It is difficult to cull a satisfying thematic interpretation from Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." Obvious themes might be "that one should be careful of temptation," or "that little girls should not talk to strange men." One might even go on to the end of the poem and decide the theme is "that sisters should love one another." These are rather trite ideas, however, and while the poem definitely supports them (and they are easily defended with quotations from the text), a more careful look at "Goblin Market" reveals that the poem is fairly complex, and able to support a more revolutionary reading than the ones put forth above. Rather than saying that "Goblin Market" has a particular theme, I would put forth the notion that it attempts to deal with certain problems Rossetti recognized within the canon of English literature, and specifically with the problem of how to construct a female hero.

There are no signifecant female heros in English literature up to the time of Rossetti. Female protagonists exist, of course, like Elizabeth in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but they have no outlet for heroic action. They are constrained by the gender-roles into which a male-dominated society has placed them. Elizabeth must spend a good deal of her energy waiting for Darcy to take action; she herself is hobbled by the cords of decorum.

In "Goblin Market," Rossetti creates a rudimentary framework of behavior in which a female hero — a heroine — might operate. Rossetti's efforts are to some degree successful, though she fails to solve the problem completely.

Throughout the poem Lizzie remains pure; this is nothing new. The role of the unstained virgin has existed longer than the English language. Spenser's Florimell provides an early example. What is different about Lizzie is that she actively pursues temptation with the intention of conquering it. When she sees that Laura is wasting away (Norton 1514), Lizzie resolves to go and get her the fruit as a final, desperate effort to save her sister's life. When the Goblins refuse to sell her the fruit (Norton 1516) and attack Lizzie, she forbears temptation and keeps her mouth closed:

Lizzie uttered not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in. (Norton 1517)

Eventually, she manages to save her sister by running home and asking Laura to "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you," explaining that "For your sake I have braved the glen / And had to do with goblin merchant men" (Norton 1518). Laura's cure, implemented by her sucking the juices from Lizzie's face, is somewhat baffling; the reader is left confused as to what actually cured her, the residual juices or her sister's love.

So what we are left with is this: a woman performed a heroic, self-sacrificing action (certainly related to Christ's sacrifice of himself) to save her sister. Good. However, it seems apparent that there are problems with the framework for feminine heroism constructed by Rossetti. It remains a passive kind of heroism. Lizzie does not attack the goblin men, demanding the antidote for their fruit, or weave a spell of benign magic over her sister. She is forced to offer herself up to goblin abuse (physical, sexual goblin abuse) to perform a positive action. It is possible to account for the passive nature of Lizzie's act by putting it into the context of Rossetti's Christian beliefs (Norton 1501), but that does not seem enough. The ambiguities at the end of "Goblin Market" and the almost out of place, strangely irrelevant feel of the last few lines (caused by their sanitized, formulaic tone at the end of a poem so rich in erotic and violent detail) indicate that Rossetti herself had not reached a satisfactory conclusion on the subject of female heroism.


Victorian Web Main Overview Christina Rossetti Goblin Market Pre-Raphaelitism

Last modified 1990