"Goblin Market:" Renunciation and Redemption in Christina Rossetti's Narrative Poem

By Kelley S. Kent
2014, Vol. 6 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

In "Goblin Market" (1862), Christina Rossetti (1830‑1894) presents a story of two sisters who must endure carnal lust in order to embrace a higher and purer realm of sexuality: marriage. This poem is a story of renunciation, but not one of denying the body and its desires in order to embrace the spiritual nature of the soul. Instead, Lizzie and Laura learn to embrace both their earthly and spiritual natures in traditional, Victorian marriage. Lizzie appears as a type of Christ in her redemption of Laura, but it is a role that encompasses both earthly and spiritual redemption.

The poem begins with the goblin men’s continual cry, “Come buy, come buy” (l. 4). What these goblins represent is clear by their seductive, sexually explicit, description of their fruity wares: “Plump unpecked cherries / . . . Bloom‑down‑cheeked peaches, / Swart‑headed mulberries, /Wild free‑born cranberries /. . . Pomegranates full and fine” (ll. 7, 9‑11, 21). The goblin men appear to sell fruit, but they really appeal to, and try to waken, women’s carnal lusts: “sweet to tongue and sound to eye” (l. 30). The goblins symbolically want their customers’ bodies, not money for their wares. It is a siren song that Laura and Lizzie, desiring neither to “see no evil” nor “hear no evil,” must avoid, for both see the goblin men as evil characters: “You should not peep at goblin men” (l. 49). These goblin men do not represent sexuality in general but its worldly aspect, carnal lust; they desire to consume the body without its spiritual counterpart, the soul. Sexuality in itself is not evil, just the goblins’ distorted representation of it, which is why their song is so seductive to virgins.

Goblin Market
Original cover illustration of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"

If these “men” represent carnal lust, then Laura’s purchase and consumption of goblin fruit initially seems like a loss of her virginity. Her “fall” begins when she first “rear[s] her glossy head” and repeatedly tells Lizzie to “look” (ll. 52, 54). Laura naively thinks she can buy fruit with standard money, of which she has none. However, what the goblin men want is not her money but herself, of which their fruit is a lure: “‘You have much gold upon your head, / . . . Buy from us with a golden curl’” (ll. 123, 125). Once Laura “buys” their fruit with part of her body, her hair, and sensuously eats it, she has “fallen.” Ironically, Laura awakens to her sensuality only to have it taken from her because she has experienced such sensuality in the wrong context: worldly, carnal lust. It is only after eating the goblin fruit that Laura’s senses cease functioning; appearing “deaf and blind” (l. 259), she can no longer see the goblins or hear their cries. Lizzie, still pure, alone can hear “that goblin cry, / ’Come buy’” (ll. 255‑56): “I hear the fruit‑call but I dare not look” (l. 243). Without eating goblin fruit, Lizzie’s sensuality is not dulled. The theme is not renouncing all sexuality but enjoying it in its proper sphere: the marriage of body and soul, not the carnal lusts of goblin men.

Laura’s “purchase” of goblin fruit results in the symbolic, not actual, loss of her virginity. Although Roxanne Eberle sees Laura as a “fallen woman” (175), and Lizzie’s salvation of her as a “program of reclamation” (183) due to Rossetti’s reclamation of prostitutes (168), this is not an accurate reading of the poem. After Laura and Lizzie heed the call, the goblins are compared to animals, less-than-human creatures. The moment that Laura heeds the goblin cry of “come buy,” these “men” take on animal‑like characteristics; they are like cats (ll. 71, 109, 340), rats (ll. 73, 110, 340), snails (ll. 74, 111, 342), wombats (ll. 75, 341), ratels (ll. 76, 341), and birds (ll. 77, 112, 343). Laura’s heeding their cry results in her own objectification, for she “whisper[s] like the restless brook” (l. 53); she is “a rush‑imbedded swan,” a “lily,” a “moonlit poplar branch,” and a ship (ll. 82‑85). It is this dehumanization, in which Laura becomes a commodity to be bought and sold, from which Lizzie rescues her, not her status as a “fallen woman.” Lizzie saves Laura so that she can recognize her femininity and sexuality from a healthy perspective: marriage, the sacramental union of body and soul, and a celebration of both earthly and spiritual passion.

