Stark criticism of society and the institution of marriage, blatant sexual imagery, and even homosexual relations: these aspects of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” would likely have been considered downright scandalous to an astute Victorian reader. Rossetti’s 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 Rossetti’s “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 Rossetti’s life. Her first suitor, James Collinson, ended the couple’s 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 Prince’s Progress.” She died on December 29th, 1894 at the age of 64 (Project Canterbury).
While Rossetti’s 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 Rossetti’s 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 family’s homemaker. Rossetti’s 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. Rossetti’s 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. Laura’s 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. Rossetti’s 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 Lizzie’s 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.
Aires, DC. “Poetry analysis, In the Round Tower at Jhansi, by Christina Rossetti.” Helium. Helium Articles, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Everett, Glenn. “The Life of Christina Rossetti.” The Victorian Web. University of Tennessee Martin, 1988. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
“Project Canterbury: Christina Georgina Rossetti.” Anglican History. Catholic Literature Association, 1933. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Rosenblum, Dolores. Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance. Carbondale: SIU Press, 1986. Google Books. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.