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Genre – Analysis

‘Goblin Market’ is a poem. And yet, as a piece of genre analysis this statement is far from satisfactory; it fails to satiate our desire for order and understanding. So let us take a closer look. ‘Goblin Market’ is a narrative poem; it tells the story of Lizzie, Laura and the goblins from the point of view of a (somewhat complicated) third-person narrator. It also participates across sub-genres, such as fable, fairy-tale and cautionary story. Looking closer still, we can anchor these sub-genre labels in the poem’s form and technical features. Take, for example, this goblin fruit:

Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries
Wild free-born cranberries,     (ll. 5-11)

And so it continues. Rossetti’s listing technique exploits the sibilance of plural nouns and alternates between dactyls and trochees to produce an incantatory effect. We sense these words are meant to be spoken aloud, as indeed they are by the goblins. But the orality of the metre is also indicative of the poem being recited as a lesson or warning, a key generic feature of fables and fairy-tales—recited by Laura and Lizzie to their daughters (as we discover in the final lines), or recited by and to the reader.

This archaeological method, digging down through the poem from broad categories to specific features, speaks to our desire for certainty when dealing with a text’s structural and thematic properties. These features are intimately tied to the way we read and understand, so there is a lot at stake. For example, an examination of ‘Goblin Market’ through the lens of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale reveals just how seductive and compelling generic certainty can be. There is an astonishing amount of coincidence between Rossetti’s poem and Propp’s thirty-one ‘functions’ of fairy-tale plot and character, but here I will limit myself to just three:

XII:     The Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc. which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
XIII:    The Hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
XIV:    The Hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
(Adapted from Propp, pp. 39, 42-3)

Propp offers numerous examples of how these ‘functions’ might present themselves in a range of tales, but in the case of ‘Goblin Market’, the confrontation between Lizzie and the goblins appears to follow this template almost exactly. Lizzie is clearly the hero of the story as she sets out on a quest to save her sister from the goblins’ influence. When she refuses to eat their fruit, Lizzie undergoes a trial (function 12):

They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.    (ll. 399-407)

Subject to sustained physical violence, our hero is tested and attacked at one and the same moment. Lizzie reacts (function 13) by remaining still and silent: she ‘uttered not a word;/ Would not open lip from lip/ Lest they should cram a mouthful in’ (ll. 430-2). She is rewarded for her determined endurance by ‘the drip/ Of juice that syruped all her face’ (ll. 433-4), a liquid that proves to contain magical properties (function 14) able to restore Laura to health. Mapping ‘Goblin Market’ onto these ‘functions’ serves to contain the text within the genre of fairy-tale. To paraphrase Propp, it establishes the poem’s ‘abstract bases’ and provides a foundation from which to examine the ‘concrete fact’ of its historical and cultural specificity (Propp, p. 15). Why might Rossetti, for example, adapt the typical gender identity of the fairy-tale hero, transforming this character device from masculine to feminine? And what is the significance of her conflation of ‘villain’ and ‘donor’? What does this adaptation and variation tell us about mid-Victorian Britain? Critical and historical studies of genre can be used to pose such questions.

But you might have found the above extract from ‘Goblin Market’ somewhat surprising. You might have detected inferences and suggestions seemingly alien to a genre so commonly associated with children and young readers. Is there not something suspiciously sexual, not to mention sexually violent, about the goblins’ attempt to penetrate Lizzie with their fruit? This too forms part of Propp’s ‘concrete fact’ of specific use, but the mixing of fairy-tale and erotic elements points to a genre in crisis. Thus ‘Goblin Market’ participates across genres, adhering to Jacques Derrida’s impure ‘law of genre’ (Derrida, p. 57). As a result, the text constructs a dual readership, one that is seemingly at odds with itself. Lorraine Janzen Kooistra has traced this phenomenon in ‘Goblin Market’ across multiple editions and adaptations, from the first edition illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the marketing of contemporary theatre performances. She attributes this dual readership to an inherent ‘tension’ within the poem between its ‘simple, nursery-rhyme meters, and fairy-tale form’ and the poem’s thematic complexity (Kooistra, p. 202). In response, the adaptations studied by Kooistra attempt to resolve this genre confusion. Here I will look at just two examples.

In 1919 Christine Chaundler adapted ‘Goblin Market’ for her collection, My Book of Stories from the Poets, translating Rossetti’s work into prose. In her introduction, Chaundler claims the decision to adapt and re-tell these stories was due to the superior clarity and everyday-ness of prose writing: ‘prose is an easier and far more natural form of expression than poetry and one which, at the present time, is very much more common’ (Chaundler, p. ix). But according to Kooistra, this act of translation is not neutral; as language is ‘naturalised’, so content is censored: ‘Chaundler inculcates a moral at every opportunity, lest Rossetti’s fairy tale seem to celebrate rather than forbid pleasure’ (Kooistra, p. 188). Chaundler retains, for example, the scene of Lizzie’s assault, but she foregrounds a lexical field of moral resilience, self-sacrifice and service at the expense of eroticism: ‘in spite of the pain she was enduring, her heart beat fast with joy as she felt it, for she began to see now how her sister might once again taste of the goblins’ fruit’ (Chaundler, p. 9). Chaundler resolves the dissonance between subject matter and form, settling this ambiguity of genre and audience by transforming ‘Goblin Market’ into a prose work of conduct literature for children. By contrast, the printing of an abridged ‘Goblin Market’ in Playboy in 1973 settled this same ambiguity in the opposite direction. For Kooistra, the removal of words in favour of sexually explicit images serves to establish Rossetti’s text as ‘adult erotica’ (Kooistra, p. 194). Most famously, Lizzie’s assault was depicted by Kinuko Craft, an illustrator of fairy-tales and fantasy. Violent and dark, the goblins attempt to penetrate Lizzie at every available orifice with their strange, phallic-shaped fruit.[1] The image is a significant paratext, an ‘accompanying production’—such as a title, preface, blurb or illustration—that shapes ‘the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption’ (Genette 1997, p. 1). In effect, paratexts signify genre and they influence the way we read—just like shelf labels in a bookshop. In the case of Craft’s image, Lizzie’s assault becomes a strange rape fantasy and Rossetti’s text is newly re-cast and re-labelled as soft pornography.

The case of ‘Goblin Market’ demonstrates how studies of genre can help us understand the structure of texts, and enables us to trace historical and cultural variations in aesthetic practice. But we should also be aware that the labelling and policing of genre is an ideological act—genre constructs a readership and instructs reading.



[1] You can view Kinuko Craft’s Playboy illustration at the Memorial University Libraries webpage, ‘Book Illustrations, Goblins and Bindings’ [accessed 23 May 2013].