Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works
The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
(This is part three of the essay. Part three can be found here, part two can be found here and part one can be found here.)
“GOBLIN MARKET”: SUFFERING SISTERS
“Goblin Market” can be read as a study of relational dynamics between sisters. Lizzie and Laura are two sisters who differ widely in their personalities and morality. “The poem itself places heavy emphasis on the importance of having a strong sister. Laura, the weaker sister, unable to restrain first her curiosity and then her desire, owes her life and perhaps salvation to the moral strength of her sister, Lizzie” (McNaron). This idea of a “weaker” sister relying on a stronger one echoes Rossetti’s personal experience with her older sister Maria, who was a devoutly religious woman. The two sisters were extremely close until Maria’s death when Rossetti was 46 years old. Rossetti would later describe Maria as her “’irreplaceable sister and friend’” (McNaron). Many scholars hold firmly to the belief that Maria had a negative effect on her younger sister and that Rossetti struggled to attain the moral perfection she saw displayed in Maria, a perfection that can be seen in “Goblin Market’s” Lizzie.
Austen, Rossetti, and Alcott all remained unmarried; but Rossetti shared another parallel with Austen in the fact that her older sister also never married, although Rossetti herself rejected two marriage proposals for religious reasons. Rossetti was raised in England amid the Tractarian Movement, which “brought with it a renewed emphasis on woman’s sinfulness, moral weakness and role in the Fall” (Palazzo xii). Within this focus on women’s guilt was a push “to promote sisterhoods” and lead young girls “towards the passions of martyrdom, either real or imagined” (Palazzo). “Goblin Market” is probably the best and most optimistic version of many poems portraying a young Rossetti struggling to work through this complicated version of piety for women.
Reading “Goblin Market” through a religious lens is helpful in many ways when one considers Rossetti’s complicated background. Rossetti’s Tractarianism most certainly influenced her writing, and for Simon Humphries its influence was strongest in one particular way. In “Goblin Market,” the same fruit that nearly kills Laura also brings her back to life in the end. What changes is not the fruit itself but the way it is obtained and consumed. This paradox plays itself out in other elements of the poem as well. A common reading of “Goblin Market” is one in which people see a religious unity throughout the poem. However, Humphries shows how Rossetti instead used “theological contradiction”—such as the fruit that can “both destroy and save” (Humphries). As he concludes, “When the fruit is offered not by the malign goblin men, but by the self- sacrificing Lizzie, it becomes curative” (Humphries). The bond built and nurtured between the sisters transforms the evil power presented by the goblin men into its own cure.
The strength that Rossetti saw in her sister Maria lent itself to her creation of a strong heroine in Lizzie. Literary scholar Diane D’Amico writes in her essay “Maria: Christina Rossetti’s Irreplaceable Sister and Friend” that:
The two people who provided Christina with sustaining daily love were her mother and her sister…The poem [“Goblin Market”] does depict a feminine world of order, duty, and love, which is set against a darker, sinister world of escapism and indulgence, represented by creatures that are predominantly masculine…Moreover, there are no men associated with the world of the sisters…To suggest that Christina is rejecting the male world completely or portraying it as satanic is too extreme a reading and in many ways out of keeping with the rest of her work. However, it is significant that in this, one of her major poems, she depicts a female-hero.
Alone Lizzie has the courage she needs; there is no father, brother, or lover to whom she turns. (McNaron)
Interestingly, here we can note again the focus on love, duty, honor, and respect seen in communities of women. These are the attributes that present a stark contrast to the world of goblin men.
Besides lending itself to a strong focus on piety, Rossetti’s religious fervor also led to an emphasis on forgiveness and grace. When Laura breaks the code of sisterhood by leaving her sister in favor of the goblin men’s fruit, Lizzie could reject her. However, she does the exact opposite. Instead of rejecting her sister, Lizzie worries and makes plans—eventually going so far as to risk her own life to save her sister’s. Rossetti experienced similar examples of grace and second chances at work in reality, or as Kathleen Vejvoda puts it: “The importance of unfallen women saving fallen women was more than a commonplace for Rossetti” (Vejvoda). A few months before she began writing “Goblin Market,” Rossetti started to volunteer at a religious home for prostitutes and other “fallen women.” It was called St. Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women or House of Charity and was run by nuns and other women volunteers called “sisters.” D’Amico also explains Rossetti’s religious thought helpfully:
Although her faith certainly led her to see the fallen women of her time as sinners, for Rossetti that was not the end of their story. Not only could each fallen woman become a saint, but each individual should also aspire to be like the penitent and loving Mary Magdalene.
