“Goblin Market” can be read from a number of perspectives with several interpretations of its overarching moral. Considering the debate that took place during the Victorian period centered on The Woman Question, it is easy to imagine that the poem is meant to be read as a warning of the world’s temptations, specifically for women. Read this way, Lizzie represents the ideal, steadfast woman, contrasted by her wandering sister, Laura. Interestingly, they are very close: their names are similar and they sleep together, rise together, and do all their work together – two sides of the same coin. This relationship choice supports the reading of the poem from a gendered perspective as opposed to the alternatives.
As mentioned, Lizzie and Laura stand in contrast to one another from the beginning, Lizzie being the good, principled one and Laura the gullible, sinful opposite. Lizzie is seen modeling the behavior Laura ought to have displayed. She warns of the goblins’ danger and resists them completely, refusing to even listen or look at the creatures in lines 64-68. Laura, left behind, gives into temptation, and as she “clipped a precious golden lock,” she sold a bit of herself to unchecked desire (Ln. 126). The fruit, representing sin or immorality, is not something she merely samples – Laura eats as much as she can before running home to tell her sister of plans to do so again. Thus, the poem warns of the intoxicating affect of one poor choice on an innocent girl. This one mistake leads to a life of emptiness, though it begins slowly. In lines 199 through 214, the poem describes the sisters’ domestic activities as the feminine ideal when it tells us that they rose, “neat like bees, as sweet and busy” and “talked as modest maidens should” (lines 201 and 209). Yet Laura’s “absent dream” left her “sick in part” – she was spoiled by contact with the world outside her idyllic duties in the home. This discontent led to not only the physical decline we see in lines 277-280: “Her hair grew thin and gray/She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/To swift decay and burn/Her fire away,” but also to the loss of her value as a woman – “She no more swept the house/Tended the fowls or cows/Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat/Brought water from the brook/But sat down listless in the chimney-nook/And would not eat” (lines 293-298). As a result, Lizzie was compelled to go face the goblins herself, showing that the “fallen woman” not only falls herself, but drags those around her along as well. Yet Lizzie, ever the model of what Laura should be, resists temptation even when surrounded, showing that a woman can in fact live up to the moral expectations placed on her, if she only tries hard enough.
The poem concludes on a positive note, with Laura telling her children of “how her sister stood/In deadly peril to do her good,” but only after she suffered a painful night, her final suffering for her mistake (lines 257-258). The healed Laura had gone on to do what a woman ought – to become a wife and bear children of her own. Reconciliation came from Lizzie’s moral solidarity and Laura’s return to what was seen as a woman’s proper place. In this way, the poem leaves readers with a picture of what the Victorian woman ought to be and a frightening reminder of what a fallen woman can do to herself and the ones she loves.