In “Goblin Market,” Rossetti reflects on the role of women in Victorian society. Victorian men had more freedom, education, opportunity, and leeway to express themselves sexually, but women were expected to remain sexually innocent or face serious consequences. The poem critiques the unfairness of society’s double standards, showing how they put women at a disadvantage, and then challenges them by allowing Laura to achieve a happy ending despite her transgression. However, both Lizzie and Laura’s ultimate redemption involves a return to motherly duties and caring for the next generation of girls. Rossetti, then, ultimately upholds a distinctly gendered view of society in which women occupy and find fulfillment within very specific domestic roles.
Many Victorian commentators argued that women should remain innocent—or ignorant—about their own sexuality until they were married, and Rossetti seems to connect Laura’s symbolic sexual fall to her innocence and incomprehension of the dangers posed by the goblin men. Lizzie understand the risks involved in associating with the goblins and eating their fruit, explaining to Laura that “Their offers should not charm us, / Their evil gifts would harm us.” Later she also relates a cautionary tale about a young woman named Jeanie, who ate the goblins’ fruit and then withered and died. While Lizzie’s knowledge protects her from temptation, Laura is curious because she lacks knowledge and experience. Like the biblical Eve, who gave into temptation—eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and suffering a fall from grace—Laura cannot control her curiosity or her appetite. She lingers in the glen and purchases the goblins’ fruit with a lock of her hair—an action that aligns her with prostitutes and fallen women. Rossetti thus seems to suggest that prizing “innocence” and keeping women ignorant about their own sexuality leaves them vulnerable to sexually predatory men who would flatter, use, and then discard them—just as the goblins have done to Jeanie and will do to Laura.
Rossetti further seems to criticize the unfairness of society’s double standards, which punished women much more severely than men for illicit sexual activity—that is, sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage. Each of the three named women in the poem—Laura, Lizzie, and Jeanie—suffers terribly due to the seduction and violence of the goblin men. Laura suffers psychologically, becoming distraught when she can no longer hear the goblins’ call; she also becomes ill and prematurely ages. Lizzie is brutally assaulted by the goblins for refusing to eat their fruit. Jeanie, like Laura, withers and fades after eating the fruit before ultimately dying. The goblins, however, get away without reproach. If the goblins represent sexual temptation at the start of the poem when they seduce Laura, their threat to women becomes intensified as the poem progresses. Lizzie’s confrontation with the brutal goblin men shows that they represent men’s dangerous sexual appetites and, by extension, their capacity for sexual violence. Although Laura is saved and Lizzie survives her ordeal, the goblin men are never punished. Years later, they continue to pose a threat to the next generation of women—Laura and Lizzie’s daughters. This seems like an acknowledgement, on Rossetti’s part, of the rootedness of the sexual double standard in Victorian culture: if men go unpunished for seducing or assaulting women, women can only combat their threat by informing and watching out for one another.
Rossetti also quite radically, represents Laura and Lizzie, the fallen sister and the sexually pure sister, respectively, as nearly identical characters who achieve an identical outcome at the poem’s conclusion: marriage and motherhood, which were considered to be the goal of Victorian women’s lives. Rossetti stresses the similarities between Laura and Lizzie by giving them the same white skin and golden hair, and by describing them identically in language that emphasizes their purity even after Laura’s “fall”: they sleep “Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest / Folded in each other’s wings,” “Like two blossoms on one stem, / Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow.” The difference between the sisters is not that Laura is corrupt and Lizzie is pure; it is that Laura gives in to temptation. In maintaining Laura’s purity, Rossetti implies that men’s seduction is the most significant cause of fallenness among women and argues that sexual curiosity and activity do not make women impure or irredeemable.
However, despite rejecting the widespread belief that fallen women were “ruined” and could never be fully rehabilitated, Rossetti is still somewhat conventional in that she seems to present motherhood as an ideal state for women—evident in Lizzie’s wistful remembrance of Jeanie, “Who should have been a bride.” On the other hand, Rossetti intriguingly never mentions by name Laura’s and Lizzie’s husbands or the fathers of their (presumably all female) children. It is possible, then, to read the ending of “Goblin Market” as the creation of an ideal community comprised entirely of supportive women, which includes mothers, sisters, and daughters but perhaps not men. Although Rossetti critiqued the sexual double standard, in this poem she does not reject outright the belief that women were naturally suited to marriage and motherhood. Rather, as exemplified by Lizzie, Rossetti seems to suggest that women could become empowered through acts of nurturing.
Women’s Role in Society ThemeTracker
Women’s Role in Society Quotes in Goblin Market
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
“Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
They answered all together:
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”
She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
“Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more but dwindled and grew grey;
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 never blow.”
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
One called her proud,
Their tones waxed loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
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.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”