“Goblin Market” by Christine Rossetti Analysis

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Goblin Market is a Narrative poem first published in 1862 written by Christina Rossetti. It is about two sisters, one of whom gets sick after eating poisonous goblin fruit, and is healed because of her sister’s bravery. Rossetti claimed in a letter to her publisher that this poem was not meant for children, however she said in public that it was in fact a children’s story.

“Goblin Market has always been an ambiguous text with a diffuse audience, but-modern marketing techniques have identified two distinct readers-child and adult-and produced different meaning for each.” (Kooistra, Lorraine, 1994: 249)

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On one hand there is a child’s tale about a girl being brave for her sister and that there are no better friends than sisters, about evil goblins and how you should exercise will power and not give in to temptation. On the other hand the poem features a large amount of sexual imagery and it’s complex and sexually suggestive language has caused it to not be seen as a children’s poem but instead as an exploration of female sexuality, an allusion to capitalism and victorian economy and a religious metaphor for temptation and redemption. The poem seems to explore Rossetti’s feminist and homosexual politics. This essay will be aiming to explore female sexuality and whether Rossetti has been transgressive in it’s portrayal.

There are a number of approaches that can be taken to this text as Sean Grass states,

A cursory glance at the introduction to virtually any critical essay on “Goblin Market”provides a healthy catalog of the disparate readings of the poem: as commentary on the capitalist market- place; as tale of sexual, sometimes homoerotic yearning;as feminist glorification of sisterhood; and perhaps most often as Christian allegory of temptation and redemption,”inescapably a Genesis story.” (Grass, Sean C,1994: 356)

Many people have tried to interpret the themes of the poem by going to the root of the text and looking at the life of the author. Christina Rossetti was involved in a number of love affairs which could have contributed to the text in a large way due to their sexual and erotic nature, she could have channeled some of her own sexuality into the poem. It could be argued that this is a factor in how transgressive the portrayal of sexuality is in the poem, if it was her own sexuality Rossetti would naturally make it a strong presence in her own poem.

Rossetti worked with the Oxford Movement’s ‘women’s mission to women’, an organization which set out to help rehabilitate prostitutes by teaching them skills other than selling their bodies such as cleaning and housekeeping. Her involvement with this group would’ve meant that she saw firsthand the Victorian era ‘fallen woman’ who is portrayed as mischievous and evil and who is shunned by society. Rossetti clearly did not see them as such if she was helping them get back on their feet, she saw that these were not the characters that society made them out to be, treating them with sympathy. Her time with this group likely would have affected the poem, maybe it was even one of the purposes for the poem as she would likely have read it to the ex-prostitutes to teach them about temptation and desire. Here were to most sexual women of the time. If anyone was transgressive about their sexuality it would be ex-prostitutes and their company likely influenced Christina’s poem.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina’s brother, was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. They were a group of painters, poets and artistic critics who believed that art had gone downhill since the time of the italian painter Raphael. They insisted that visual art and poetry return to the intense colours and detail which was standard of early italian renaissance artists. This style can be seen in Goblin Market through the vivid and detailed descriptions,

“Apples and quinces,Lemons and oranges,Plump unpecked cherries-Melons and raspberries,Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,Swart-headed mulberries,Wild free-born cranberries,Crab-apples, dewberries,Pine-apples, blackberries,Apricots, strawberries–All ripe together”

This extract shows just how much of a detailed picture Rossetti paints with her words, this listing of the different fruits the goblins are selling is very exhaustive and puts a vivid picture in the readers mind. The use of several different adjectives only adds to the Pre-Raphaelite style of the poem. The fruit is symbolic of sexual desire and temptation.

“The fruit both attracts and frightens Laura by suggesting a combination of sensuous richness, moral irresponsibility, and sinister eroticism that is frequent in Pre-Raphaelite art.” (Mermin,1983: 109)

The poem uses an irregular rhyme scheme, many times using ABAB rhymes but as seen above there is also the repeating of some rhymes many times in succession. The metre is also irregular, mostly keeping four or five stresses with varying feet per line.

The fruit within the poem are constantly used as sexual innuendo’s, the argument for the poems erotic nature can be supported by the language alone. Not only is the fruit described in vivid detail as above but so to are the sexually suggestive actions surrounding the fruit,

“She sucked until her lips were sore”

The verb ‘sucked’ is a dramatic one to use, it is an aggressive action and the use of the adjective ‘sore’ at the end of the sentence shows just how aggressively it was done. This powerful use of sexual innuendo is used throughout the poem which results in the transgressive portrayal of female sexuality penetrating deep into the way the poem is written.

What is worse about the above sexually suggestive action is the symbolic way in which Laura buys the fruit,

“Buy from us with a golden curl.”She clipped a precious golden lock,”

It may physically just be her using her hair as a bargaining tool but there is an underlying symbolism here, she is using her hair which is a part of her body to gain the fruit. She is effectively selling her body to the goblins, this is an allusion to her giving them her femininity and her sexuality. Metaphorically becoming a prostitute.

Another theme in the poem is that of commerce and business and how they affect women. The goblins are selling an array of exotic fruit, they sell some to Laura for a lock of her hair but deny Lizzie when she offers them money. This could be seen as a statement about the Victorian economy and the role of women within it.