For Rossetti, sisterhood is at its core a redemptive experience, a belief she evoked clearly in the characters of Lizzie and Laura.
Besides the obvious difference of being a poem, the other great distinction between “Goblin Market” and the two novels is the way in which men disrupt sisterhood within the work. At no time do the goblin men represent potential husbands as men clearly do in Pride and Prejudice and Little Women; however, they do unmistakably convey the dangers and threat that men can bring to communities of women. For a nineteenth-century audience especially, one constant threat from men was the potential destruction of a woman’s virtue. At the time, single women were basically forbidden to be in a man’s presence alone, and men were often portrayed as vicious predators preying on unwary or immoral women.
Because of this, it is easy to see why there is a prevalent reading of “Goblin Market” as a poem about sexual temptation, namely the dangers of premarital sex. Many scholars have viewed the fruit offered by the goblin men as indicative of sexual enticement and have pointed out the constant warnings for the girls to stay away from what the goblin men are selling—such as Lizzie’s many warnings to Laura:
‘We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?’
‘No,’ said Lizzie, ‘No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us’
Throughout the poem, we also hear warnings featuring Jeanie, a cautionary tale of a girl who had also fallen victim to the goblin men. Lizzie asks her sister:
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
Pluck’d 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
This is easily a scene of foreshadowing as the reader is introduced to exactly what will happen to Laura now that she has tasted the goblin fruit. If the fruit is sexual temptation and Laura has given in to it, then this shows that her punishment will be a slow death and torment caused by an unquenchable hunger. This reading of sexuality and the dangers of men is absolutely valid and easily supported; however, it places the focus too heavily on the necessity of avoiding bad men rather than on the closeness between the two sisters. The goblin men are characterized as men for a reason; the story would be completely different if goblin women were at the market instead.
The connection between Lizzie and Laura is the strongest and most obvious sisterhood. Partly because the poem compacts their story and partly because of the focus on self-sacrifice, the two sisters’ bond is striking. Laura and Lizzie in “Goblin Market” exist at first in a realm of unbroken communion with words being nearly unnecessary:
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:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
The sisters are literally inseparable, embraced in such a close bond that their two separate entities and identities merge together. Going about their daily tasks, the two sisters gain happiness and purpose from their work and from their relationship with each other. It is not until the goblin men appear with their temptations that the idyllic harmony between the two sisters is destroyed. Only later in the poem does Lizzie’s love eventually win Laura back to the connection of sisterhood.
The day after Laura chooses to eat the fruit the goblins offer, she goes happily with Lizzie in hopes of again eating the fruit she craves. However, there is one big difference: only Lizzie can hear the goblin men, and Laura’s reaction is telling:
Laura turn’d cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
‘Come buy our fruits, come buy’
Her desire for the fruit consumes her, and that night after she waits for Lizzie to fall asleep, she weeps not for what she has lost but instead for “baulk’d desire”—what she cannot have. Laura’s act of separation from her sister leads her to feel so differently that she cannot even cry in front of her. It is not so much the act of eating the fruit that causes Laura to slowly fade, but instead it is her insane craving and desire for more of it. This sense of selfishness and longing did not exist at the beginning of the poem, and Lizzie has no trace of it in herself.
Michie uses “Goblin Market” as a partial focus in one of her book chapters, seeing the relationship between the sisters Lizzie and Laura as a representative example of the consistent negotiation of identity in comparison to each other:
Lizzie’s heroism consists not so much in the potential sacrifice of her life and world as she beckons to the goblin men, but in her refusal to admit difference. This is why her rescue of Laura takes the familiar form of sharing, of reiteration . . . Lizzie’s sacrifice allows her to reconstruct a shared sororal space that is once again rhetorically defined by sameness, analogy, and iterability.
