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"Goblin Market" Christina Georgina Rossetti

Poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), composed in 1859 and published in 1862 in Goblin
Market and Other Poems. See also, Christina Georgina Rossetti Criticism.

"Goblin Market," an early work considered to be one of Rossetti's masterpieces, was intended simply as a
fairy story. Despite Rossetti's assertions that she meant nothing profound by the tale, its rich, complex, and
suggestive language has caused the poem to be practically ignored as children's literature and instead
regarded variously as an erotic exploration of sexual fantasy, a commentary on capitalism and Victorian
market economy, a feminist glorification of "sisterhood," and a Christian allegory about temptation and
redemption, among other readings. Additionally, in attempts to decode what is often described as the poem's
subversive text, critics have looked to Rossetti's life for interpretive keys. The biographical aspects which
have been examined by critics as means toward achieving a greater understanding of the poem include
Rossetti's love affairs, her work with the Oxford Movement's "women's mission to women" in which she
helped "rehabilitate" prostitutes, and her association with her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the PreRaphaelite brotherhood. Since the language of "Goblin Market" suggests a variety of meanings, critics rarely
agree on what the poem is about. Although scholars have failed to concur about something as elemental to
the poem as its themes, "Goblin Market" is generally viewed as one of Rossetti's greatest works.

Biographical Information

Although Rossetti was a frequent contributor to her brother Dante's Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, she
achieved immediate and significant recognition as a skilled poet with the 1862 publication of Goblin Market
and Other Poems. The publication of the volume was hailed as the first literary success of the PreRaphaelites, earned critical and popular acclaim, and paved the way for the publication of Rossetti's next
volume of poetry, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). Rossetti went on to publish religious
poetry, devotional prose, and nursery rhymes for children. Due to the early success of "Goblin Market,"
Rossetti rarely fell out of favor with critics or her reading public and remains a focal point of critical study
of nineteenth-century literary figures.

Plot and Major Characters

The story narrated in "Goblin Market" is often described as simple. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who
apparently live together without parents, are taunted by goblin merchant men to buy luscious and tantalizing
fruits. Lizzie is able to resist their coaxing and runs home, but Laura succumbs. She pays for the wares with
a lock of her hair and gorges herself on the exotic fare, but her desire increases rather than being satisfied.
She returns home and informs Lizzie that she will venture back into the glen and seek the goblins again. But
Laura can no longer hear the call of the goblins and grows increasingly apathetic. She refuses to eat and
begins to age prematurely. Fearing for her sister's life, Lizzie decides to seek out the goblins in order to
purchase an "antidote" for her sister. When the goblins learn that Lizzie does not intend to eat the fruit
herself, they throw her money back at her and verbally and physically abuse her, pinching and kicking,
tearing at her clothing, and smearing the juice and pulp of their fruit on her. Lizzie refuses to open her mouth

and returns home with the penny in her purse. She invites her sister to suck the juices from her body, which
Laura does. The juice of the goblin fruit now tastes bitter to Laura, and she writhes in pain from having
consumed it. But the antidote works. Laura returns to her former self, and the epilogue of the poem
describes Laura and Lizzie as wives and mothers. Laura now tells the story to their children, reminding them
that "there is no friend like a sister."

Major Themes

Critics look to the language and structure of "Goblin Market" to identify the poem's themes. The argument
for the poem's erotic and sexual nature is supported by the language of the poem. The nature of the goblins'
fruit is extensively detailed and described as luscious and succulent. Laura consumes the fruit ravenously
("She sucked until her lips were sore" [1. 136]) and physically pays for it with a lock of her hair. Once Lizzie
decides to seek the goblin men, their taunts carry heavy sexual overtones as well. First they "Squeezed and
caressed her" (1. 349) and then invite her to "Bob at our cherries / Bite at our peaches" (11. 354-55), and to
"Pluck them and suck them" (1. 361). When she refuses to eat, they "Held her hands and squeezed their
fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat" (11. 406-07). Finally, when Lizzie returns home, battered and
bruised, she invites her sister's embrace: "Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me,
suck my juices / . . . Eat me, drink me, love me; / Laura, make much of me" (11. 466-68; 471-72). This
erotic language has been used to support readings of the poem as a sexual fantasy and an examination of the
sexuality and cruelty of children. Some critics focus primarily on Lizzie's suffering and subsequent offering
of herself to her sister, reading this not as a sexual advance but as a sacrifice similar to Christ's redemption
of humanity's sins or as exemplifying the power of sisterhood in a secular or feminist sense.

