There is a single image that brands itself into the mind of anyone who reads, “Goblin Market.” It is of a beautiful woman, covered in the poisonous juices of desire and hedonism, allowing her dying sister to drink the salvation from her skin. Not only is it a powerfully arousing image, but, knowing the author’s purist values of Christian virtue and Victorian modesty, the reader is inundated with conflicting imagery. “Goblin Market,” one of the most vivid and erotic poems of the Victorian era, serves to tell two stories. In one, a divine figure redeems the fallen and provides a way for restitution. The other story is of a woman caught in an era where sexuality was a powerful weapon. As Christina Rossetti weaves the tale of two sisters, she also brings to light her own story; a woman trapped between the polarized sexual roles of women in Victorian England. For both sides of the tale, redemption is found in the freedom discovered by the heroines as they recognize their independence from stereotypical female roles.
Rossetti was a product of the culture that defined the Victorian Era. At the dawn of a new revolution, England was the world superpower. Great advances in tools and technology had opened the door for new levels of scientific and socio-philosophical study. By the early 19th century, the countrysides were being abandoned in favor of the city. More than half the population of England resided in London, creating a “ghetto” climate. (Marsh, 1994) In the rush of technology and a booming mechanical market, labor laws had not been put into place. The Industrial Revolution had brought about great economic change, including a large middle class with stringent values. These same economic changes were also the catalyst for a brand new era of darkness. In the ghettos of London, low wages and terrible working conditions created an atmosphere of filth. It was a time of absolutes – the crisp righteousness of the upper classes versus the depraved vices of the streets. (Wikipedia, Victorian Era)
This duality of nature was the framework for Rosetti’s life. She was born into a middle class family who valued Christian virtue as much as creativity. Both Christina and her brothers William and Dante wrote poetry with a group who called themselves the “Pre-Raphaelites.” This group of writers was to be one of the first truly “avante-garde” artistic movements and was a counter-response to the mechanical artistic and poetic techniques of the previous century. (Wikipedia, Pre-Raphelites) Christina, while involved with the group and equally tolerant of the weak morals displayed by many members (including her brothers), she was still very devout in her Christian beliefs. Even at the young age of eighteen she quit going to plays and operas because, “the moral tone of vocalists, actors and actresses is understood to be lax, and it behoves a Christian not to contribute to the encouragement of lax moralists.”(Marsh, 1994)
There was such a strong current in her of the Victorian model of righteousness that it impacted Rossetti’s life over and over again. She gave up chess, and all of her male suitors due to her religious beliefs. She worked with “fallen women” at the Highgate home, which are a likely inspiration for the poem. (Marsh,1994) It was here, as well as in her own liaisons with her male courters, that she must have felt the weight of the Victorian stratification of female sexuality the most. The concept of the Angel in the Kitchen and the Fallen Woman were a part of her life, her work and an integral part of “Goblin Market.”
These two concepts, the virgin and the whore, were a staple of Victorian society. The nineteenth century realization of these two dichotomies of female personality is chronicled heavily. In the paper “The Fallen Woman in the Victorian Novel,” Margaret Wiley reveals the structured social system that gave birth to “the angel in the house and her dark sister, the fallen woman.” (Wiley, 3)
“The angel, who epitomized self-sacrifice, watched over the Victorian hearth, exercised power through her superior moral influence, and created a loving atmosphere that spiritually regenerated her husband from the evils of capitalism.”
The angel of the house is set at odds with the fallen woman, a person whose sexual power has been her ultimate downfall. During Rosetti’s time, these “fallen women,” were growing in numbers as the mechanization of England came to a head. Marsh states, “There were only four real career options available to women, barring marriage: maid, a governess, a factory worker, or a prostitute.” Prostitution was a viable way of life for many in the industrialized lower classes of London. Even Rossetti recognized the social and political factors that created this new class of women, in opposition to the “angels” that were of her class. The strict Christian doctrines that created the cool, repressed Angel stratified women into polar categories, forcing the appearance of the Fallen Woman in Victorian society and, eventually, into its literature.
Auerbach writes that the fallen woman of Victorian literature “becomes the abased figurehead of a fallen culture; her imaginative resonance justifies the punishment to which she is subjected.” England “feared female sexuality and aggression, and so enshrined a respectably sadistic cautionary tale punishing them both.”(1980) The translation of both roles of female sexuality into literature support the social custom of idolizing the perfection of Victorian “untouchable” virtue and denigrating the wantonness of the sexually realized woman. The fallen woman’s lack of self-possession brings her life down a dark path, often reconstructed with help from the angel. In all the early Victorian literature of this kind, the fallen woman has a change of heart because of the angel’s help, yet usually dies as a result of her promiscuous past.
