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Unpicking 'Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti

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On this day in the year of 1830, Christina Rossetti was born in London. She had one sister and two brothers, most notably artist and poet Dante Gabriel, who most famously founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

But, in a time where men were excelling in art and literature, Christina Rosetti forced through the stereotypes and stigma of her age and became a formidable poet in her own right, despite her gender and brothers success. 

Image courtesy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti’s most well-known and loved poems consist of ‘Goblin Market’, ‘Remember’ and the Christmas Carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. But what was it that set Rosetti apart from other authors of the time? Well, if you delve deeper into the underlying meanings of her poetry you will discover some deeply complex and political messages, something that is especially notable in her poem ‘Goblin Market’.

The Madonna/Whore complex

This poem explores the Victorian ideals of the Male/Female power structure, through the perspective of hideous Goblins, who suck the life out of the two female protagonists; Lizzie and Laura. It can be seen that Lizzie is a representation of Eve; she is enticed in by the forbidden fruit and bears the consequences of her decision. This enforces the concept of women being temptresses and a source of evil, rooting back to the ‘Old Testament’. This is an overarching idea that women who do not conform to norms are seen as temptresses or evil, compared to the motherly Victorian ideal of ‘The Angel in the House’ - a typical Victorian wife who caters to the needs of her husband and children, and who is solely dependent on her husband to take care of her.

Violence towards women is also explicitly explored throughout the poem, for example: ‘They trod and hustled her / Elbowed and jostled her / Clawed with their nails / Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking / Tore her gown and soiled her stocking’. Rossetti was highlighting the violence that was a reality in Victorian England, if we as readers are to assume the goblins to be a representation of men.

Submission to male desires

There is also evidence to support the idea of male dominance over women’s exact behaviour, whether this be sexual or not. These lines describe one of the girls being forced to eat the ‘forbidden’ fruit: ‘Held her hands and squeezed their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat.’ This conjures up unpleasant image of a woman being forced into a behaviour. Maybe Rossetti is mirroring how women were forced to behave like ‘The Angel in The House’, the ideal housewife; completely submissive to their husbands wants and needs.

This part of the poem has been likened to rape: again Rossetti may be highlighting societal issue, with men dominating women, in sex and life in general. Not only do women not have power over their belongings or their children; they also seem to have very little power over their body. At this time, the law widely acknowledged: ‘A husband cannot be guilty of rape upon his wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.’ Removing guilt from the husband and transferring it to the wife, as sex was seen as an obligation she entered in to by getting married. 

Conclusions

By simply unpicking the poem, it’s easy to see just how Rossetti was challenging the social norms that she was submerged in at the time of writing. This poem and many of her others show just how and why Rossetti was ahead of her time in her attitudes to power, female equality and social structures. On this day, let us celebrate who she was and the marvellous works she created in her lifetime.

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