Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is a moral tale, telling the reader a story of the depth and importance of the sibling bond between sisters. However, at a second glance, it seems more and more about something a little more risqué. The poem is full of phallic imagery, allusions to virginity and sexual acts, and an incestuous relationship. Rossetti’s Goblin Market, like a modern Disney movie, is full of these images that become more and more apparent as you age. Presented as moral tales, these films are also lightly sprinkled (though the sprinkling in Goblin Market is incredibly heavy handed) with more sexual imagery than one would expect for a children’s movie. Rossetti’s poem, as we learned in class, was advertised as a moral tale. It was about trusting your sisters and only doing what’s right and knowing that the most important thing in your life is your sister. Disney movies fall into this same place, though maybe not explicitly choosing (and perhaps Rossetti didn’t intend this either) to be so blatantly full of sexual images that the moral is lost until the final six lines of the poem.
Rossetti dances around imagery that suggests more intimate details throughout the poem, using words like plump, juice, dripping, and suck, and detailing kisses shared between the sisters that we can assume go beyond a simple cheek peck. The sisters are presented as virtuous maidens who only have each other, trying to keep from falling into the trap of the goblin men who are selling their fruits. In true fashion, Lizzie falls prey and ends up purchasing herself some fruit from the goblin men, and this is where the sexual images set in. Lizzie cuts a curl of her hair, reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, where the cutting of hair is tied in with sexual endeavors. Lizzie trades her hair for these fruit, and “sucked their fruit globes fair or red:” (128). This is an image that seems innocent at first, but when read aloud and thought about a little harder, seems to be a reference to Lizzie preforming oral sex on these goblin men, even more so proven a few lines later with “She sucked and sucked and sucked some more/Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;” (134-135). The repetition of the word sucked is interesting in that she never actually bites the fruit, which you would think she would do if it actually was fruit. The mention of the unknown orchard is interesting too, as Laura is covered in imagery associated with virginity from lines 81 to 86, being referred to things like a lily, and flowers are a standard symbol for virginity and purity. The unknown orchard is unknown territory, and once Laura becomes familiar with it, she is no longer described with symbols of virginity.
The scene in which Laura essentially loses her virginity is closely followed by a slew of suggestions that this is exactly what happened – not a simple scene in which the girl gets the fruit she was looking to buy. Lizzie reminds Laura of Jeanie, a girl who also bought fruit from the goblin men. Shortly thereafter, Jeanie is said to have wasted away after she couldn’t get more fruit and that she “dwindled and grew gray;/Then fell with the first snow,/ While to this day no grass will grow/Where she lies low:/I planted daisies there a year ago/That will never grow.” (156-161). We can read this in that Jeanie has sex with the goblin men, and once she did they never returned to her. She grew to become undesirable after losing her virginity, and even in death was unable to sustain life – grass doesn’t even grow where she is buried, nor do the daisies that are planted. After losing their virginity, women are disgusting, they’re undesirable, and nobody ever will or ever should want them. After eating the goblin fruits, Laura becomes almost catatonic – she stops doing work, she begins wasting away, and Lizzie decides that she needs to save her sister.
Our sisterly bond reaches a point of clarity when Lizzie takes it upon herself to seek out the goblin men, and she takes a strong stand. She arrives to them ready to pay with money as opposed to pay with hair or actions. The goblin men react poorly to this, “Grunting and snarling./One called her proud,/Cross-grained, uncivil;/Their tones waxed loud,/Their looks were evil.” (393-397). The goblin men seem to only want and desire one thing from women in exchange for their fruit, and it’s not what Lizzie is offering. The goblin men have previously been established as animalistic creatures, with faces akin to cats, rats, snails, and wombats, but they had voices like “the voice of doves/Cooing all together:/They sounded pleasant and full of loves/In the pleasant weather.” (77-80). The goblin men, though a little strange looking, are gentle, welcoming and inviting, much like a car salesman trying to trap you into a deal with a mediocre vehicle. Despite the voices, the images alone of animals represented among the goblin men are animals that are sly, associated with mischief, slimy creatures, or just all together a foreign animal – reminiscent of the way people today refer to lawyers or politicians as snakes. The goblin men have turned on Lizzie, and they become violent, their movements all animalistic and their voices gone and replaced with “Chattering like magpies,/Fluttering like pigeons,/Gliding like fishes, –” (345-347). Lizzie stands firm in resistance against the attitudes of these men, and this angers them further into attacking her, and the goblin men “Held her hands and squeezed their fruits/Against her mouth to make her eat.” (405-406). They assault Lizzie, covering her in the juices of the fruits before growing tired of her, tossing her money back on her and departing, leaving Lizzie alone in the woods.
In the end, Lizzie is able to return to Laura, and in a very descriptive scene, revives her. Lizzie rushes in and presses Laura to “Come and kiss me./Never mind my bruises,/Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,/Goblin pulp and goblin dew … For your sake I have braved the glen/And had to do with the goblin merchant men.” (466-474). The sexuality of the poem shifts to the sisters, who are clearly intimate with each other, as we can gather from the language Lizzie uses, and the reader knows earlier in the poem as well that kissing is a common occurrence between these two sisters. Laura rushes forward and “Clung about her sister,/Kissed and kissed and kissed her:” (486-487), and in a violent way, has her youthfulness, her worth restored to her. This scene is a clear connection to the importance of the sisterly bond, but one cannot help but note the physicality between the two girls.
Goblin Market is a poem that is incredibly direct yet discrete about the sexual messages. Much like a Disney movie, the aim towards children is clear, but the writers will often throw something in for the parents to have a laugh at. For instance, another moral tale about sisterly bonds, Frozen, presents a few suggestive jokes and comments made by characters that will go missed by children, but unmissed by parents. One such joke is a reference to the shoe size being representative of male genitals, like in this linked scene. Granted, the scene in Frozen is so subtle one may not make the connection, while the scenes from the poem are heavy handed, but some who read Goblin Market may miss the images before them until they begin searching. Rossetti seemingly crafts an incredibly interesting poem about sexual experiences and disguises it as something about a sisterly bond.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2012. 2145-49.