The Victorian period marked the first traces of progress in the feminist movement, and poet Christina Rossetti embraced the advancement as her own long-established principles slowly became publicly acceptable. Her poem "Goblin Market" comments on the institutions in Victorian society that she and her feminist contemporaries wished to see altered, creating modern female heroines to carry out its messages. The goblins serve as malicious male figures to tempt the innocent heroines, sisters Laura and Lizzie, to corruption.
According to the Victorian definition, a gentleman "never takes unfair advantage . . . or insinuates evil which he dare not say out," and possesses, among other qualities, the ability to avoid all suspicion and resentment (Landow 4). The goblins in Rossetti's poem succeed in contradicting every Victorian definition of a gentleman throughout the poem; the only male figures present, they represent the deleterious nature of men on the lives of women. In "Goblin Market," the mens' only beneficial purpose is "impregnation. Once both sisters have gone to the goblins and acquired the juices of their fruits, they have no further need of them" (Mermin 291).
The poem begins with the goblins calling the sisters' attention to their delicious, exotic fruits, which represent the proverbial forbidden fruit--one taste leads to destruction. But the goblins depict their fruits as enticing. Rossetti uses rich imagery such as "Currants and gooseberries,/ Bright-fire-like barberries,/ Figs to fill your mouth,/ Citrons from the South,/ Sweet to tongue and sound to eye" (1) to stimulate the reader's senses, just as the goblins' calls provoke Laura and Lizzie. The goblins attempt to lure the sisters by cooing and purring, sounding sweet and inviting, and they constantly urge, "Come buy, come buy" throughout the poem. They are not, however, as innocent as their countenances try to appear to the sisters. Rossetti uses animalistic images to dehumanize the goblins--"One had a cat's face,/ One whisk'd a tail,/ One tramp'd at a rat's pace,/ One crawled like a snail" (2-3). They are not sensuous men, but deceptive creatures. Eventually the goblins succeed in stripping Laura of her restraint, and the diction shifts to "give their strangeness a sinister and predatory quality" (Brownley 578): they are "leering," "queer," and "sly" (Rossetti 3).
When Laura relents to the temptation the goblins present, she has no money with which to pay them, so she pays with a lock of her golden hair. Reminiscent of Belinda's stolen lock in Pope's "Rape of the Lock," this possession of Laura's lock of hair represents a possession of her love, life, and sexual devotion. The goblins' receiving of Laura's golden curl signifies the beginning of her descent, because, through methods of deception and illusion, the male figures have prompted her "feminine initiation into adult sexuality" (Brownley 577). This exchange is symbolic of the unwelcomed domination of Victorian men over women, against which Rossetti appeals, establishing her poem as a "biting mockery of male-dominated culture" (Belsey 1). Once Laura has tasted the fruit, the life begins to drain from her, and the goblin men's noxious effects become evident.
Rossetti implies that Laura's demise was caused by, in addition to the trickery of the male figures, her own yield to temptation. Fear of desire was a near obsession in Victorian society; yielding was a sign of weakness, and Rossetti's poem mocks this obsession with its fairytale-like construction. The Victorian people also viewed excessive sexuality in a negative light, associating it with the lower classes and tribal cultures. "In the slums marriage was virtually unknown and . . . no form of vice or sexuality cause[d] surprise or attract[ed] attention. . . . [This view] suggests transferance of sins we fear in ourselves" (Wohl 1). When the sisters first encounter the goblins, Laura instructs, "'Lie close . . . We must...
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