Rossetti created a new viewpoint on this “Angel” vs. “Whore” dichotomy when she wrote “Goblin Market.” In the poem, we are introduced to the customary characters of Victorian femininity. Lizzy is described as the blushing, self-possessed angel so characteristic of Victorian literature. Her sister, Laura, is a curious woman. She represents the sexual aggression that was so feared by the Victorian era. This becomes obvious from the beginning of the poem, as Rossetti sets the two women apart immediately. While “Laura bowed her head to hear,” curiousity getting the better of her, “Lizzie veiled her blushes.”
Throughout the poem, Laura and Lizzie are set as foils for one another, clarifying the female sexual roles. Lizzie gives the warning, “We must not look at goblin men,/ we must not buy their fruits:/ Who knows upon what soil they fed/ their hungry thirsty roots?” She also “covered up her eyes” and “veiled her blushes,” providing the “righteous” example of female demurity. While Lizzie tries to keep her sister safe, she is more concerned for her own virtue.
“’No’ said Lizzie: ‘No, no, no:
Their offer should not charm us
Their evil gifts would harm us.’
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.”
It would have been clear to the Victorian audience that both women (and representatively, all women of the time) knew the penalties for partaking of the “evil gifts” offered by the Goblin Men. The example given in the story is of Jeanie, who partook of the evil fruit and pined for it until it consumed and killed her.
“She thought of Jeannie in her grave
Who should have been a bride;
But who, for joys brides hope to have,
Fell sick and died.”
The “joys brides hope to have,” serve to solidify the sexual nature of the goblin fruits and their great dangers. Lizzie recognizes this danger and, like Joseph of Egypt, gets away from the temptation as quickly as possible. She is afraid to even look at the goblin men. As her polar opposite, Laura can’t help but be curious. She represents the curious, impulsive female that is warned about in both Victorian society and literature. In Stickney Ellis’ “Daughters of England”(1842) she warns against the desires of women and promotes the Victorian quality of self-possession. She writes, “Women, who have committed those frightful crimes which stain the page of history-have all acted from impulse.” Laura falls prey to her own passions and knowingly looks and buys the tainted fruit, representative of both moral and spiritual downfall.
“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 laungh
When its last restraint is gone.”
The vivid imagery of the white, virginal woman giving in to temptation, “when (her) last restraint was gone,” perfectly sums up the dramatic fall from grace in the Rossetti poem. It would have been simple to stop there – to let the reader assume what kind of sexual fall this woman would have. Yet, Rossetti continues the story in overtly erotic language that makes it clear what this woman’s sin is.
“(she) sucked ther fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits wich that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore.”
The language of the poem is vivid and almost over-the-top. The visual image of the fallen Laura, sucking on the goblin men’s “fruit globes fair or red,” until her “lips were sore,” seems too obvious to be denied as being a sexual sin. It also reflects the thought of many youth who experience sex for the first time, “How should it cloy with length of use?” The time spent by Rossetti in the Highgate house, helping to “rehabilitate” the multitudes of prostitutes that she encountered would have given her a unique perspective on the dangers of giving in to the desire, especially the danger of the addictive quality of an awakened sexual appetite.
It is this addictive quality that is exploited by the Goblins, as they entrap the “fallen” Laura. Like Jeanie before her, she has no choice but to “pine and pine away” for the deliciousness of the forbidden fruit. She continues to seek after the goblin men, “in an absent dream” and “longing for the night,” when she can meet with them again. Unfortunately, the goblin men don’t want a woman that is fallen. Only the pristine and untouched Lizzie is able to hear the call, even though she “dare(s) not look.”
To the chagrin of Laura, who desires the fulfillment of the goblin’s fruit, she has sold herself once and can never sell herself again. This continues to support the Victorian concept of the chaste Angel. While virtue was regarded as precious, as soon as it was gone there was nothing that could bring it back. Laura was fallen and doomed to die as many others from both Victorian culture and literature. Rossetti creates a situation in which her character freely chooses to fall and has no way to redeem herself.
