Subverting Romance and Sexuality in “Goblin Market” and “No, Thank You, John”

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Literary Theory: The Basics, H. Bertens asserts that even in the works of culturally and sexually liberal male writers such as D.H Lawrence and Henry Miller, male characters are “denigrating, exploitative, and repressive in their relations with women.” In the poems Goblin Market and No, Thank You, John, Christina Rossetti subverts the idea that female characters must remain submissive and resigned to accept conventional heterosexual, male-dominated relationships which were promoted in patriarchal Victorian society, and should instead embrace independence, sisterhood and homosexuality. Rossetti’s work provides a literary space for platonic, romantic and even sexual female relationships to thrive, and this serves to empower females as a whole.

By bringing her female characters’ avoidance and outright rejection of male advances to the forefront of her poetry, as well as presenting male characters’ pursuit of women as perverse and predatory, Rossetti brazenly shuns conventional heterosexual relationships. Both Lizzie and Laura in Goblin Market do this at the beginning of the poem when the goblin men try to entice them: “We must not look at goblin men/We must not buy their fruits.” The repetition of “must not” implies a sense of fear of giving into desire, which Laura does, moments later, rather than defiance. However, Lizzie is firm yet dignified when rejecting the goblins later on in the poem, whilst their insistent advances are presented as an attack on Lizzie: “They began to scratch their pates,/No longer wagging, purring,/But visibly demurring,/Grunting and snarling./One call’d her proud,/Cross-grain’d, uncivil…” The powerful animal imagery here emphasises both Lizzie’s sense of dignity in denying the goblins what they want, and the goblins’ transformation from flattery used to entice (“Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:/Squeez’d and caress’d her”), to “grunting and snarling” to intimidate and scare Lizzie into submission. The rhyming “ing” ending and the harsh plosive “g” here is repetitive and could represent the multiple attacks that the goblins subject Lizzie to. The mere description of “goblin men” and animalistic descriptions (“One had a cat’s face/One whisk’d a tail…”) may only be symbolic of their devious behaviour; they may actually be human, with these descriptors merely pertaining their monstrous behaviour. By doing this, Rossetti ultimately frames Lizzie as the admirable heroine compared to the depraved goblins, and thus defies expectations of femininity by being stoic, rational and self-sufficient.

However, in No, Thank You, John, the female speaker does not only make it clear that she does not appreciate being repeatedly pestered by John; she also sharply rejects his offers of love. The embedded clause “thank you” in the title implies this pleasantry was an afterthought. The repetition of “never” in the first two stanzas is a sign that the speaker is adamant that her feelings must be respected, and almost carries a sense of disgust at the prospect of courting him. This sense of contempt is visible throughout the poem, notably in the cutting remark: “I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns/ Than answer “Yes” to you.” The powerful negative comparison in this statement would immediately target the male’s sense of entitlement to her attention; the stark contrast between the two statements is further emphasised by the enjambement in across the two lines. The demanding manner of the male character is arguably a deliberate reflection of patriarchal Victorian society, where men would be conditioned from a young age to believe that they were entitled to a woman’s attention (in order to court them), and later, their partnership. In both Goblin Market and No, Thank You, John, the independence and empowerment of the female is prioritised over the notion of entitlement instilled in the men, and this promotes female freedom and happiness over being trapped in conventional relationships with (potentially abusive) men who would render them dissatisfied.

Rossetti also allows female characters to dominate while positioning male characters on the periphery by promoting sisterhood over relationships with men, and in doing so, again rejects the conventional. In Krystal Krocker’s dissertation, she asserts that: “sisterhood and brotherhood also suggest the concept of good vs. evil […] the reason that we know that sisterhood is good is because we know how evil the goblins are.” This idea is supported by Rossetti’s continual presentation of Lizzie and Laura’s sisterly relationship as being pure and loving: “Golden head by golden head,/Like two pigeons in one nest/Folded in each other’s wings,/They lay down in their curtain’d bed.” The imagery of “golden head” presents Lizzie and Laura as angelic figures. Pigeons also often represent domesticity and home life in literature, and the natural imagery in the simile “like two pigeons in one nest,” may be evidence that Rossetti intended to depict Lizzie and Laura as a complete family unit. It does not conform to the typical nuclear family model that Victorian society would uphold and would be viewed as unnatural, but it appears that, through using natural imagery, Rossetti could have been trying to promote the then-unconventional concept that a family unit does not require a male figure or a heterosexual couple to be considered valid.

