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Reading "Goblin Market" as a Feminist Text

dchin's picture

Reading “Goblin Market” as a Feminist Text

            With its rhyming cadence and fable-like narrative, “Goblin Market” might easily be interpreted as a children’s poem. However, it is also the tension between these two elements—form and content—that evokes the question of whether or not “Goblin Market” might be considered a feminist text. Despite the cadence and use of a tone often found in children’s literature, “Come buy, come buy: /…Bloom-down-cheeked peaches, /Swart-headed mulberries, /Wild free-born cranberries,” (4-11) the protagonists in this fable-like narrative encounter mature and sexually suggestive situations. When Laura and Lizzie encounter the goblin men and their fruit, the language of the poem maintains its child-like tone but the words are also sensual and mirror the sexuality that emerges as a reaction to the fruit. It is this sexuality that is at stake throughout “Goblin Market”. By choosing to create tension between form and content, Christina Rossetti highlights female sexuality and desire in her poem. Doing so in a form so closely resembling a fable allows Rossetti to discuss female sexuality and desire in a public forum, which her position as an English female writer in the 1800s would not have allowed her to do more explicitly. Subsequently, “Goblin Market” functions as a feminist text through its acknowledgement of female sexuality and desire.

              The insatiably delicious fruit, its effect on Laura, and the aftermath of her eating the fruit bring to mind the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The narrative of this urtext, one of the most well-known texts describing female susceptibility to temptation and downfall, parallels the narrative of “Goblin Market”. Like Adam and Eve, Lizzie and Laura live in a world of their own, consisting of only the two of them. There is no mention of a community with which the sisters interact or are a part of. Secluded in this exclusive world, the sisters are still aware of the danger and temptation that the goblin men present, saying “We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits” (42-43). Likewise, Adam and Eve are aware that they must not consume fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Just as the serpent successfully tempts Eve into eating fruit from the tree, Laura is seduced by the sight of the goblin men and their fruits. As with Eve, her surrender to temptation and consumption of the fruit lead to downfall. However, it is the instances in “Goblin Market” when the poem deviates from the story of Adam and Eve that allow for a feminist reading of Rossetti’s text.    

            Unlike the story of Adam and Eve, sexual desire permeates “Goblin Market” from the beginning.

            Lizzie veiled her blushes:

            Crouching close together

            In the cooling weather,

            With clasping arms and cautioning lips,

            With tingling cheeks and finger tips. (35-39)

The description of Lizzie’s behavior is similar to one of sexual arousal, indicating early on in the poem that the sisters feel sexual desire. As the goblins draw closer, Laura’s desire escalates, and when she succumbs to it, she enters the same animalistic realm that the goblins inhabit: “Laura stretched her gleaming neck/ Like a rush-imbedded swan, / Like a lily from the beck…” (81-83) At this point, having joined the sexual realm the goblins represent, she is different from her sister. Laura’s difference is affirmed by the mention that her “last restraint is gone.” (86) Laura has stopped denying her sexuality and sexual desire as she did in the beginning when she was hiding from the goblins. When she actually meets them, Laura gives even more of herself to the creatures. Instead of paying with money, she pays them with “a precious golden lock,” (126) which furthers the idea that her interaction with the goblins is sexual, given the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. When Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair, he loses his power, as Laura loses her health after eating the fruit. In exchange for her hair, the goblins give Laura the fruit, or sexual gratification, she so desired. The description of her consumption of the fruit is sensual and explicit, and given Rossetti’s subtext, sexually suggestive: “She sucked and sucked and sucked the more/ Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; / She sucked until her lips were sore;” (134-136).

            Furthermore, as the sensuousness and sexuality that exists throughout “Goblin Market” mark the world in which the sisters inhabit as distinct from that of Adam and Eve, they also demonstrate different attitudes toward Eve and Laura’s temptation, downfall, and aftermath. While in the biblical story, the serpent must speak to Eve in order to convince her to act against God’s will, Laura is prompted by the mere sight of the goblin men. The idea to eat the fruit is not planted in her mind as it is with Eve; rather, desire swells up of its own accord. Female desire is not dictated by another party but decided upon by Laura. Rossetti does not fault her for her decision to indulge her desire as the Bible does Eve since Laura does not express remorse for eating the fruit but instead for not having more to consume. Eve’s downfall results in her and Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but Laura’s downfall, her impending death, spurs Lizzie to action. Granted, given the power dynamics between Adam, Eve, and God, there was likely no recourse the first man and woman could have taken, but the actions of the heteronormative male-female community of Adam and Eve immediately following an act of transgression is a significant contrast to the actions and reactions of the single sex community of Laura and Lizzie.

            The way that the two narratives end is surprisingly similar. Adam and Eve are not only expelled from the Garden of Eden, but made to endure labor and the pain of childbirth with no chance of returning. Although Laura cures her sister, in one of the most sexually suggestive passages in the entire poem, they both end up marrying and having children—a very heteronormative ending to a very subversive text.  The difference is that Laura and Lizzie, a different kind of couple in a very different kind of secret garden, are a community of women presented as having agency. Rossetti’s treatment of women’s sexuality in “Goblin Market” subverts the traditional story of man and woman not only by replacing the man with a woman, but by giving her power to act and obtain an ending that she desires. By allowing women to having sexual desire and sexuality in her version of Adam and Eve, she subverts a foundational, male-dominated Western text. Despite choosing to have Lizzie and Laura fall into heteronormative roles by the end, she gives women an alternate way of seeing their sexuality, presenting as theirs to act upon without terrible repercussions. 



Lily Isaacs's picture


Hi there,
doing a piece for my english coursework on Goblin Market where we need to include critical quotations. Would love to quote this reading, however do not know your full name to put in the footnote, could you possibly supply this to me so i can give you credit in my work?
Thank you, this is a wonderful exploration of the text.

Anne Dalke's picture

the missing discourse of desire

this is a nice reading pairing "Goblin Market" w/ the archetypal story of the fall, in which you carefully show us the ways in which Rosetti's poem both picks up on key motifs of the Biblical story, and revises/reverses them. Is this pretty much the reading of the poem that you worked out when you first read it in the Intro to Poetry class?

I'd like to nudge you now to go a bit beyond textual analysis--in which one text is shown to be like or different from another--to go beyond the walls of the literary garden of "paradise"--to begin thinking about the implications, for feminists, of texts like this one, which--as you say, give "women an alternate way of seeing their sexuality, presenting as theirs to act upon without terrible repercussions."

What possibilities might such a text open up for (say!) middle or high school sex ed? Do you know Michelle Fine's archetypal essay on "Sexuality Schooling and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire." Disruptive Voices: The Possibility of Feminist Research. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992. 31-60 --and the long chain of discussion it provoked? If not, you might want to think about reading "Goblin Market" not backwards, to Genesis, but rather forward (and outwards!), to h.s. sex ed classes.....

Joseph Clark's picture

Goblin market feminist reading


I found your thoughts very interesting and wondered if you would like to assist me at all in my coursework that I am currently researching for. I am trying to arguing that a feminist reading of Goblin Market is the most convincing one and wondered if you had any ideas or thoughts towards how best to go about this. Thank you, Joseph clark.