Most critics interpret Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" as a warning about the corrupting power of sin, lust, and addiction. Laura is enchanted by the goblins' cries to "come buy, come buy" and, against her sister Lizzie's pleas, offers up a lock of her golden hair in exchange for their delicious fruit. However, after Laura gorges herself on fruit, the goblin vendors lose interest in her and she wastes away, thirsting for more. Only the self sacrifice of Lizzie is able to save her from death. The image of Laura sinking her teeth into "globes of red" which she finds "sweeter than honey from the rock" evokes Eve tasting the forbidden fruit. The fruit clearly serves a symbolic role; it leads Laura into temptation, bringing about her fall from innocence. However, this symbolic significance does not preclude more literal interpretations of the Laura's illness. Obviously, goblins did not wander the forests of Victorian England, but real danger did lie in tasting the food of unknown vendors.
A Punch cartoon from the August 4, 1855 depicts a young girl leaning over the counter and talking with a store clerk. The girl says to the clerk, "if you please, Sir, Mother says, will you let her have a quarter of a pound of your best tea to kill the rats with, and an ounce of chocolate as would get rid of the black beadles." (The Use of Adulteration) Although the idea of using fine foods as pesticides is laughable, the young girl's request has some basis in truth; adulteration was a major problem in Victorian England and often resulted in sickness and death, not only of vermin but of humans too. When Rossetti composed "Goblin Market" in 1859, there was little legal protection to ensure the safety of food. "The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture" quotes Bruce Haley describes the deliberate adulteration of food as a common and "virtually unrestricted" practice. In 1860 the first pure-food act was passed, but it was largely unenforced and only targeted the producer, protecting vendors from any liability for selling unsafe foods.
Although the goblins' fruit appears delicious, Lizzie warns Laura about the uncertainty of its origins. When she notices Laura bowing her head to hear their cries, she advises:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
It may seem surprising that the first concern Lizzie voices regards not the monstrous goblins with their furry faces and tales but the unknown origins of their fruit. Such concerns, however, would have been valid in Victorian England, where toxic substances were commonly used as additives. Professor Anthony S. Wohl remarks that,
The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning. ["Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England"]
Often ingredients used in adulteration made food appear and taste better, hence the little girl's request to use delicacies such as "the best tea" and "chocolate" to kill off household pests.
Rossetti compares the goblins' fruit with the modest but wholesome food Lizzie and Laura prepare at home:
Early in the morning
When the first cock crowed his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream."
Unlike the fruit of the goblins, the food that Lizzie and Laura prepare at home has known origins. They take their milk directly from the cows and, presumably, their honey directly from the bees. They knead their cakes with wheat that is white, a color often symbolic of purity. An article from an 1861 edition of The Illustrated London News stated that, "because of the lack of legal protection of food, "the people would do well to keep the dairyman, the baker, and the grocer honest by means within their own power." (LIT, 23) By acting as their own dairymen and bakers, rather than purchasing from unknown vendors, Lizzie and Laura effectively do just that. However, because Laura has previously tasted the goblins' corrupted fruit, pure and healthy no longer satisfies her. Rossetti demonstrates this change by describing the two sisters side by side, "Lizzie with an open heart, / Laura in an absent dream, / One content, one sick in part."
The aforementioned article continues to call for the extension of laws against adulteration to apply to vendors as well as producers:
The adulterating trader may take refuge in the plea of ignorance, and thus escape legal consequences because the law requires a man to be proved cognizant of, and a party to, the fraud before it will attach a penalty to his offence. This has, of course, rendered the detection of the real offender very difficult, because the processes of adulteration are so divided and subdividedÉ Steps should therefore at once be taken to make every man responsible for what he vends.
The goblins in "Goblin Market" do not necessarily produce the fruit that they sell, but they are guilty of encouraging Laura and Lizzie to eat it. When Laura refuses to eat their fruit, they "Bullied and besought her, / Scratched her, pinched her black as ink." In portraying the vendors as hideous goblins, Rossetti suggests that they are responsible for selling corrupted fruit, even if they did not produce it. "Goblin Market" ends with a moral:
there is no friend like a sister,
In calm or stormy weather,
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
This moral is, perhaps, fits better with symbolic interpretations of "Goblin Market" which emphasize sin and salvation. Nevertheless, the ideas of sisterhood and prudence apply in both readings. In an era where food was often contaminated, prudence and mutual concern were invaluable. Adulterated food was one of many facets of a society full of sin and corruption. In this light, thinking about Goblin Market more literally is not so far fetched.
"Food Adulteration" The Illustrated London News (March 13 1861).
"Are Our Meat Markets Under Proper Inspection?" The Illustrated London News (August 24 1861).
"The Use of Adulteration." Punch (August 4 1855). Victorian Web. 10 May 2009.
Last modified 10 May 2009