How Did Two Women Overcome Society?

In Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market,’ the reader is introduced to a variety of motifs in what is, at first, a seemingly straightforward tale of the love between two sisters. After analyzing the context and diction inherent within – as well as taking a look at the state of England upon the drafting of this poem – one comes to realize just how many messages are actually laid out throughout the work, the most prominent perhaps being the presence of high expectations in the world for young women, and the one thing that will always be present as a beacon of hope/relief; sisterhood. Yes, sisterhood is a theme that has to be addressed when analyzing this poem, but one must also consider a bigger picture – one that Rossetti provides with her strong use of imagery and diction/context – that the difficulties surrounding the status of young women during this time of England’s history run rampant in almost theatrical fashion.

Rossetti’s use of imagery from the very beginning allows readers to immediately be exposed – after a little analysis – to the underlying message of overbearing young female oppression. For instance, we are given a listĀ of fruity images as we are introduced to a group of Goblins trying to sell produce: “Come buy, come buy…apples…swart-headed mulberries…pomegranates full and fine…” (Lines 3 – 21).This list of produce reads as being almost whimsical and alluring, but at the same time quite ludicrous, as certain things like pine-apples shouldn’t be available at the same times as pomegranates. This immediately draws confusion and, potentially, caution towards this groups of Goblins as they seem to be making impossible promises; just what could these promises really be? After being told of this exhaustive list, our two female protagonists make their debut and are very quickly revealed as the morally astute sister, Lizzie, and the more rambunctious sister, Laura, and eventually, Rossetti has Lizzie make an interesting remark that highlights how this poem focuses on young women of the time rather than the general populous: “Twilight is not good for maidens; should not loiter in the glen in the haunts of goblin men” (Lines 144 – 146). Here, Lizzie does not say that man should not roam in the territory of Goblins – nor does she even mention older women – just maidens. Thus, some reflection can begin here. The exhaustive list of fruits is too wide in variety and could be viewed as a metaphor for the list of societal pressures a young woman faced in this age of English history. Given how these young women are told not to have any dealings with these Goblins, we can further conclude that this entire list is a list of things not to do. This comes across, as Rossetti intended it to, as a seemingly impossible task that very few could ever accomplish. This allows for the progression of Laura’s story, as we observe her degradation and subsequent revitalization.

The scene where Laura partakes of the Goblins’ fruits is full of imagery that tickles the response of gratification that anyone would have after indulging in something. “[She] sucked their fruit globes fair or red: sweeter than honey from the rock. Stronger than man rejoicing wine…” (Lines 128 – 130). It is unclear whether or not Rossetti is intending for this scene to be one of explicitly sexual connotation or of biblical allusion (partaking of forbidden fruit), or perhaps indulgence in all possible taboos for women of the era, but whatever the case may be, the reader is now aware that something bad will happen to Laura. As this fall progresses, we discover that Laura can no longer hear the songs and voices of the Goblins, but Lizzie still can. This scene provides the context and imagery of a pure, untouched young woman, Lizzie, juxtaposed with a now calloused, dirtied woman, Laura. What this image serves as is a sign that, if one toys with what society prevents or says is wrong, they will eventually become shunned by everything else that society has to offer. Laura’s progressive decline serves to relate how being shunned from society affects a woman in ill fashion, as they seem to become both physically and emotionally undesirable.

Noticing this degradation, we see Lizzie choose to act in a manner that symbolically mocks the standards set forth by society as she willingly approaches the Goblins in order to obtain their fruits to help heal her sister. When the Goblins beseech Lizzie to stay and partake of the fruits herself and she refuses, the scene turns grim and violent: “Their tones waxed loud, their looks were evil…they trod and hustled her…tore her gown and soiled her stockings…like a royal virgin town…beleaguered by a fleet mad to tug her standard down” (Lines 396-421). This long list of forces thrown at Lizzie by the Goblins serves to illustrate the reaction given by a society that has its norms questioned. Though it is revealed how Lizzie never actually tasted the fruit, she still felt the sheer force of the Goblins, of society, as she fought to gain her sister’s innocence back. Returning triumphant, covered in the juices of the Goblin fruit, the lashes of society, Lizzie is kissed by Laura to the point that Laura takes back the respect/vitality she had lost as she partakes once more of these juices that sent her spiraling downward. This scene could serve one of two purposes: one, that Lizzie’s act of courage woke Laura up from a self-inflicted depression to a realization that society’s norms truly are ridiculous, or two, that the fight against societies constraint was beginning to give progress, and Laura would be allowed back in and not be exiled for her “mistakes.” Either way, the love between sisters is a prominent and indisputable entity throughout this tale/scene.

In essence, one can see how the superfluous amount of imagery provided by Rossetti allows for the realization that England had overbearing standards for younger women. Upon breaking these standards, one was critically scrutinized and affected immensely, just as we saw with Laura. Despite all this, however, the one source of relief was found inherent between the love of two sisters. Thus, ‘Goblin Market’ is truly a tale of transcending the pressures of society through the bonds of sisterhood.

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