When Lizzie must seek the goblin men after her sister falls ill, their words and actions carry strong sexual overtones.

“Hugged her and kissed her;Squeezed and caressed her…

Look at our apples

Russet and dun,Bob at our cherries Bite at our peaches…

Pluck them and suck them”

Although the goblin men ‘hugging’ and ‘kissing’ her aren’t explicitly sexual, taken in combination with ‘squeezing and ‘caressing’ it becomes heavier in sexuality. This is not necessarily female sexuality but rather male, as Lizzie is not the one really instigating this situation nor does she really want it as she just needs an antidote for her sister. The goblins are at times an allusion to male dominance in society,

“Held her hands and squeezed their fruitsAgainst her mouth to make her eat.”

The innuendo in the above extract is that the goblins force themselves on her because she will not willingly eat their ‘fruit’. This could be an allusion to the male dominated society that Rossetti has found herself in, symbolising how women either willingly accept male rule or are forcefully ‘fed’ it.

The fruit which the goblins sell looks outwardly delicious but when eaten they are poisonous,

“As purring becomes demurring, and uncivil finds its echo in evil, Goblin Market offers a cautionary tale about the perils of mimicry. Both the goblins and their fruit call into question the value of appearances..” (Stern, Rebecca F,2003: 494)

Dorothy Mermin has a different view on the goblins,

“The goblins represent the temptations of sexual desire, but of a highly imaginative kind. Jeanie”for joys brides hope to have/ Fell sick and died” (11.314-315). This sexuality is without marriage or issue: no grass grows on Jeanie’s grave and the kernel Laura brings back does not sprout. As in much of Rossetti’s poetry and that of others in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, desire here has no end or final object. The goblins are like odd, furry, cuddly little animals of the sort Rossetti loved, sometimes childlike and charming, purveyors of desire but not its object.” (Mermin,1983: 108)

Mermin is claiming that the symbolism behind the goblins is that of sexual desire and temptation, their fruits are their tools in this respect. They offer their ‘fruits’ without the girls having to make a commitment. I agree with Mermin’s argument to a degree, but believe the fruit is the temptation not the goblins and that the goblins more largely represent men in society. The poem however seems to be set in a women only world, other than the goblins who are not human we do not meet any male characters. A reason which contributes to the lack of men in her poem could be the fact that Rossetti was unable to join the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

An interesting aspect of the goblins is how they are introduced not as hostile creatures but as familiar ones. What is typical of literature is that fantastical creatures such as ghosts or monsters are usually meant to evoke fear, their appearance is meant to be repulsive and alien. When the goblins are first described however it is in contrast to the norm, they are familiar and compared to animals in the real world.

“One had a cat’s face,One whisked a tail,One tramped at a rat’s pace,One crawled like a snail,One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.”

The animals that Rossetti uses to describe the Goblins are not particularly positive, especially a rat and snail which are meant to be disgusting. However, the goblins look quite curious and interesting rather than scary in any way.

There is a point in the story which is very transgressive in it’s portrayal of female sexuality.

“Come and kiss me.Never mind my bruises,Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

…She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.”

This scene is the strongest scene of female sexuality in the poem, it personifies desire and more so the erotic nature of human desire. It is also very homoerotic and incestuous because one sister’s hunger is satiated by contact with the other. This could be seen as a depiction of sisterhood, about women relying on one another rather than on men. This carries on from the Lizzie as Mary theory in which a woman redeems a woman. If we are to take this scene on it’s own, Goblin Market would most definitely be transgressive in it’s portrayal of female sexuality.

There are similarities between Goblin Market and various stories within the Bible, namely Eve’s fall and Jesus’ sacrifice. The fruit which the goblin men are selling can be seen as the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the garden of eden, Laura is the Eve figure which brings about the destruction of mankind in a sense. She gives into temptation and desire which leads to her downfall. Lizzie can be seen as both Mary the mother of Jesus and as Jesus himself. In the Bible a woman caused the downfall of mankind but because of Mary mankind was saved, by a woman.

“Feminist critics have offered new insight into the parabolic significance of appetite in Rossetti’s poem, many Ending in Laura a specifically Victorian echo of the hungry Eve.” (Stern, Rebecca F,2003: 478)

She could also be seen as Jesus due to her self-sacrificial behaviour towards her sister, she faced the goblins and suffered at their hands in order to get an antidote for her sister.

The implications of Laura’s eating of the goblin’s fruit are left open, just as Christina Rossetti’s view on the role of women in Victorian England. Through Goblin Market she has successfully put forward the fact that there is a middle ground between Eve who brought the downfall of man and Mary who was wholly pure and virginal. There are points at which female sexuality is particularly transgressive in it’s portrayal but at the same time there is a lot of spirituality within the text which offsets this.


Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen, 1994. Modern Markets for “Goblin Market”. West Virginia University Press.

Mermin, Dorothy, 1983. Heroic Sisterhood in “Goblin Market”. West Virginia University Press.

Grass, Sean C,1994. Nature’s Perilous Variety in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”. University of California Press.

Stern, Rebecca F,2003.”Adulterations Detected”: Food and Fraud in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”. University of California Press.

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