Conversely to the positive presentation of sisterhood in Goblin Market, the brotherhood between the goblins is presented as being impure and even dangerous, and Rossetti expresses the idea that men collectively present a danger to women: “They stood stock still upon the moss,/Leering at each other,/Brother with queer brother;/Signalling each other,/Brother with sly brother.” Although a family unit consisting only of men, and indeed homosexual relationships between men, would be equally as unconventional as Rossetti’s presentation of Laura and Lizzie’s family unit, fraternities in the Victorian era were widely accepted, including the Pre-Raphaelites and the Freemasons. The repeated internal rhyme of the “-er” ending here could reflect the goblins’ intimacy and secrecy, and gives the impression that they are ominously approaching closer to Lizzie. Rossetti’s description of the goblins being “queer” and “sly” creates a sense of foreboding which is only reinforced by the goblins “leering at each other” and “signalling to each other,” which establishes the goblins as devious and crooked, as if they are scheming together to execute a malevolent plan. The pure and angelic presentation of platonic sisterhood juxtaposed with the unsavoury nature of the goblin brotherhood emphasises the importance of female support against forces of evil, and again, rejects the notion of potentially harmful heterosexual relationships in favour of healthy, constructive relationships between females.

One could go as far as to say that Rossetti’s female characters engage in homosexuality and reject men both romantically and sexually altogether, which centres them as the main focus of Rossetti’s love poetry. Both Laura, and to a lesser extent, Lizzie display signs of homosexual behaviour. One interpretation is that the goblins provide Laura with her sexual awakening, as fruit has been a symbol for female genitalia and temptation since the existence of Ancient Near Eastern civilisation. The imagery created when Laura is eating the fruit and the repetition of the sensuous verb “suck’d” is overtly sexual in nature: the fact that “She never tasted such before,” suggests that her first exposure to the fruit led to the discovery of her true sexuality. The notion that Laura and Lizzie are biological sisters, and that “sister” is being used in a literal sense, is also questionable, as their reunification towards the end and the way Laura “clung to” and repeatedly “kiss’d” Lizzie is both romantic and sensual, implying that “sister” could in fact mean a romantic companion or partner in this sense.

Another plausible interpretation of Laura’s encounter with the goblin men states that: “The act through which Laura “falls” – buying the fruit from the goblin men with a lock of her hair, which metonymically stands for her body – is her initiation into sexuality through heterosexual prostitution (in fact, in “Goblin Market”, heterosexuality equals prostitution).” The idea that Laura has no other alternative but to be forced into the “prostitution” of heterosexuality due to the erasure of homosexual relationships in 19th Century Western society is credible, as women engaged in prostitution only in the most desperate of circumstances, which Rossetti was aware of from her experiences working with prostitutes at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary. The subsequent presentation of heterosexual relations (and the repression of desire for other females due to “compulsory heterosexuality”) as being harmful to the female characters, is further supported by the physical and psychological torment that Laura experiences after her encounter with the goblins: “But sat down listless in the chimney-nook/And would not eat. […] Till Laura dwindling/Seem’d knocking at Death’s door.” One could argue that Laura’s emotional torment is due to trying to unsuccessfully fabricate some sort of attraction to the opposite sex: “And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept/As if her heart would break.” One pitfall of The Woman Question’s theory is that fruit that the goblins offer could represent female genitalia and therefore some may be sceptical. However, it can also be argued that, due to their harmful effects, the fruits and their juices represent the “poison” of heterosexuality (“Their fruits like honey to the throat/But poison in the blood;”), which Laura then comes to “loath.” This loathing combined with her strengthened relationship with her sister could possibly symbolise her accepting her sexual orientation and subsequently resuming her life in a domestic household with Lizzie. Despite mentioning the two women being “wives” at the end, no husbands or marriage are mentioned, which could be symbolic of Laura and Lizzie being devoted to each other. The presentation of heterosexuality as prostitution and males as dangerous to women in sexual relationships concurs with the radical feminist idea of political lesbianism, but it is also a feasible conclusion that Laura and Lizzie genuinely love each other. This leaves men and conventional, heterosexual romantic and sexual relationships out of the equation completely, and instead provides a space in which female sexuality can flourish.

In essence, Rossetti’s focus on the predatory nature of a man’s pursuit of women and the rejection of this by female characters in both ‘Goblin Market’ and ‘No, Thank You, John,’ and the emphasis on the importance of sisterhood and embracing homosexuality in the former, serves to empower the female characters to embrace themselves, other women and their own sexuality. This allows them to reject the conventional, heterosexual and patriarchal relationships that Rossetti presents as so dissatisfying and even harmful to them.

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