The image of a mid-Nineteenth Century “fallen woman,” or one who has sexual relations outside the confines of marriage, is one to inspire pity. Fallen from grace, from God, and from society, this unchaste woman had little place in the rigid propriety of Victorian England. Christ’s message of infallible
redemption seemed only to neglect those who needed it most—namely these prostitutes and women led astray, while it was freely given to their male counterparts. Yet despite what little future these fallen women possessed, there existed at least one poet, whose tantalizing drama of temptation versus piety against a fairytale-like background extended the arm of Christian grace. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” sought to include the otherwise damned fallen women of the Victorian Era under the salvation of Christian philosophy, through the reimagining of the Garden of Eden and deliverance through a Christ-like female avatar.
Victorian society was notorious for limiting the monetary and economic freedoms of women, but perhaps no cultural suppression was as strong as that of the body. “The biblical parable,” Kirsten Escobar writes, “clearly teaches that prodigals can and should be reintegrated into the home and society, but Victorian morality and propriety insisted that a woman’s respectability, unlike a man’s character, hinged upon her unblemished virtue” (Escobar 130). This paradigm is exploited in “Goblin Market,” as a nearly divine struggle between the virtuous sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and the visceral, animalistic goblins. Outside the safety of the domestic sphere, the sisters encounter the wildly sexualized goblin men, who end up enticing Laura to eat their fruits, causing her to fall into a terrifying comatose state. Within this relatively straightforward work of redemption, however, comes the dramatic metaphor of Lizzie’s self-sacrifice, reflected through a pseudo-form of the Eucharist. Laura’s redemption comes at the hands of a Christian parable, that of consuming his divine flesh.
Published in 1862, the poem reflects the prevailing dilemma of the time—that of whether or not fallen women were capable of being saved, or redeemed in the eyes of society. Within the poem, Rossetti presents this gendered struggle; what’s at risk belongs to the female sex, while the satyr-like virility of the male goblins hold the power to control the fate of these women. This dynamic is reflected in a would-be scenario of a scandalous liaison between an unmarried man and woman, as “a Victorian young man did not lose his virtue when he tumbled in the hay with a cottage girl or visited a brothel, although he might have felt sinful, sullied, bestial. When applied to a woman, however, ‘virtue’ and ‘physical chastity’ were interchangeable terms” (Mitchell 1). Rossetti’s painful awareness and feasible distaste for this social construct sets the stage for “Goblin Market; her life, dedicated towards a women’s shelter (where prostitutes and other ostracised women might find reform) in Highgate since 1859, reflects her intimate knowledge with this gendered inequality. The tale of the sisters, with the fatal mistake enacted by one of them, must have been burned within Rossetti’s mind from the similar stories of the fallen women found within the “house of charity” where she worked.
The poem begins following the Christian fable of a woman’s temptation. The goblins’ wares, consisting entirely of glorious fruit which seem impossibly irresistible and perfect, serves as the primary symbol for sin. Mirroring the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, Lizzie’s caution echoes the warnings of God, as Rossetti writes, “’Oh,’ cried Lizzie, ‘Laura, Laura, / You should not peep at the goblin men.’ […] ‘No,’ said Lizzie, ‘No, no, no; / Their offers should not charm us, / Their evil gifts would harm us.’” (Rossetti 48-49 64-66). Lizzie’s pious wisdom saves herself from temptation, or rather, nearly suspends her from temptation entirely. She remains unblemished and sinless against the decadence of the goblins’ fruits. Following the biblical parable, Lizzie effectively “sees no evil” and acts in accordance to a Christ-like rejection of sin, “She thrust a dimpled finger / In each ear, shut eyes and ran” (Rossetti 67-68). Lizzie’s prudence and self-denial heavily reflects the Temptations of Christ, in which she, following the biblical tale, rejects the salacious offers made to her. Thus, Rossetti sets up her metaphorical analogy of Lizzie as the sinless Messiah, whose future deeds would save the fallen.
However, Laura, the more reckless sister, becomes the avatar of Eve. Her aimless curiosity and wayward enticement brings forth a cataclysmic descent from grace. As she possesses no monetary means of purchasing the fruit, she instead sells her body:
She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine (Rossetti 127-130).
By trading her chastity in a battle of temptation, Laura has unwittingly damned herself to decay. Victorian women, who were credited “as guardians of virtue and civil decency” (Escobar 131), represented entirely the keepers of spotless morality. However, as Laura willingly fell from grace, her health wanes rapidly and her place in society, as a caretaker of the home and representative of the domestic sphere, is challenged. Quite literally, Laura’s position as a woman is revoked, and she is no longer able to perform the perceived feminine duties of housekeeping:
She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetch’d honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat (Rossetti 293-298).
