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Gender and Feminism – Analysis

A broad range of feminist perspectives can be found in ‘Goblin Market’ (1862).  To begin with, the poem prioritizes women’s experiences; positing, as Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert point out, ‘an effectively matrilineal and matriarchal world’ (Gilbert and Gubar, 537) in which one sister rescues another with fantastic heroism before both live happily ever after. Interwoven with female success, however, are certain anxieties about how women should behave – Laura and Lizzie represent the figures of the ‘fallen’ and ‘upright’ woman respectively. The physical similarities between the sisters – ‘Golden head by golden head | Like two pigeons in one nest’ (ll. 184-5) – means that ‘Goblin Market’ can suggest gender roles as neither natural nor biologically-given: in short, that what constitutes ‘correct’ feminine behaviour is a ‘cultural construct’ (Toril Moi, p. 123) as the women’s bodies are identical, but behave very differently. Through these tropes, the poem explores the representation of women as ‘fallen’ and ‘upright’, encouraging what Elaine Showalter calls gynocriticism: consideration of ‘a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature’ and the development ‘of new models based on the study of female experience’ (Showalter, 256). Finally, in giving a ‘fallen’ woman the same rewards as her upright sister, the poem refuses to acquiesce with patriarchal policing of women’s behaviour.

Despite the sisters’ eventual triumph, the poem initially establishes women as passive and men as threateningly active. The goblin men may ‘hobble’ (l. 45) to begin with but theirs is a slow, menacing progress, tramping, crawling and prowling into the glen (ll. 71-6). Moreover, they exhibit great physical strength, hauling and lugging heavy items. The women’s response to this is striking. Laura bows her head, while Lizzie ‘veiled her blushes’ (l. 35). The sisters’ ‘clasping arms and cautioning lips’ are a bodily enactment of modesty. Where men speak and move, women caution and hide: Lizzie goes so far as to cover up her eyes. The female body is enacting the feminine modesty demanded by a patriarchal system.

The sisters’ ‘golden hair’ is repeatedly described, and they are also described as ‘two pigeons’, ‘two blossoms’, ‘two flakes of new-fall’n snow’ and ‘two wands of ivory’. The clear connotation is that these are pale, gentle, innocent women.  The female body can subvert feminine behaviour, however; Lizzie covers up her eyes, ‘covered close lest they should look’ (l. 51). Her eyes, personified as ‘they’, seem to have a life of their own, and will disobey her wishes. Elsewhere, the female body represents temptation as effectively as innocence. In sharp contrast to the ‘clasping arms’, Laura is described as ‘pricking up her golden head’ and rearing ‘her glossy head’ (ll. 41, 52), even as she tells herself not to look.

The ‘golden’ hair is valuable and precious. It is a single ‘precious golden lock’ (l. 126), clipped from Laura’s head, that the goblins take as payment for their wares. While the goblin men have plenty of property, Laura is explicit that she has no money; instead, she becomes the object of exchange and barter. Her hair indicates the ease with which women can become objects, while her tears – themselves ‘more rare than pearl’ (l. 128) – indicate how hard it is for her to part with a single lock of her ‘gold’. Laura’s physical transgression, however, only makes sense when seen in the context of a system of behaviour, or ‘chosen standards’, that establish feminine passivity as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – in other words, ‘essential’.

With female bodies so precious, much of the ‘correct’ feminine behaviour centres around the protection and control of such bodies. Alongside hiding and silence, the poem explicitly links domestic work with female bodily submission:

Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed:
Talked as modest maidens should: (ll. 201-9)

Gender is represented as a set of actions, or ‘standards of femininity’ (Moi, 122), that reinforce modesty, domesticity, neatness and order. Once again, whiteness is used as a marker of value, while ‘dainty’ links back to the earlier descriptions of ‘clasping arms and cautioning lips’. It is particularly significant that the poem describes only the women’s work, not their conversation. Truly modest maidens, it seems, have nothing particularly interesting to say. Nor do they eat – although Laura and Lizzie produce food, they do not consume any of it. The women’s gender is all control where their bodies have the potential to be unruly. The word ‘maiden’ is an interesting one. ‘Maiden’ or ‘maid’ is repeated four times throughout the poem. Other womanly roles, such as ‘mother’, ‘bride’ and ‘wife’ are used once each, with only ‘sister’ exceeding ‘maiden/maid’ with six uses. ‘Maiden’ is therefore inextricably linked with what it is to be a ‘woman’.

Laura and Lizzie embody many of the meanings of ‘maiden’. At its simplest, they are simply ‘young, unmarried’ girls. Their domestic proficiency, however, gestures towards a now obsolete meaning: that of a ‘maidservant, or female attendant’. Maiden can also mean ‘of or relating to a maiden or maidenhood; befitting a maiden, having the qualities of a maiden’. Notice how the definition is silent on precisely what qualities a maiden might actually have, indicating that ‘qualities’ are culturally and historically specific. There is a clear link between this and Toril Moi’s separation of behaviour from the body – as ‘Goblin Market’ lavishly represents, maidenhood can be lost and a female body can act in a way that most certainly does not ‘befit’ a maiden.

Femininity, then, is explicitly linked to domestic life and careful acts. In this context, Laura’s consumption of the goblin fruit is a gender-challenging act. If being a woman means milking cows and gentle sewing, then Laura is not a woman when she consumes the goblin fruit. At the initial temptation, Laura’s body starts to become active, not passive. Rather than crouching, she stretches. She is described as ‘a vessel at the launch | When its last restraint is gone’ (ll. 85-6). Her body then becomes unruly – she consumes, she eats. She ‘sucked and sucked and sucked […] sucked until her lips were sore’ (ll. 134-6). There is no need to read sexual innuendo into this moment to challenge maidenhead. More transgressively, she indulges; her feasting is a woman indulging her desires. When Laura is finished, she flings the rinds from her. This is not ‘dainty’ or ‘cautioning’ – it is not maidenly as ‘Goblin Market’ has constructed it.

In conclusion, then, it is clear that non-feminine behaviours can have dire consequences for the female body. Laura is saved from Jeanie’s fate – a barren grave, having achieved neither the status of wife or mother – by the heroism of her sister. Lizzie, the true heroine of the tale, is the very model of restraint and modesty. Despite being ‘coaxed’, ‘fought’, ‘kicked’, ‘knocked’, ‘mauled’ and ‘mocked’, the poem admiringly describes how Lizzie ‘uttered not a word; | Would not open lip from lip | Lest they should cram a mouthful in’ (ll. 431-3). Lizzie maintains the standards of femininity established earlier in the poem and also refuses to let her body be sullied. Lizzie’s body, ‘like a rock of blue-veined stone’ stands firm, ‘like a royal virgin town | Topped with gilded dome and spire’ (ll. 418-9). This, finally, links to yet another meaning of maiden – that which in the context of a ‘town, castle, fortress, etc’, means ‘that has not been conquered’.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. Yale: Yale Nota Bene, 2000.

Showalter, Elaine. ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics.’ Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Mary Eagleton. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1986. 254-57.