In Michie’s opinions, if a centrally important facet of women’s communication is the ability to negotiate and name differences, then it is indeed heroic of Lizzie to give this up in order to become “one” with her sister again.
One remarkable fact about “Goblin Market” is that Christina’s poet-brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti actually gave the poem its title. It is noteworthy that he along with the rest of his family also had a fascination with fallen women. In his own poem “Jenny,” Dante Rossetti reflects from the viewpoint of a man in a prostitute’s room as she sleeps. At one point near the end of the poem, the speaker wonders what it is that separates Jenny from other women:
Just as another woman sleeps!
Enough to throw one’s thoughts in heaps
Of doubt and horror,—what to say
Or think,—this awful secret sway,
The potter’s power over the clay!
Of the same lump (it has been said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels.
Here is one.
Here, he muses on the fact that Jenny is the same as other women. What is it that makes her “less” than the other women he knows? He moves next into a comparison with his cousin Nell, who enjoys love and praise just as he assumes Jenny does:
My cousin Nell is fond of fun,
And fond of dress, and change, and praise,
So mere a woman in her ways:
And if her sweet eyes rich in youth
Are like her lips that tell the truth,
My cousin Nell is fond of love.
And she’s the girl I’m proudest of. …
Of the same lump (as it is said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels.
Here is one.
It makes a goblin of the sun.
Upon his introspection, the speaker realizes that all women are similar, and that even his own “honorable” cousin resembles Jenny. The “sister vessels” he mentions could be yet another way to describe Lizzie and Laura—one sister who is honorable and the other dishonorable.
Before moving on from Dante’s influence on his sister’s poem, we must pause and notice his use of the word “goblin.” A goblin is a creature from English folklore who is always portrayed as ugly, mischievous, and full of trickery. Therefore, when Dante writes that the sun is a goblin, he means that the sun has tricked everyone into believing that Jenny is so very different from other women. There is a definite connection between the use of “goblin” in this poem and in his suggestion that Christina borrow it for her own poem’s title. The goblin men are tricksters who convince women to fall.
A more complicated part of the poem lies in its ending, where at first glance, it seems to have the largest divergence of the three works. Whereas, the Bennet sisters and the March sisters must readjust to far different experiences of life with other women after marriage, Lizzie and Laura seemingly regain the same sense of closeness—if not more of it—that they had at the story’s beginning. Besides the goblin men, no men are even mentioned except for the phantom husbands that Lizzie and Laura have magically married: “Afterwards, when both were wives/With children of their own” (Rossetti). The girls who survived the incident with the goblin men are now mothers, teaching their children the moral of the story and the importance of strong sisterhood. This somewhat stilted scene of domesticity can be confusing given the content of the rest of the poem, but Rossetti also clearly shows the strength of Laura and Lizzie. The husbands are phantoms; they have no space at the end of this poem where the domestic sphere has conquered the public sphere.
This public versus private sphere debate in the study of nineteenth-century literature is also relevant to this discussion as another way of understanding Rossetti’s purpose in writing the poem. Namely, the title of the poem itself gives some information away—“Goblin Market”—where the men sell their fruit. This focus on production has also interested scholars because it lends itself easily to yet another interpretation. “Nineteenth-century debates over women in public have typically been understood as arising from the contradictions of domestic ideology: the home was the origin of and limit upon women’s public role” (Peiss). Lizzie and Laura exist initially only in the sphere of “womanly” tasks; however, Lizzie knows much more about the public sphere than is at first apparent. When she decides to confront the goblin men in order to save her sister, Lizzie knows she must pay for what they sell. She gives them “her penny” but makes it clear that she realizes money is not what they really want:
‘Thank you,’ said Lizzie:
‘But one waits At home alone for me:
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I toss’d you for a fee’
Kathy Peiss, in her article “Going Public: Women in Nineteenth-Century Cultural History,” writes: “Before women’s entrance into the public became a social and political issue, women had long been involved in production, barter, and exchange” (Peiss). The lines quoted above display just how clearly Lizzie understands the goblin men’s system of production and selling. The focus on money can seem out of place at first, but the fact that Lizzie gets to keep her payment further reinforces the immense bond she shares with Laura. In the end, she is able to withstand their attacks because of her commitment to save her sister; and on her way back to Laura, the penny “Bouncing in her purse… was music to her ear” (Rossetti). Clearly, it is not the money that brings her joy; rather, her joy comes from the fact that her intelligence and knowledge of the bartering system allowed her to bring her sister back to health.