The contrast Rossetti sets up between Laura and Lizzie is interesting in its evaluation of Victorian expectations of women, and a foretaste of Lizzie’s later appearance as a type of Christ. Lizzie is a typical, Victorian woman of good character; “full of wise upbraidings” (l. 142), she appears “modest” (l. 209), “content” (l. 212), “placid” (l. 217), “tender” (l. 299), and industrious. By contrast, although she continues working on the sisters’ farm, Laura gradually loses interest in “swe[eping] the house, / Tend[ing] the fowls or cows,” and “fetch[ing] honey” (ll. 293‑95). Laura exists “in an absent dream / . . . longing for the night” (ll. 211, 214). She is described as “a leaping flame” (l. 218) and, “in a passionate yearning,” refuses to sleep (l. 266). Laura’s health and beauty rapidly fade after she ceases working; according to Rossetti, these are not admirable qualities in a woman. Lizzie must save Laura from laziness and ill health so she can become a productive wife and mother. However, the domesticity Laura returns to is fulfillment, not renunciation.

Lizzie’s trip to the “goblin market” to redeem her sister marks her initial appearance as a type of Christ. Here, the “marketplace” takes on additional significance as both the temple, where Jesus drives out the moneychangers, and Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Like Jesus in the temple, Lizzie does not buy anything from the goblins, which reinforces her purity, for “her penny [still] jingle[s] / . . .in her purse” (ll. 452‑53). Throughout the redemption scene, Lizzie’s encounter with them is, like Christ, vicarious suffering: “for your sake I have braved the glen / And had to do with goblin merchant men” (ll. 473‑74). While physically attacked by the goblins, like Christ during His passion Lizzie “utter[s] not a word” (l. 430) and refuses to fight back. Lizzie as Christ is a vehicle for understanding Laura’s spiritual and physical redemption.

To Lizzie, the goblins also appear animal‑like, but only after she heeds their call to save her sister. Trying to lure Lizzie with their cry of “come buy,” these goblins begin “Clucking and gobbling / . . . Chattering like magpies, / Fluttering like pigeons, / Gliding like fishes” (ll. 335, 345‑47). Enduring their symbolic rape, Lizzie is also objectified; however, she appears “like a lily in a flood,” a “beacon left alone,” a “fruit‑crowned orange tree,” and “a royal virgin town” (ll. 409, 412, 415, 418). The difference is that Lizzie’s motives are pure. For her sister rather than herself, she “listen[s] and look[s]” (l. 328), responding to the goblins’ song of carnal lust and procuring the juice of goblin fruit. Such sexuality “is neither good nor evil in itself but . . . produce[s] either good or evil results, depending upon the viewer’s response” (Grass 374). Laura responds to goblin sexuality for the experience, Lizzie for her sister’s spiritual and physical health.

Lizzie as a type of Christ is reinforced in the problematic, passionate “redemption” scene, which some critics see as veiled homoerotic desire. However, Lizzie tells Laura to suck the goblin juice off her face and neck, in words recalling the Last Supper: “Eat me, drink me, love me, / Laura, make much of me” (ll. 471‑72). It is an intensely sensuous but chaste moment between the sisters because Lizzie should be seen as Christ here, not as an incestuous lover. Therefore, what redeems a seemingly an erotic situation is Lizzie’s symbolic identity with Christ.

Rossetti contrasts two kinds of passion: one proper, the other improper. Sensuously eating goblin fruit robs Laura of a pure celebration of sexuality; gorging on its “wormwood” (l. 494) juices through Lizzie allows Laura to embrace her sexuality within marriage. Goblin fruit is not evil except the vehicle through which it is enjoyed: evil goblins or pure Lizzie (Grass 374). Both Laura and Lizzie recognize the pure nature of sexuality, for it allows them to hear and ignore the goblins’ cries of “come buy.” The vehicle of Lizzie’s “redemption” of Laura is sensuality, with goblin fruit now seen as “the fiery antidote” (l. 559): “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / . . . . Eat me, drink me, love me” (ll. 468, 471). Such “redemption” allows Laura to embrace, not renounce, her earthly sexuality. However, it must be enjoyed only in the proper context of marriage.

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