The language of the poem is also filled with terms of commerce, economics, and exchange. The goblins sell
exotic fruits to Laura, who pays for them with a lock of her hair. Lizzie attempts to pay for the fruit with
money, which is refused. Such elements of the poem have been examined as statements about capitalism and
the Victorian economy, as an exploration of the role of women within the economy and society, and, more
specifically, as a discussion of the place of female literature within the economy. Some critics take this one
step further and maintain that the poem represents Rossetti's own aesthetic theory. The theme of renunciation
in the poem, demonstrated primarily through Lizzie's actions, is sometimes used to prove that Rossetti
believed in the necessity of renouncing pleasure or art's gratification in order for poetry to have purpose or
significance. On a more religious level, renunciation of pleasure is read as a means of achieving spiritual

The basic structure of the poem lends itself to a reading of "Goblin Market" as a Christian allegory of
temptation, fall, and redemption, and some critics have contended that this is the main purpose of the tale. In
this reading, Laura represents the biblical Eve who yields to temptation, and Lizzie is the Christ figure who
sacrifices herself to save her sister. Yet other scholars have maintained that the sexual language of the poem
compromises its reading as a moral tale. Additionally, some aspects of the poem fail to coincide with the
allegory. For example, as several critics have noted, Laura's desire itself is never criticized by either the
poem's narrator or by Lizzie, and Lizzie's act is not one of overcoming temptation or desire, for she never
longs for goblin fruit herself. This, some critics argue, undercuts Lizzie's standing as a Christ figure.

Critical Reception

Twentieth-century criticism of "Goblin Market" is remarkably similar to its contemporary commentary. In

an early review (1863), Caroline Norton wrote that the poem "is one of the works which are said to 'defy
criticism.' Is it a fableor a mere fairy storyor an allegory against the pleasures of sinful loveor what is
it?" These comments reflect modern criticism, as "Goblin Market" still perplexes and inspires scholars.
Perhaps the most common means of investigating the poem is based in biography. Most modern analyses of
"Goblin Market" refer in some way to aspects of Rossetti's life. Some critics, such as Lona Mosk Packer
(1958), suggest ways in which Rossetti's romantic relationships influenced the poem. Packer describes
Rossetti's "intimate friendship" with William Bell Scott, and Scott's subsequent, perhaps romantic,
friendship with another woman. By Packer's account, Rossetti's sister Maria may have informed Christina of
Scott's new interest and "saved" her sister from misplaced desire in much the same way that Lizzie saves

Another biographical angle from which the poem is approached is that of Rossetti's work as a "sister" within
the Anglican Sisterhoods of the Oxford Movement during the 1850s and 1860s. The work of the sisterhoods
involved the reform of prostitutes and the reintroduction of reformed women into mainstream society.
Critics such as Mary Wilson Carpenter (1991) argue that interaction with these women accounts for both the
feminism and homoeroticism of "Goblin Market." Other critics suggest that the poem was meant as a means
of cautioning these women about returning to their former ways. Additionally, critics such as Janet Galligani
Casey (1991) suggest a more secular interpretation of "sisterhood." Casey points to the work of Florence
Nightingale, and Rossetti's interest in this work, arguing that Nightingale popularized the notion of "sisters"
as nurses. Casey goes on to suggest that, having been familiar with this concept and the fact that Nightingale
attempted to elevate the role of nurturer (a traditionally female role) to that of the nurtured (a traditionally
male role), Rossetti perhaps intended to emphasize that Lizzie heals or nurtures Laura and that the idea of
"sisterhood" is really genderless.
One other way in which critics have used Rossetti's life as a key to interpreting the poem centers on
Rossetti's involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, in which Rossetti's brother Dante played a
prominent role. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was primarily Christian in emphasis and was a reaction
against both Victorian materialism and artistic neoclassicism. At the time of its publication, "Goblin Market"
was considered to be the first major literary achievement of the movement. Dorothy Mermin (1983)
described "Goblin Market" as a "vision of a Pre-Raphaelite world from a woman's point of view."
Furthermore, Mermin supports a biographical reading of the poem in which Rossetti imagines a PreRaphaelite sisterhood which she did not feel existed in reality.
Finally, some critics have sought to synthesize various biographical aspects in interpreting "Goblin Market."
Sean C. Grass (1996) attempts to account for the "commingling" of the influences of Rossetti's love affairs,
her work in the sisterhoods of the Oxford Movement, and her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, through
her writing of "Goblin Market." Grass emphasizes the importance of letting the poem point to the most
"fruitful" ways of approaching it and identifies the use of lists within the poem as the "interpretive key." In
his analysis, Grass finds that Rossetti experienced a conflict between her love of nature's variety and her
belief that reveling in nature would cloud moral judgement; this conflict, concludes Grass, is the focus of
"Goblin Market."