In most other tales of this sort, the end is commonplace – the fallen woman dies, even though the angel of the house does her best to save her soul. Rossetti sets herself apart in this way. In a truly forward-thinking climax, she shows her true understanding of the plight of the sexually transgressed woman. Perhaps as an insight from her work at the Highgate Home or her own sacrifices as it pertained to sexual fulfillment, Rossetti shows a compassion on the plight of the fallen woman. Instead of damning her like so many others of her time, she reveals the humanity of her imperfect characters and provides a way for true salvation – for both of them.
The demure “angel” of Rossetti’s poem decides to act, a truly unique characterization for the “self-sacrificing” “morally superior” Lizzy. She acts rashly in her self-sacrifice, putting her own salvation in jeopardy for the salvation of her sister. This completely contradicted the concept of feminine power. For a woman, it was important to sacrifice for others, but never entrench themselves in the mire of a virtue-staining life. Such an act would lower social status, demean the individual, and make them a “fallen woman” by association. Lizzy throws all these cares to the wind.
“Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister’s cankerous care
Yet not to share…
Till Laura dwindling
Seemed to knock at Death’s door:
Then Lizzy weighed no more
Better and worse…
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.”
Lizzy doesn’t simply bemoan her sister’s choices and let her reap the rewards of her transgression. Instead, she decides to act, independently from the social pressure that might have been inferred by the Victorian audience. Because she does, she changes her perspective permanently. “For the first time in her life” she actively engages in seeking the goblin men, unwilling that her sister should have to deal with the deadly stigma of “fallen woman” alone. She puts aside her own prudish “fear” that “she would pay too dear,” and chooses to put her standard up against the goblin men to save her sister’s life.
“White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood, –
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.”
Even though the goblin men try to force Lizzy to do that thing which she knows is wrong, they “cannot make (her) drink.” The impenetrable force of her moral standard cannot be pulled down. This is not the prudish “don’t get your hands dirty” kind of moral values that encouraged Christian woman to ignore the plight of their fallen sisters. This was the kind of value that truly reflected Christ’s sacrifice – placing the moral standards of one woman in danger in order to save another. If Lizzy had not gone looking for the sexual “fruits” of the goblins, even for her sister’s sake, she would not have inadvertently received the “juices” that would save her sister.
There is a lot of allegorical symbolism in this decision. Rossetti, by the use of her characters, helps each to be independent of the Victorian dogma that categorized women into angels and whores. Lizzy was released from her self-inflicted blindness and became the acting hero through her moral integrity in the face of temptation. Laura is saved, not by abstaining from the evil fruit that caused her fall, but by fulfilling her desire for it, and finally tasting it for the poison that it really was. Rossetti writes, “Her lips began to scorch,/ That juice as wormwood to her tongue,/ She loathed the feast.” It is only by partaking of the fruit again that she recognizes it’s true evil in her life. In this way, she becomes truly penitent for her earlier mistakes and is saved.
Rossetti clearly creates a situation that is unique in Victorian literature. She uses the images of the “angel of the house” and the “fallen woman” to weave an allegory that frees them from their stereotypes. Instead of seeing these women as good or bad, she allows them to grow into individuals, free from the repressive sexual values that marked the era. She promotes social acceptance rather than retribution. Laura is able to live a “normal” life in the end, becoming a respectable wife and mother. This directly contrasts with the real Victorian society in which Rossetti lived. 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. ( Leighton, 1992)
Not only does she allow her characters to find and embrace their sexual power, but Rossetti herself is able to convey her own. Through her incredible imagery and the mere content of her poem, she visibly comes to grips with her own eroticism. As the climactic scene shows, Rossetti clearly captures the sexual nature of the woman.
“Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Sqeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”
I believe that Rosetti is able to take the two ideals of Victorian femininity and create a single person – herself. She says in the poem,
“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.”
The two facets of the woman are treated as one. I believe that, through this poem, Rossetti was able to create a whole woman – one that was both angel and fallen woman. She created a poem that allowed the characters to find themselves. In the images, she reflected the Victorian values that she was a product of, and then created a brand new character. This new character, I believe, was herself – a sexually aware, morally upright woman who believed in the power of being able to save herself by finding fulfillment.
1. Auerbach, Nina. The Rise of the Fallen Woman, Nineteenth Century Fiction, June 1980, vol. 35, No. 1, p. 40. 17.
2. Ellis, Sarah Stickney. The Daughters of England: Their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities. New York: Appleton & Co., 1842.
3. Leighton, Angela. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.
4. Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life. 1994. New York: Viking, 1995.
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7. Wiley, Margaret C., Ph.D. The fallen woman in the Victorian novel: Dickens, Gaskell, and Eliot. University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1997.
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