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  • "Would Not Open Lip from Lip":Sacred Orality and the Christian Grotesque in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"
  • Heather McAlpine (bio)

Given the abundance of feminist and psychoanalytic readings of "Goblin Market," it is surprising how few scholars have explored the poem's wealth of grotesque imagery. Kathryn Burlinson comes close to engaging with the poem's grotesque aspects in her remarks on its "emphasis on carnality, orality and appetite" (292), but this is only as an introduction to her discussion of "grotesque and abjected bodies" in Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses. Marylu Hill, meanwhile, examines Rossetti's representation of the body in "Goblin Market" as "the concrete conduit through which humans understand God" (456), but her argument focuses on demonstrating this concept's origins in Augustinian and Tractarian understandings of Eucharistic doctrine. Still, Burlinson's article is important for its illumination of Rossetti's general preoccupation with the limits of the body, while Hill's points to the possibility that Rossetti envisioned the mouth as a sacred threshold. Seeing, hearing, speaking, and eating are activities fraught with potential danger in Rossetti's poetry and prose: for Rossetti, as for theorists Mikhail Bakhtin, John Ruskin, David Williams, and Julia Kristeva, the eyes, nose, ears, and, especially, the mouth are points at which the self and the world interpenetrate. As the locus of both speech and consumption, the mouth plays "a leading role" (Bakhtin 325) in these theories of the grotesque, and, as I will demonstrate, it is also a central image in "Goblin Market." Oral imagery in "Goblin Market" embodies an extraordinary interchange of the grotesque and the sacred by emphasizing the importance of closing the body to the temptations of the flesh, while simultaneously celebrating the interpenetration of the self and physical manifestations of the divine, especially in the Eucharist. This sacred orality forms a key feature of what I term Rossetti's "Christian grotesque": paradoxically, as Laura's saving feast on Lizzie's body demonstrates, the very site that admits sin is also the point of redemption. Moreover, as both Laura's feast and the rite it alludes to demonstrate, the vehicle of that redemption—the consumption of another's body—is itself both sacred and grotesque.

While for Bakhtin the grotesque represents a triumphant erasure of limitations and hierarchies, Ruskin, Williams, and Kristeva view anal and oral permeability as threatening the boundaries of the "clean and proper body" (Kristeva 72). These theorists all identify the mouth as a key point at which the [End Page 114] self merges physically with the world outside its corporeal boundaries. Because official Western culture constructs the self as a physical unit distinct from all other objects, the mouth represents the threat of that self 's dis-integration. As the gateway through which foreign objects enter the body, the mouth erases the boundaries of the self, rendering it indistinct from other objects. Bakhtin views this process positively, as the enlarging and exalting of the self, while Ruskin, Williams, and Kristeva are alert to the problems that a shifting and boundless model of the self poses to the construction of individual identity. However, Williams's grounding of his discussion in the context of Christian theology invites a re-examination of the grotesque's applicability to notions of physicality in Christian belief and ritual, especially the doctrine of the real presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist. Indeed, Rossetti's preoccupation with the boundaries of the body in her devotional prose demonstrates that the discourses of Christian morality and grotesque theory overlap in significant ways. And, as "Goblin Market"'s two pivotal scenes of eating—one sinful and nearly fatal, the other saving—illustrate, orality is the site of both fall and redemption, and Christian salvation may take a form every bit as grotesque as the sin itself.

In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin defines the "official" or "canonical" representation of the human body, embraced by the authorities of church and state in Western culture, as "a strictly completed, finished product.... fenced off from all other bodies" (29). This conceptual closing of the body, he argues, marks the process by which individuals are set apart from other bodies and the world: "That which protrudes...


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