- The Uncertainty of Goblin Market
Some of the most persuasive recent readings of Goblin Market have been those which renew that critical tradition in which this poem—in which Christina Rossetti's work as a whole—is to be understood ultimately in religious terms. Such readings have often incorporated insights from critics who have focused on gender or on sexuality; but, at their strongest, they have been sure enough of their ground to know where they are irreconcilable with readings which have a primarily secular focus. It seems that there does come a point at which not every explanation of what happens in Goblin Market can be defensible.1
This essay subscribes to the position that readings of Rossetti's work must make sure of their religious ground; yet it does so while maintaining that this religious ground is itself much less sure than is generally supposed. To maintain this is, of course, to risk overstatement—for the criticism which insists on the centrality of religious ideas to Rossetti's work does not form a monolithic corpus. Nevertheless, much of it shares a disinclination to consider the possibility that these religious ideas could themselves be conflicting. It is as if a consistent theological system is tacitly posited and then invoked in order to produce the effect of consistency in Rossetti's work. The contention of this essay is that this could not be more mistaken: that Rossetti's writing repeatedly pivots upon contradiction and obscurity, and that its intellectual rigor is nowhere more evident than in this determination to probe the uncertainties of Christian theology.
This is a large contention, one which will not be substantiated in a single essay. But a start may be made by inviting a rereading of Rossetti's most read poem—for is not Goblin Market itself, to go no further, structured upon theological contradiction?
It's worth telling the story once more. A young woman called Laura gets fruit from goblin men, eats it, and longs to eat more of it, but will never find the goblin men again. That's the problem with goblin fruit: those who have tasted it want what they will never get, and dwindle and die dreaming of melons. Yet that's not the only thing goblin fruit does. Laura's sister Lizzie [End Page 391] goes to get more of it for her, but the goblin men want Lizzie to eat the fruit too and they try to force it into her mouth. Lizzie resists, and runs home dripping with juice and pulp; then Laura kisses her, and in kissing her tastes the juices once more. The fruits which once had poisoned Laura now cure her. So Laura survives to become a storyteller, telling children the tale of how she had tasted the poisonous fruit and of how her sister had won for her "the fiery antidote"—which was more of that fruit. It was the antidote to itself. What she does not tell the children is why goblin fruit once had the power to poison her and then had the power to restore her. Not only does she not explain this, but there is no suggestion that she ought to explain it. It is as if Laura and these unquestioning children can only know what the fruit did on two occasions, and know that they ought to be thankful that Lizzie got Laura more of the poison that cures.
When we read Goblin Market (written 1859, published 1862) we will surely be more demanding than the children: we will want an explanation of the double power of the fruit. We know that the fairy-tale mode of the poem can contain the perfectly inexplicable plot detail; and yet, whatever Rossetti's reported denials of a deep purpose to this poem, our wider reading of her work may lead us to expect that this detail is doing more than tell us that there are things in Fairyland that would be inconceivable in nineteenth-century England. It is therefore important to know that the consumption of substances which could become either poisons or cures was by no means inconceivable in nineteenth-century England; important, too...