he lifelong bond between sisters allows for the salvation of Laura in the poem "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti. Lizzie ventures into the dangerous goblin marketplace in order to procure an antidote for her sister. Laura, lured into eating the goblins' tempting fruit, suffers premature aging, depression, and bodily decay. Lizzie risks her own life for Laura, enduring a violent beating from the goblins when she refuses to consume their fruit. The consumption of the forbidden fruit parallels the story of Adam and Eve, and the idea of salvation and redemption clearly draws on the story of Christ. The connection between Laura and Lizzie represents the Christ's love for humanity and his willingness to sacrifice himself for man's salvation. Using the theme of unconditional love for fellow man, Rossetti creates analogies between the biblical description of salvation and salvation in the social context of the Victorian era. This poem particularly targets the social ill of prostitution and the possibility of salvation for the women who have fallen.
In the Victorian Era, prostitutes earned the title of fallen women. . Rossetti took an interest in assisting these women, believing that with help they could be released from prostitution (Cahill, 151). Prostitution, a widespread social problem, affected the lives of many young women and children. These girls, with no means to survive on their own, resorted to selling their bodies, a tempting occupation for those desperate enough. Rossetti, in her poem, implies that dominating and exploitive men are the sources of these evils. The goblins in the poem represent the men who rape, manipulate, and seduce helpless women. Rossetti compares the goblins to a combination of animals. At first they appear interesting and harmless, although the moment Lizzie opposes their power, they transform into monsters and beasts. Rossetti describes the girls' interest in the goblins.
Wondering at each merchant man.
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-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
This selection shows the first time the girls stop to watch the goblins. While Lizzie tries to avoid looking at them, Laura stares with fascination. The goblins appear animal-like, compared to cats, rats, snails, and wombats. Rats are associated with dirt and filth while cats are notoriously predatory animals. Although these animals typically have unpleasant connotations, they at first appear enticing and fascinating. Laura seems intrigued rather than afraid and quickly falls into the goblins' seduction. Analogous to the pretenses under which dangerous men lure young women into prostitution, Laura becomes easily trapped in their disguise. Lizzie, on the other hand, does not allow herself to become prey to temptation. When she refuses to eat the fruit for the sake of saving her sister, the goblins completely transform from innocent to monstrous.
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One called her proud,
Their tones waxed loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
The goblins change from animals "wagging, purring" to wild, evil, beasts. They attack Lizzie violently, tearing her clothes and hair and stepping on her body. Lizzie remains unmoving while attacked, barely managing to keep her mouth shut long enough to avoid tasting the fruit that would soil her innocence. Lizzie essentially fights back in a passive way, implying the unavoidable physical dominance that men have over women but also the need for constructive ways to fight back. Lizzie, clearly no physical match for the goblins, manages to defeat the goblins and cure her sister by not being seduced. Lizzie has to endure the creatures head on in order to assist her sister, experiencing a violent backlash, but still prevailing. This may represent the real-life struggle that Rossetti experienced when she spent time with local prostitutes. Instead of viewing the problem objectively, or from a political standpoint, she literally dove into the heart of the action and personally explored the problem of prostitution. Even though there existed support for prostitutes, the problem remained rampant and many women could not be helped.
After years of selling their bodies, women often contracted illnesses such as syphilis, symbolized in the physical deterioration of Laura after eating the fruit. Laura's "hair grew thin and gray; she dwindled...to swift decay, and burn Her fire away." By being corrupted, Laura loses part of her "fire," her soul, her dignity. Prostitution brings dehumanization and eventually death to any woman who turns to it. The girls recall their sister, who died at a young age from eating the goblin's fruits. Aware of her dead sister's ultimate fate, Laura fell into the same trap, suggesting the cyclical and problematic nature of the presence of the goblins. Binding sisterly love and female solidarity helped to connect and preserve both Lizzie and Laura and the prostitutes Rossetti assisted in real life. Rossetti ends the poem on a positive note, describing the vibrantly restored women in their homes, warning their own children about the dangers of the goblins outside. This represents the necessity of continuing action among women and through generations to help eradicate prostitution from destroying women.
1. The poem is obviously allegorical but also biographical. How does the content of the poem coincide with both Rossetti's life and her religious views? What other biographical elements are visible in this tale? Are there any parts of the tale that do not match with Christian doctrine and why?
2. Why does Rossetti use an extensive number of verbs, such as "grunting" and "snarling" when describing the scene in which Lizzie is attacked?
3. The women in the story live together and have no outside contact beyond the goblins. At the end they appear as having children. Why do no other characters, such as husbands or parents appear in the story?
4. How is the idea of unconditional love, love that saves, shown throughout the story? Why do you think that some of the acts of sisterly love include sexual innuendos? Does this bear any relation to the poem's relevance to prostitution?
5. What types of women were most likely to fall into prostitution in the Victorian Era? How did Christina Rossetti in particular contribute to the reformation of prostitution in the Victorian Era? What other social commentary exists in this poem?
6. How can one relate Lizzie's experience at the market with the experiences of prostitution, or even rape? What is so important about Lizzie fighting back with a passive act (she laid there with her mouth shut while being attacked)? What social commentary exists in Lizzie's passivity?
Cahill, Susan N. Wise Women: Over Two Thousand Years of Spiritual Writing by Women. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified 1 March 2009