a resource for studying literary theory

Gender Queer Theory – Analysis

As critics invariably note, ‘queer’ is a queer word. Quite apart from its connotations as a derogatory term for lesbians and gay men, as an adjective it can mean: ‘strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric; of questionable origin’. ‘Queer’ coins or banknotes are those that are forged (oed.com). ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) engages with all of these definitions – the ‘queer’ brotherhood of the goblins, the sickness that engulfs Laura after she ‘peeps’, the innuendo clustered around Lizzie’s heroic acts. The poem’s reliance upon heavy symbolism is, this reading will suggest, queer. Tony Purvis, summarising the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, notes that ‘sexualities have never been clearly defined, marked as they are by haziness, indistinctness, and conflict’ (Purvis, 429). This short analysis will examine some examples of haziness, indistinctness and conflict in the context of queer theory.

Most immediately, it is clear that the poem places only some sexualities in the context of ‘haziness, indistinctness and conflict’ – sexual acts that lie outside of the realm of heterosexual marriage are to be regarded with some double-vision. Considering the poem in its entirety to begin with, it is clear that the poem’s narrative takes place in a wider context of heterocentricity. ‘Maidens’, the poem’s closing stanza suggests, may well maintain a happy homosocial state while young (ll. 184-198) but are always intended to exchange that state for established heterosexuality via the socio-legal practice of marriage. Women are supposed to marry men. The tragedy of Jeanie – she who ‘should have been a bride’(l. 113) –  is described entirely in relation to practices of marriage and childbirth; not only does Jeannie die before entering marriage, but the barren soil of her grave is an overt metaphor for her lack of children.

Yet both Laura and Lizzie end the poem as unambiguously heterosexual figures: as ‘wives |with children of their own’ (ll. 544-5) they are able to look back on the goblins as a morality tale for the younger generation, as Jeanie was a warning for them. Their adult hands, joined ‘to little hands’ rather than to one another’s, transfers the familial loyalty from the sisters to their children, establishing heterocentrism as a priority. A reading of ‘Goblin Market’, however, as merely a tale of youthful indiscretion and the heroism of sisters, retold to children from the safety of the family home, ignores the poem’s queer undertones. The ostensibly innocent references to Laura’s enthusiastic sucking of the goblin fruit, are, I suggest, wonderful examples of the sort of queer sexuality that is established via haziness, indistinctness, and conflict. While seeming to say one thing, the consumption of fruit says quite another.

The initial moment of temptation is overtly labelled as queer but simultaneously, the poem insists that all is sexually innocent. The homosocial goblin men face Laura: ‘Leering at each other,/Brother with queer brother; Signalling each other,/Brother with sly brother’ (ll. 94-6 [emphasis mine]). The italicised ‘queer’ and ‘sly’ indicate precisely what connection the reader is supposed to make, that ‘queer’ simply means odd, untrustworthy. But what follows has a dual meaning: the goblin’s offerings allow Laura and Lizzie to engage in queer practices. These practices are carefully covered up with overtly ‘innocent’ explanations – a careful reading, however, reveals otherwise.

Laura’s gorging on the goblin fruit is sensual but ambiguous. Though she ‘sucked and sucked and sucked the more […] | She sucked until her lips were sore’ (ll. 134-6), indicating a wild abandon, the fruit is beautifully and carefully described – ‘melons icy cold’; peaches with a velvet nap’; ‘pellucid grapes’. The juices are ‘sweeter than honey […] stronger than wine’ – they are intoxicating but despite being harvested from an ‘unknown orchard’ (ll. 135) the detailed description is clearly intended to leave no room for misinterpretation. This is simply fruit (although, as the feminist reading of ‘Goblin Market’ makes clear, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Laura’s consumption renders her ‘not-woman’ (Wittig, 13)).

What is indisputable, however, is that Laura’s consumption is richly subversive. In approaching the goblin men, Laura loses her humanity: she is described variously as a ‘swan’, a ‘lily’, a ‘poplar branch’, and finally ‘like a vessel at the launch| When its last restraint is gone’ (ll. 81-6). This last reference makes it clear that Laura is out of control: queer as a marker of excess. This is clearly forbidden fruit, yet it is Laura – she who consumes – who states that ‘we must not look at goblin men,| We must not buy their fruits’ (ll. 42-3), the repetition emphasising her transgression. In stepping from her sister’s side, Laura enters a world ‘at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’ (Halperin, 62). The goblin world is queer: desiring the fruit leads to queer behaviour and the challenging of gender.

There are signs that fruit is not simply fruit. Lizzie’s warning to her sister that ‘twilight is not good for maidens’ (l. 144) has strong connotations of a potential loss of virginity and therefore maidenhead. Moreover, Lizzie’s memories of Jeanie contain something less innocent. As she says, ‘[Jeanie] should have been a bride; | But who for joys brides hope to have | Fell sick and died’ (ll. 313-15). The poem is silent on what these ‘joys’ might be, and this lack of articulation is the strongest suggestion yet that fruit is a deliberately ambiguous allegory for sex. Clearly, the goblin fruit stands for something more: something that can kill a young girl.

The context of ‘brides’ is clearly intended to suggest that Laura’s transgression, if indeed it is sexual, is heterosexual. Nevertheless, the globular fecundity of the goblin’s offerings mean that these ‘forbidden fruits’ are irresistibly female. Twenty-nine fruits are described in the poem’s opening stanza and, with the possible exception of the pineapple, all are round and soft. Female homosociality – the close, intimate relationship between Laura and Lizzie – is central to ‘Goblin Market’. When women are placed in proximity to fruit, however, something significant happens. Lizzie returns, dripping in the juice that is the result of the goblin’s violence, calling for Laura to ‘Come and kiss me […] | Hug me, kiss me, such my juices’ (ll. 466-8). Stripped of all context, this moment is simply one woman licking another. But particularly striking is the love and consent that fills this moment, in sharp contrast to the goblin men’s violent attack on Lizzie. It would be incorrect to define Laura and Lizzie’s behaviour as ‘lesbian’ – this is not a sexual identity and, after all, both women become ‘wives’, but this is certainly a rich, ambiguous, hazy, indistinct and above all, queer moment.