They’re Not Even Feminist Undertones at This Point: Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”

Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” reveals debilitating socialization and structures that influence gender and femininity, dismantles strong, lasting ideas of an ultimately unneeded patriarchy, and takes what is usually seen as erotic and eroticism and rejects it in place of familial love. Through the poem’s structure, stanza, moral (that the adhesive strength from sisterhood is the most enduring kind of love), Rossetti uses both the definition of sex and social-traditional gender roles to disassemble the structures of the patriarchy and incestual, homoerotic hyper-sexualization between the Laura and Lizzie with their relationship with each other and the community.  

While the definition of sex emanates from the physical genitalia of the existing body, the concept of gender is taught systematically based on sex through social conditions. In “Goblin Market,” Lizzie reminds Laura of female sensitivities and expectations saying, “Dear, you should not stay so late, / Twilight is not good for maidens; / Should not loiter in the glen / In the haunts of goblin men”. Lizzie worries about the goblin men, who eventually tempt and cause Laura’s inebriation, and is also afraid of past experience of Jeanie with the possibility of the same fate befalling Laura. Lizzie asks her sister if she remembers Jeanie and how she too, “Took their gifts both choice and many, / Ate their fruits and wore their flowers.” Jeanie’s infatuation became an obsession as she, “pined and pined away; / Sought them by night and day.” Jeanie’s passing was marked by a mournful and flowerless death. Readers see both Laura and Lizzie’s situation in dramatic irony and Lizzy’s true, sisterly worry. The social expectation of the girls in the poem is to stay in and protect themselves against the “Goblin” men, contrasting their otherwise effective lifestyle.

Through the poem, the speaker believed any other family of Lizzie and Laura to be negligible, yet Lizzie and Laura care for each other as a competent team contrary to popular belief of needing the presence of a father figure. Traditionally, the men were to provide and to protect, however despite the girls’ lack of money, shown when Laura declares to the goblin men, “Good folk, I have no coin,” the sisters protect each other, showing no need for a protector. The girls redefine the traditional lifestyle as a maiden because despite the fact that they were working in the kitchen and, “Talk’d as modest maidens should,” they also, “Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows, […] Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream, / Fed their poultry,” all tasks of heavy farm work and physical exertion. The girls do accomplish these tasks in the “absence” of the standard male foundation of the house and without the impression of lacking someone. They never question their sexuality or their familial companionship, and Lizzie protects and saves her sister from the seductive fruit, enduring pain and taking control of the situation instead of waiting for else someone.

The act of Lizzie sucking the juices off of her sister could be seen as erotic, however, the male gaze is not present in the language of the poem. There is nothing sexual in the repetition of, “She clung about her sister, / Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her: / Tears once again / Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,” because the speaker is just repeating without further and higher detail, lacking sexual build. Her lips also begin to burn, and she despises this “feast,” and there is nothing erotic in her extravagant anguish for her sister’s fate as well as her extensive pain as she gorges, “on bitterness without a name.” The ultimate love she has for Laura suppresses any homoerotic impulses and or homoeroticism readers may find. Lizzie realizes that “Pleasure past and anguish past, / Is it death or is it life? / Life out of death,” a tough conversation to have with oneself especially if the source of the topic is one’s own sister’s near-death experience. She then proceeds to, keep watch next to Laura, “Counted her pulse’s flagging stir, / Felt for her breath, / Held water to her lips, and cool’d her face / With tears and fanning leaves,” crying and trying her best to nurse Laura back to life. Admittedly, there is a kind of love here. Nonetheless, it is nothing near erotic or objectifying and sexual. If anything, it is a familial and platonic love shared between the two girls, as the last line says, “For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather; / To cheer one on the tedious way, / To fetch one if one goes astray, / To lift one if one totters down, / To strengthen whilst one stands.”

The structure of the poem itself also makes the moral more readily available for readers to digest. Not only does it have Goblin Men, but it also features an overt and unabashed moral at the end of the poem concerning the most shining kind of friendship: sisterhood. Rossetti utilizes the idea of the “fairy mode,” and “fairy literature,” in which the fantasy setting of her poem took inspiration from The Fairy Mythology. Rossetti uses the structure of the story to fit the audience. The lilting rhyme scheme and fantastical setting make it seem like a children’s story, yet in actuality, the poem is a revolution waiting to happen, an uproar about the independent, nonpartisan nature of humans sans patriarchy wrapped in fantasy, family-friendly presentable rhymes.

Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” took the idea of society and patriarchy and ripped it a new one, by disemboweling the foundation of a society led by men and fed by the phallus. The poem also takes the idea of eroticism, especially homoeroticism as a relationship between the two sisters and forces readers to understand that the bond of sisterhood will outlast and protect rather than sexualize and objectify.

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