sister — but she remains unsullied. Her achievement is long-lasting, while to taste the fruit is a transient experience. At the same time, it is still Lizzie, not Laura, who is perceived to be unfeminine. Laura fits into a feminized category as a fallen woman, but Lizzie refuses to conform: she is not an angel, for she seeks to buy the fruit, but neither is she prostituted, for she refuses to taste it. Her refusal to consume the fruit causes the goblins to attribute unfeminine qualities to her: "One called her proud,/Cross-grained, uncivil" (394-95); yet her purity remains evident: "White and golden Lizzie stood,/Like a lily in a flood" (408-409).
Lizzie's subversiveness in seeking out the goblins is justified both through her reluctance and her sense of self-sacrifice. She is compelled to act in order to promote freedom for women within her society by confronting the goblins — and consequently the patriarchal system of ostracism. The resolution of the poem reflects Rossetti's apparent ambivalence in regard to womanhood. The "willed confusion of fallen and unfallen" (Leighton, "Laws" 235) in "Goblin Market" shows that Rossetti was evidently torn between realising how blatantly her society seemed to disregard the biblical precedence for forgiveness and acceptance and actually being able to function effectively as an individual within that society. As D'Amico suggests, Lizzie is not the "pure unfallen sister" who saves the fallen woman ("Equal Before God" 70); neither does she function as the pure "opposite" of her sister — "the virginal woman is not set before the reader as an ideal" (76). Laura and Lizzie both eventually appear to conform to their expected roles as wives and mothers, yet in telling their children of the goblins, the moral of the story is not a warning against approaching strange men or sampling forbidden fruits, but a valorisation of female solidarity. The absence of any patriarchal figure or influence is conspicuous in the final image, giving the impression of a cloistered existence. The women become pure, but not virginal; and most significantly, they do not express any regret for their rebellious past.
Even more importantly, during Laura's feverish deliverance from the seductions of the fruit, the question is put: "Pleasure past and anguish past,/Is it death or is it life?" (GM 522-23) Laura's reaction to the antidote is as full of passion as her previous insatiable appetite for the fruit, but once the antidote has worked, she falls into a comatose state, from which Lizzie is uncertain that she will recover. Laura's pulse is "flagging" (526), and Lizzie watches through the night, feeling for her sister's breath (527). Although Laura awakes "as from a dream" and "laugh[s] in the innocent old way" (537-38), she is a much more subdued, shadowy figure than she was at the beginning of the poem. Isobel Armstrong refers to Laura's recovery as a "second innocence" (54), which is a revealing idea, for Laura does not recover her initial innocence, which emphasised absolute freedom:
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone. [GM 81-86]
The portrayal of her "second" innocence is remarkably different, in that it is restricted to her outward appearance, giving no sense of the freedom and life she expressed before. She is redeemed because she seems outwardly to fall into line with what society expects of her: she appears passionless, and seeks no pleasure for herself. Yet beneath the apparently innocent sweetness, there lies a tantilising tone in Rossetti's language: "Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of grey,/Her breath was sweet as May/And light danced in her eyes" (540-42). Laura's innate passion cannot be denied, still reflected in the light dancing in her eyes, but it is carefully contained. It could be argued that while Laura awakes physically from her fever-induced coma, she does not fully recover spiritually or emotionally, as that very essence of her being — her overt passion — is not seen again. She is permitted the "fruit of her womb" — that is, her children — but not the fruit of her mind or her sexuality.
The implications of eating forbidden fruit are ambiguous in "Goblin Market," just as Rossetti's view is ambiguous concerning the role and status of women in her society. She addresses the restrictions placed on women, using biblical examples to reveal that these restrictions are incongruous with the will of God. In "Goblin Market" in particular, she pulls down the ideological boundaries of femininity, allowing women to escape from the extremes of classification: an angelic Virgin Mary, devoid of sexuality, or an Eve, punished for seeking knowledge. Rossetti puts her unswerving hope in Christ and heaven for the restoration of her society; a hope perhaps exemplified by the unconditional love Lizzie shows in both "saving" and accepting her sister.
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Last modified 23 December 2003