Biblical Allegories in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’
Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ can indisputably be called her most popular work considering the amount of critical attention it has attracted leading to disparate readings that delve into multifaceted motifs, each giving birth to fresher perspectives. Claimed to be as a work for children by the creator, this ambiguous poem has been interpreted as a work charged with implied homo-erotic imagery, as one of the pieces that contributed to the buildup of impending first wave of revolution by the ‘fairer sex’ against the conventions of the Victorian era, as an allegory of the fall and redemption of humanity. Goblin’s Market encompasses a plethora of literary themes with its feminist undertones, gothic style, sexual innuendos and hence the space for diverse readings should be permissible. However, even Rossetti’s assertion that this deceptively simple poem was simply intended for children does not diminish the irresistibility of the prospect of giving it an allegorical reading as “nearly all her poems contain important allusions to and quotations from The Book of Common Prayers and the Bible.” (Jerome McGann). Hence, an interpretation of this poem through an allegorical lens would be an enlightening one considering the symbols it contains.
The poem opens with a detailed description of tempting fruits, which haunt the sisters “morning and evening” (lines 1-2) as they hear the enticing cries of the goblins, “Come buy our orchard fruits, / Come buy, come buy” (lines 3-4), while recognizing the dangers of getting themselves involved with these creatures. Unlike Lizzie, Laura cannot resist the lure of their fruits which she obtains in exchange of giving them a “golden lock” of hers. Shackled by the experience, Laura states to wither away as her addiction prevents her from any sort of ingestion besides the fruit which she does not have access to anymore as she is unable to find the goblins. Compelled by her love for Laura, Lizzie ventures out to approach the goblins for a fruit for her dying sister, who instead attack her as they are infuriated by the fact that she talked back to them. Persistent in her resistance, she does not give into the violence or the bullying of the goblins and runs home to Laura with her tossed silver penny covered in the juice of the goblin fruits, which eventually saves Laura’s life. Rossetti’s narrative follows the standard pattern of the Biblical Fall— “temptation, fall, redemption, and restoration” (Christensen). However, the poem offers a different vision, carrying philosophical and sociological implications as she converts the parable into a feminist commentary by gendering the characters. Marian Shalkhauser identifies Lizzie as Christ and Laura as “Adam-Eve and consequently all of sinful mankind,” concluding her brief study with the statement that Rossetti created “a Christian fairy tale in which a feminine Christ redeems a feminine mankind from a masculine Satan” (19-20).
As June Sturrock suggests that this poem is “inescapably a Genesis story”, the climatic fruit eating scene where Laura indulges into the pleasures of the forbidden can find its correspondence to Genesis 3:1-7 – the Fall of Eve. In the Biblical context, Laura mirrors Eve’s actions in the garden of Eden as both the women give into their temptations due to the cunning of the goblins and the serpent despite the warnings, and undergo a fall – both physical and mental in the case of Laura. Sarah Fiona Winters notes that Laura’s failure to accompany Lizzie out of the glen at twilight echoes Eve’s ill-fated decision to wander away from Adam. Satan tries to persuade Eve that night “is the pleasant time”, just as the goblins manage to cause in Laura a “longing for the night”. The implication of man being subjected to death and decay in the Genesis can be seen reflected in these lines by Rossetti “Her hair grew thin and grey;/ She dwindled” (lines 277-278). The post lapsarian Laura is also shunned by the Goblins, as she cannot see or hear them, after a bite of the forbidden fruit, just like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. This adaptation however does not result into guilt or shame on Laura’s part, just desperation and craving, like Eve’s fall does.
As Laura begins to waste away from desire, Lizzie intervenes. Strong Christian symbolism is evident in this aspect as a substantial number of critics have noted the relation between the unselfishness of Lizzie in “Goblin Market” and Christ’s sacrifice of himself. Rossetti fills the outlines of Lizzie such that her selfless actions imitate that of Christ who suffers in order to bear the sins of the humankind – Lizzie heroically endures the attacks of the goblin’s for the sake of her sister. The reactions of the goblins on Lizzie’s approach are much alike to those of the Roman soldiers who tormented Christ as he readied himself for the crucifixion, “Laughed every goblin/When they spied her peeping/Came towards her hobbling/Flying, running, leaping/Puffing and blowing/Chuckling, clapping, crowing/Clucking and gobbling/Mopping and mowing/Full of airs and graces/Pulling wry faces” (lines 129-138).
The lines that describe Lizzie’s refusal to not give into the torture of the goblins – Like a lily in a flood/Like a rock of blue-veined stone/Lashed by tides obstreperously/Like a beacon left alone (lines 409 – 411) – seem to contain some theological references. When Rossetti compares her protagonist with a “lily”, a “rock” and a “beacon” this for the poet herself would have evoked three scriptural images that she elsewhere identified with Christ: the “lily of the valley” (Song of Solomon 2:1-3), the “true rock” (Matthew 16:18), and the “light of the world” (John 8:12). Hill argues that the image of Lizzie as a “rock of blue-veined stone lashed by tides obstreperously” is an image of Christ, and the entire scene is a description of Christ’s sacrifice, just as Lizzie sacrifices herself for her sister. The line “Eat me, drink me, love me” (line 471), suggests D’Amico, is reminiscent of the Eucharist in which Christ’s flesh and blood are offered in the form of bread and wine. Laura’s salvation is accomplished when she devours the goblin juice that Lizzie brings back as it functions a strong antidote to the illness caused by her earlier consumption of the same fruits. This accomplishment through the consumption of Lizzie’s body, is much allegorical to the Holy Communion.
Despite the strong allusions between the scriptures and the poem, Rossetti resorted to rewriting the traditional story of redemption despite adhering to its grid. Cullinan’s explanation for this rephrasing would be Rossetti’s intuitive sense to avoid the glorification of suffering which the original story does as this could have a damaging effect on the suppressed portions of the society – especially women. In representing woman, not as a passive object of profane love, but a subject and an agent in religious devotion, she also challenges the Victorian “cult” of angelic womanhood. This Victorian masterpiece has enough redrafting to put forth pioneering ideas towards the progression of women, and enough retention to reinvigorate the Christian tradition.
Christensen, Matt. “Can I know it? —Nay: An Alternative Interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.” Victorian Web.
Cullinham, Colleen Carpenter Redeeming the Story: Women, Suffering, and Christ Paperback – August 27, 2004 D’Amico, Diane, Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999.
Sturrock, June Protective Pastoral: Innocence and Female Experience in William Blake ‘s Songs and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market 1994
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Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ can indisputably be called her most popular work considering the amount of critical attention it has attracted leading to disparate readings that delve into multifaceted motifs, […]