From Objectified to Deified: An Exploration of Self in “Goblin Market”

January 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

A torrid lesbian love affair. An acerbic commentary on the commercialization of sex. A dire struggle between physical temptation and spiritual good. A child’s nursery rhyme. “Goblin Market” encompasses a wealth of interpretations, some of which smoothly blending together, others remaining diametrically opposed. It symbolizes its creator’s complex nature. With each reading, it challenges readers to analyze, debate, and actively engage with it anew. In light of several of her other poems as well as her biography, yet another voice emerges to guide the interpretation of this intricate work. Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem “Goblin Market” asserts itself as an early feminist text in its condemnation of the Victorian women’s roles and its empowerment of a female heroine. Rossetti denounces her female contemporaries for their characteristic vulnerability and submission to men’s wills through her depiction of Laura’s temptation and downfall. Rather than merely condemn the status quo, she provides her audience with a credible and inspirational heroine in Lizzie. However, the truly revolutionary and feminist quality of this poem lies in Rossetti’s assertion of Lizzie as a female Christ figure. In her contrast between the helpless Laura and the self-reliant Lizzie, Rossetti introduces her Victorian audience to the inevitable shift of women’s roles.The VictimIn the Victorian era, women shouldered the burden of quietly and gratefully attending to their husbands’ every need and whim. Rather than retain their own identities, women became men’s objects and possessions. In her poem “In an Artist’s Studio,” Rossetti subtly addresses the injustice of this relationship through her description of a woman objectified in an artist’s painting. Instead of portraying her “as she is,” the artist merely paints her “as she fills his dreams,” without the pains of living that make her human (14). When he represents her simply as a perfect “saint” or “angel,” he refuses to acknowledge the “wan with waiting” and dimness of sorrow in a real woman’s eyes (7, 12). Rather than allow Victorian women to add the role of victim to object, Rossetti condemns these women for their inability to assert themselves through her characterization of Laura in “Goblin Market.” Despite her initial admonishments to “not look at the goblin men” and “not buy their fruits,” Laura finds herself weak-willed and unable to resist their calls (42, 43). “Curious Laura chose to linger” among the goblin men, thereby ignoring her instincts and succumbing to their will (69). Persuasive and assertive in their temptations, they easily crumble her “last restraint” and watch as she “sucked and sucked and sucked the more” (86, 134). Rossetti further chastises women for their weak constitutions in her portrayal of Laura’s helplessness. Upon realizing the futility of her search for the goblin market, Laura “[gnashes] her teeth for baulked desire” and grows as “cold as stone” instead of actively seeking a way to extract herself from these depths of despair (267, 253). Through her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a woman objectified in a painting coupled with her denunciation of Laura’s weakness and helplessness, Rossetti critiques Victorian women’s passivity and inferior status in an attempt to propel the recognition of the need for change.The HeroineIn lieu of demanding instant and revolutionary changes in gender roles, Rossetti offers Victorian women practical and effective means of gaining power. Rather than succumb to the easy solution of a marriage of convenience, the speaker of “‘No Thank You, John'” assertively rejects convention in favor of her personal needs. Although many other women “would take pity” on the suitor if he would ask, this woman refuses to “perform that task” because she “never loved” him from the start (9-10, 12, 5). Despite his incessant entreaties, she maintains that she would “rather answer ‘No’ to fifty Johns” than succumb to weariness and “answer ‘Yes’ to [him]” (19, 3, 20). Furthermore, the speaker adopts the dominant role when she instructs her immature suitor to “rise above quibbles” and use his “common sense” (29-30, 16). In addition to her vignette of this speaker creating power for herself, Rossetti further encourages women to challenge the status quo by her portrayal of Lizzie as the heroine in “Goblin Market.” Beyond her mere characteristics of purity and kindness, Lizzie’s true heroism hails from her active pursuit of danger and her determination to conquer it. As a witness to Laura’s anguish, Lizzie fully comprehends the risks of venturing into the world of goblins and forbidden fruit. Despite her desire to “buy fruit to comfort [Laura],” she recalls another girl driven to death by her fall to temptation and fears “to pay too dear” (310, 311). Then Lizzie’s wavering ceases when “Laura dwindling seem[s] knocking at Death’s door,” thereby prompting the heroine to take action (320-321). In order to save Laura, Lizzie begins to actively “listen and look” for danger (328). Though she remains ever mindful of the risk, she firmly demands “much and many” of the fruits and refuses to comply with the goblins’ temptation to eat in their presence (365). In both of these poems, Rossetti depicts women who assert their strength and integrity by holding firmly to their principles in the face of temptation.The Christ-FigureIn her most revolutionary and controversial tactic, Rossetti bolsters the feminist voice of this piece through her portrayal of a female Christ figure. According to her biography, Rossetti embodied many contrasts and polarities as part of her “complex nature” (1611). Deeply devout in her religious beliefs, Rossetti “renounced… any pleasures or relationships that did not conform to her strict Anglo-Catholic principles” (1611). Nevertheless, her life was woven with a thread of defiance of convention in favor of personal integrity: she “regarded her choice of single life as an act of artistic self-preservation” despite the Victorian society’s promotion of marriage and procreation as a civic and religious duty (1611). Her ability to reconcile her strict faith with her challenges to convention indicates that she would likewise be capable of toying with controversial aspects of her faith while maintaining the deference for its basic tenets. In her assertion of Lizzie as a Christ-figure in “Goblin Market,” Rossetti simultaneously elevates women’s status and empowers them by simply challenging the importance of Christ’s gender. Because “tender Lizzie could not bear to watch her sister’s cantankerous care” and not “share” in the burden and strife, she parallels Christ’s role as the sacrificial lamb (299-300, 301). She willingly offers herself to evil with the intent of rescuing her fallen sister. Just as Christ suffered on the cross to redeem sinners, Lizzie endures the goblins’ mauling, mocking and clawing in her attempt to save Laura (429, 401). Despite their taunts and cruelty, “Lizzie [utters] not a word” (430). After the agony and despair, Christ rises from the dead for the salvation of sinners and to inspire his people to spread the word of God’s glory. Lizzie likewise transcends the torture of the “evil people” and returns to Laura, for the sake of whom she “braved the glen” (437, 473). By licking the juice residue from Lizzie’s face, Laura’s anguish lifts and she awakes “as from a dream” and from “life out of death” (537, 524). As Christ’s apostles proclaimed his sacrifice, Laura gathers the children to “tell them how her sister stood in deadly peril to do her good” (557-558). In her portrayal of a woman as a Christ-figure, Rossetti further supports a feminist interpretation of this work.ConclusionAlthough she lived in the Victorian era and endured the severe inequality between men and women, Christina Rossetti refused to passively abide by rigid gender roles. The success of her poetic career and her strict professionalism alone attest to her hope for and work towards expanded opportunities for women. In her controversial poem “Goblin Market,” Rossetti anticipates a shift in women’s roles by contrasting the deeds of Victorian Laura with the early feminist Lizzie. As the embodiment of the Victorian woman, Laura easily succumbs to the goblin men’s temptations because of her vulnerability and lack of independence. Lizzie sharply contrasts Laura by resolutely maintaining her moral ground and by coaxing her inner strength to the surface. In an attempt to further challenge these social roles, Rossetti draws distinct connections between the self-sacrifice of the feminist heroine and of Christ. The characterizations of these two women render the “Goblin Market” a feminist work of art. The women of Rossetti’s poems span an array of personalities, ranging from a soulless object to a weak-willed sinner to a single woman to a selfless heroine to a Christ-like figure. Through her self-expression in art, Christina Rossetti finally explores the many facets of her “complex nature.”

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