Laura’s fall from grace includes a fall from womanhood; she is now useless to an unforgiving society and forfeits the right to function autonomously. In a traditional Victorian narrative, perhaps this is where Laura’s fate lies, as penance for her sinful deeds. But Rossetti offers an alternative; the story offers salvation, in the form of woman—more specifically, that of a sister.
As time passes, and Laura’s sinful decay has rendered her nearly comatose, Lizzie then steps into action. The transition from the festering sin of Laura’s habits towards her eventual reclamation mirrors the biblical necessity of God sending forth a savior, through the form of Jesus Christ. Through a nearly prophetic sense of wisdom, Lizzie knows that she must perform the impossible, and bear the sins of Laura in order to save her. As Lizzie returns to the goblin merchants and seeks their wares, they then turn on her. In a scene of an almost brutal, orgy-like defamation of her body, Lizzie stands firm against an onslaught of sin and vice, further reflecting Christ’s Temptations:
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word (Rossetti 424-430).
In this extract, Lizzie’s bearing of the goblin attacks mirrors the scene of Crucifixion. Her suffering becomes deified, and “her submission to the buffeting of goblins, like the Christ she symbolically resembles, allows her to attain the means of Laura’s cure” (Escobar 146). By bearing the vilest of “mankind,” directly through the sin of her sister, and remaining stoic against it, Lizzie earns the salvation for her fellow sister and can then transcend back towards home. She bears the sins of the goblins and Laura alike, and proceeds in saving her precious sister.
Rossetti then stretches the biblical parable even further. Abandoned by Victorian society, only the Messiah-like Lizzie can save Laura through an almost cannibalistic ritual of purification (reflecting the Christian ritual of the Eucharist). Lizzie, embodying the salvation of womankind, pleads for Laura:
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from the goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men (Rossetti 468-474).
Bypassing the potential sexual connotations, Lizzie’s command for Laura to “eat” and “drink” her body recreates the image of holy cannibalism; just as Christ’s flesh and blood are consumed as part of Communion, so must Lizzie’s for the redemption of the fallen Laura to be completed. Rossetti twists the story, as Lizzie does not bring an antidote, but rather “she is the antidote. She brings proof that the goblin fruit is bitter, and she offers as an alternative both the gift of love and an example of a better way of life.” (Mermin 112). After a mutilating repentance, in which Laura’s sins are essentially burnt and smoldered away (drawing upon a hellish punishment), she is redeemed. Laura becomes virtuous once more, as “Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey, / Her breath was as sweet as May / And light danced in her eyes” (Rossetti 540-542). The fallen woman has been saved; Christ “herself” offers her body to the damned and allows for Laura to repent just as any other sinner would.
Rossetti’s invocation of the Eucharist borders on an almost heretical level of judgment, as she makes clear that she considers Laura, despite being a fallen woman, worth saving. Notwithstanding all of her sins and her stray from grace, she too is allowed to consume the body of God, symbolically through licking the fruit juices off her sister’s flesh, and become redeemed. As Marylu Hill suggests, “Rossetti demonstrates a firm belief both in the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ within the bread and wine, as well as in the efficacy of the Eucharist to redeem and cleanse those who receive it” (Hill 456). Rather than simply narrating a woman’s return from grace, Rossetti mindfully evokes the most sacred of biblical practices,
the consumption of the flesh of Christ, in order to prove the possibility fallen women hold in returning to grace. Further still, both Laura and Lizzie grow old, marry, and have children of their own, to whom they advise, “For there is no friend like a sister” (Rossetti 562). Female solidarity, Rossetti writes, and sisterly affection, are essential for a woman to exist in the oppressive society around her. In the happily ever after she provides, Rossetti’s allegory becomes clear: all men and women are capable of repentance, despite what the prevailing societal attitudes might believe.
Rossetti’s campaign in favor of fallen women reflects a courageous break from established societal norms. Her poetry, and therefore her message, provides a clear-cut path to redemption and an inspiring message of hope to all. Leaving no stone unturned, Rossetti has delved into the deepest, most sacred of religious practices in order to make her claim that women,
even those whom Victorian society condemns, are worth saving. Through a powerful combination of recreating the Temptations of Christ as well as Eucharist symbolism, Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” serves as a welcoming call to all people to be saved under the traditional Christian philosophy of repentance.
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