Stark criticism of society and the institution of marriage, blatant sexual imagery, and even homosexual
relations: these aspects of Christina Rossettis Goblin Market would likely have been considered
downright scandalous to an astute Victorian reader. Rossettis long poem, written in 1859 and first published
in 1862, recounts the tale of two siblings. During their daily visits to a nearby stream, the sisters are pestered
by a band of mischievous goblins. The dubious creatures attempt to peddle various kinds of fruit which
serve as an especially alluring temptation for the young girls. When one of the sisters makes a misguided
decision, the other must brave a traumatizing barrage in order to save her. Radical for the time period in
which it was written, Christina Rossettis Goblin Market stands out as a literary masterwork and a singular
example of the bildungsroman genre.
Christina Rossetti was born on December 5th, 1830 in London, England. Educated at home by her mother,
Rossetti showed an immediate fondness for literature (Project Canterbury). She was particularly attracted to
the works of British writers and spent much of her time as a youth reading works by authors such as John
Keats (Aires). A devout Anglican, religion played an important role in Rossettis life. Her first suitor, James
Collinson, ended the couples engagement after reverting to Roman Catholicism. Rossetti refused to marry
her next two suitors also due to religious concerns. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1844 and was
plagued by bouts of depression throughout her life (Everett). Rossetti also penned well-renowned poems
such as Remember, and The Princes Progress. She died on December 29th, 1894 at the age of 64
(Project Canterbury).
While Rossettis body of work as a whole is held in high esteem, Goblin Market is widely considered to
be her magnum opus. Controversial for its social stances, the poem makes allusions to multiple aspects of
Victorian society. Interpretations of its events vary among scholars, but underlying themes, such as the
institution of marriage and sexuality, are evident to most readers.
The story begins with two young sisters, Laura and Lizzie, walking down to a creek to fetch water. By the
stream, a group of goblin merchants inundates them with offers of fruit they are attempting to sell. Lizzie,
the wiser of the two siblings, ignores the goblins pleas and implores Laura to do the same. However, the
goblins enticements overcome Laura, causing her to trade a lock of her hair in exchange for some of the
goblins fruit. This scene can be interpreted as Rossettis view of marriage during the Victorian era in
England. The goblin men, as they are referred to in the poem, symbolize the male suitors of the English
middle and upper classes. In Victorian England, social standards limited women to predominantly domestic
roles. It was expected that a woman would marry once she came of age, provide her husband with children,
and serve as the familys homemaker. Rossettis inclusion of the goblins and their temptations parallel these
Victorian customs. Laura and Lizzie are bombarded with offers of fruit, just as many Victorian women were
subjected to offers of marriage. Rossettis stance on this issue can be inferred from Goblin Market. In the
story, Laura is forced to surrender a lock of her hair in order to acquire the fruit. In Victorian England,
women were required to exchange not their hair but instead their personal freedom and innocence in order to
obtain matrimony. Lauras experience mirrors this exchange. After tasting the fruit, it consumes her thoughts
and life; she is no longer able to function independently.
Sexuality is also a contentious issue that Rossetti addresses in Goblin Market. When Lizzie confronts the
goblins who harmed her sister, she is covered in fruit juice as the goblins angrily assault her. After enduring
their attacks, Lizzie returns home to Laura and tells her to lick the juice from her body in order to be healed
from her sickness. In a vividly described scene, Laura does so and is restored to health. Interpretations of
this scene include notions of Christian allegory and children's literature, but one possible viewpoint
construes it as a homosexual love affair. The Victorian era was marked by social conservatism, especially
with regards to sexuality. Rossettis apparent advocacy of a lesbian relationship was unheard of in this
period, igniting controversy among casual readers and critics alike (Rosenblum 66).
Sexual exploration and struggles with the limitations that accompany coming of age both solidify Goblin
Market as a fitting example of a bildungsroman work. When read literally, the poem may not seem to fit the

criteria of the genre. However, the metaphors Rossetti puts forward within the poem establish it as a
bildungsroman piece. Laura and Lizzies tale serves as a symbol for the issues individuals face when
transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Both sisters experience trials within Goblin Market which test
their resolve and determination. Accordingly, Goblin Market is an exemplary (if somewhat atypical)
bildungsroman work and a standout literary achievement from its time period.