‘Goblin Market’ Close Reading: The Fallen Woman, Female Sexuality and the Bible

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ primarily serves as a warning to women about indulging in their sexual desires. Laura’s interaction and excessive gorging of the Goblin fruit allude to her indulgence in her sexual desires, and Rossetti uses the tale to warn women of the dangers of such activities. The passage being studied, lines 115-162, takes place after Laura’s first encounter with the Goblin Men and recounts her buying of the fruit.

Fruit is symbolic of sexuality, and Laura’s obsession with it supports the idea that she is indulging in her sexual desires with the Goblin Men. Marina Warner argues that the consumption of the fruit symbolises sex, and this metaphor further solidifies the idea that, by consuming the fruit, Laura is indulging in her sexual desires.[1] The uneven rhyme scheme alludes to a chant, a string of words shouted by one group in unison.[2] This presents a disturbing image, as the young Laura is outnumbered by the Goblins who encourage her to indulge in the fruit, and therefore her sexual desires.

Laura does not just eat the fruit but gorges herself to excess. The repetition of ‘suck’d’ demonstrates the magnitude of her sexual appetite, and desire to consume the fruit in its entirety. Laura is unable to stop herself from eating the fruit, even when her lips grow ‘sore,’ implying that her desire to indulge in the fruit outweighs any physical pain that occurs from the strain of consuming it. This provides an insight into her lack of care for her physical self and her reputation. Laura’s gluttony disorientates her, and she concludes that she ‘knew not was it night or day,’ emphasising the intensity of her feasting, which has affected her senses. Her cognitive ability is also compromised, which is reflected in the lack of grammatical coherency in the above quotation. Rossetti warns women of the direct effects of indulging in their sexual desires excessively, through Laura’s experiences.

It is significant that Laura gorges herself to excess, as this highlights the dangers of female sexuality. Laura’s obsession with the fruit is directly linked to her large sexual appetite, which would have been discouraged by Victorian society, as such appetites would have threatened Victorian social ideals. Victorian women were prized for their virginity and purity, and the loss of it would ruin their reputation. They were not supposed to enjoy sex, as men did, and would only endure it in order to produce children and fulfil their societal role. Laura’s large sexual appetite would have subverted that of the male population, threatening the stability of Victorian society. Laura’s excessive gorging of the fruit implies the magnitude of her sexual desires, which highlights the dangers, and disruptive nature, of female sexuality within Victorian society.

Lizzie’s warning implies that Laura should have known not be tempted. Lizzie notes that ‘twilight’ is a dangerous time for ‘maidens.’ ‘Twilight’ is the time of day between lightness and darkness. The specificity of this time suggests that Laura willingly sought the Goblins, as such a specific time of day is easy to avoid, and should be, considering it is dangerous. The changeable state of nature also reflects the changeable state of Laura’s purity, which she has now lost, as she has indulged in her sexual desires. It also speaks to her transition from girlhood to womanhood, a change that is facilitated by the loss of her virginity. ‘Maiden’ refers to a virginal woman, implying that, before she left, Laura was a virgin and that her sister still believed her to be so. The previous events validate the truth in Lizzie’s warning to Laura, even though ironically, the former is unaware of her sister’s transformation. ‘Loiter’ implies Laura’s complicity in the situation, as she appears uncaring that she was ‘in the haunts of goblin men.’ Laura willingly ventured into the ‘glen’ at a dangerous time of day, with the intention to find, and buy fruit from the Goblin Men, making her fully culpable. This serves as proof that Laura herself yielded her virginity to the Goblins and indulged in her sexual desires by her own volition, despite the well-established warnings that Lizzie repeats concerning the dangers of twilight and the Goblins.

The story of Jeanie illuminates this further, as it details the later consequences of dealing with the Goblin Men. Following her first encounter, Jeanie ‘pined and pined’ for the Goblins, despite their abandonment of her, much to her distress. The consequences of her encounter are explained through the lack of ‘grass’ on her grave. This implies that she is tainted, due to her encounter with the Goblin Men. Her tainted nature cannot facilitate the growth of new life and nature upon her grave. This serves as Jeanie’s punishment, as she ‘grew grey.’ Such a colour implies Jeanie’s barrenness, and inability to become a wife or mother, which were the traditional roles for women in Victorian society. Jeanie’s story explains the consequences of dealing with the Goblin Men. Similarly, to Laura, Jeanie did ‘loiter’ while seeking the Goblin Men. Jeanie and Laura’s stories appear to run parallel to one another, and Lizzie’s recounting of Jeanie’s story serves as a warning to Laura and other women about consorting with the Goblin Men. Jeanie’s story also foreshadows the fate of Laura, if Lizzie did not intervene.

Laura’s indulgence in her sexual desires result in her becoming a fallen woman. Her form of payment, the ‘golden lock’ is symbolic of her fall, as she offers up a part of her own physical body to the Goblins as payment in exchange for the fruit. This references prostitution and strengthens the idea that she gives up her virginity to the Goblins, as she is parting with a piece of her physical self. The image plays out as a transaction, for which she trades her body for the Goblin fruit. The fact that her hair is gold emphasises its economic value, as well as her beauty. The Madonna-Whore complex could come into play here, as the contrast between her purity and sexual degradation. Her temptation to eat the fruit and her indulgence in it is similar to that of Eve in Genesis, as she too ate the forbidden fruit and fell from the grace of God. This enhances the status of the poem as a whole, to a quasi-religious text, and one that is supposed to be educational. By rendering up part of herself and indulging in the fruit, Laura, like Eve, becomes a fallen woman. This leads Serena Trowbridge to argue that the poem is a ‘parable of sexual sin.’[3] Her use of the word ‘parable’ again likens the poem to a Biblical story, emphasising the idea that Rossetti intended for the poem to be semi religious, and a warning to women against the pursuit of their innate sexual desires.

[1] Mary Arseneau, Anthony H Harrison, Lorraine Kooistra, The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts (Ohio, Ohio University Press, 1999) p. 117.

[2] Ibid., p. 118.

[3] Serena Trowbridge, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) p. 122.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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