After Lizzie defeats the goblin men and hurries home to her sister, there is a scene of undeniable homoerotic imagery. Lizzie first invites her sister’s kisses, and Laura returns to life after kissing the remnants of fruit from Lizzie’s body. The words “kiss” and “kiss’d” occur seven times in the following lines:
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
Squeez’d 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.’
Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutch’d her hair:
‘Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing,
And ruin’d in my ruin,
Thirsty, canker’d, goblin-ridden?’—
She clung about her sister,
Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:
Tears once again
Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.
Laura’s initial concern and fear is for her sister when she assumes that Lizzie has also eaten the goblin men’s fruit. It seems unclear whether she kisses Lizzie more out of desire for her or for the fruit that she craves. Either way, this interaction between them displays a level of emotional and even sexual intimacy that is uniquely female and integral to Laura’s eventual revival.
It would seem remiss to ignore Rossetti’s own opinion of her poem in light of her relationship with her own sister. She “claimed that the poem was only a fairy story, utterly without ‘any profound or ulterior meaning” (Arseneau 105). It is fascinating to see just how many different interpretations exist for “Goblin Market” when Rossetti herself said it was merely an entertaining story meant for children. One can hardly keep from wondering whether or not this was truly what she intended. With a poem so ripe with potential analyses, surely she knew her audience would interpret the poem as more than “only a fairy story.” Richard Menke writes in his essay that:
Goblin Market is indeed a parable without the necessary allegorical parallel to its deceptively simple story, insistently material but illimitably metaphorical: thus the endless interpretations of its plot, its eroticism, its goblin men, its fruit; and thus Christina Rossetti’s ability to dismiss it, with some plausibility, as only a fairy story.
It is this lack of built-in explanation that leaves so much room for multiple readings and such complex characters in Lizzie and Laura.
Both sisters suffer as a result of Laura’s decision. The two of them have shared everything until this moment, and now they cannot understand each other. This separation is of course reciprocal. Take a moment to muse about what a different piece of literature this poem would be if both sisters had eaten what the goblin men offer. If Lizzie, seeing her sister’s initial delight, had also eaten the fruit, what would the ending be? Would both sisters waste away just as Jeanie had before them? Or, if Lizzie wasn’t the stronger sister who sacrificially saved Laura, would the two sisters have still shared a sense of community by literally sharing the same suffering? We can’t know the answers to these questions, but Rossetti had a purpose for writing it the way she did.
One potential aspect of this purpose is the fact that Lizzie’s sacrificial love is much more indicative of women’s communal relationships. The story also reads as a reversal of the Garden of Eden story. Instead of the woman causing the man to fall, the men are the ones who beckon with forbidden fruits that promise death to those who eat them. In their mutual love for each other, Laura and Lizzie in “Goblin Market” have a commitment that lasts through this temptation, sickness, and even marriage to the shadowy unknown men. Rossetti’s closing lines in “Goblin Market” speak eloquently to the profound importance of sisterhood and communities of women:
‘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’
(Part five, CONCLUSION , will be published next week)
About the author
Meagan Hanley lives in Illinois, U.S.A., just east of St. Louis, Missouri, with her new husband and an ever-growing book collection. She has loved all things Jane Austen since she first came across Pride and Prejudice at 14 years old, and her friends and family have learned to live with her obsession. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Greenville University and an M.A. in Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meagan works as an office manager, and when she’s not reading, she can be found enjoying the outdoors with friends and cycling with her husband. She also blogs about life and literature at https://meagangunn.wordpress.com.