Goblin Market is a Victorian poem about two women, Lizzie and Laura, one of whom is tempted by the goblins that frequent their village to sell exotic fruits all year around. Laura becomes grievously ill after eating some of this fruit, and is saved by her sister’s bravery and heroism against the goblins.
To me, the most striking element in Goblin Market is its use of symbolism – of religion, of the patriarchy and, as an offshoot of this, the sexual oppression of women.
Firstly, Goblin Market’s religious imagery is overwhelmingly clear. The premise of the poem is that deceptive, supernatural creatures tempt a pure woman into eating a mysterious and forbidden fruit, which then has negative consequences. This is a direct parallel to the events in Genesis 3; the goblins symbolise Satan and Laura symbolises Eve.
However, there is a second layer to this religious imagery. Lizzie saves her sister by standing resolute in the face of the goblins’ horrid behaviour towards her, enduring suffering for the sake of Laura. She is described as ‘fruit-crown’d’ – an irony – because a crown is meant for royalty, highlighting Laura’s virtuous and honourable nature, yet it is made from fruit, the goblins’ “weapon” of attack. This may be a parallel to the ‘crown of thorns’ (Matthew 27:29) worn by Christ during the crucifixion, to mock him. Furthermore, during Lizzie’s attack from the goblins, she ‘utter’d not a word’, again imitating Christ’s behaviour when he was trialled by Herod:
- ‘He [Jesus] was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7)
- ‘He [Herod] plied him [Jesus] with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.’ (Luke 23:9)
Secondly, although the goblins are in some ways supernatural, they are also described as ‘goblin merchant men’. The significance of calling them ‘men’ suggests the poem can also be read as a poem about the male oppression of women within a patriarchal Victorian society. It is important that while the goblins are running their market and earning money, both Lizzie and Laura are confined to the home, undertaking stereotypically female tasks, such as sewing, baking cakes and talking like ‘modest maidens’. This highlights the separate spheres ideology which was rife in Victorian society, that encouraged men to leave the house and work to provide for the family (in the “public” sphere) whilst women were to stay at home as housekeepers and mothers (in the “private” sphere).
Yet there is more. Rossetti also highlights that within a patriarchal society, not only were women confined to their domesticated “sphere” of life, but they were also victims of sexual abuse. This is evidenced by the goblins’ attack on Lizzie. The goblins, whilst ‘grunting and snarling’, ‘tore her gown’, ‘held her hands’, ‘kick’d’ and ‘maul’d’ her in order to force her to eat their fruits. The goblins’ fruit is a metaphor for sex, and thus this distressing scene symbolises one of rape and domestic abuse, a scenario sadly commonplace within Victorian relationships.*
*A harrowing statistic: marital rape wasn’t criminalised in the UK until 1991.
Of course, there’s so much more that could be said about the poem. I enjoyed reading Goblin Market; it’s beautifully written narrative poem with vivid imagery and multiple interpretations. There are many other offered readings of the poem, but I think Goblin Market’s parallels with the Christian faith, and the message of female oppression are its most significant undertones.
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