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Psychoanalytic – Analysis

‘Goblin Market’, of course, calls urgently for a psychoanalytic reading, in part because of its combination of a form relating to childhood fairy tales and rhymes and of symbolism more suggestive of adult erotic fantasy. Since Freud, psychoanalytic theorists have been studying adult sexual behavior and neurosis in relation to its origins in early childhood, so this text’s blurring of audience and genre seems particularly insightful on Rossetti’s part. Many excellent readings have interpreted the poem in relation to psychoanalytic criticism (such as Ellen Golub, Suzy Waldman and Lorraine Kooistra) so the field might even seem crowded. But still, the field of psychoanalytic theory is very rich and varied, so that it is still possible to choose new paths through the goblin glen.

So, to begin with Freud, it would be possible to see the poem almost as a psychodrama and to look at Lizzie, Laura and the goblins as representing Freud’s famous three-part structure of the human psyche first proposed in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’. This would mean that we could see Laura as the vulnerable ego torn between the more sensible, culturally normative Lizzie representing the superego and the goblins representing the basic desires of the id for gaining pleasure and avoiding pain. In this case, pleasure is wholly represented by the goblin fruits and pain by their deprivation, which fits with the fact the moment in which Laura gives in to her desire is imagined as pure animalistic id (we cannot help but notice the shadow of oral sex which falls over the scene):

She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away (134-137).

After gratifying her desires, Laura seems to succumb to the death drive:

She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetch’d honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat (293-298).

So Freudian theory works well in interpreting the structure and symbolism of the poem. Still, the interest in this particular theoretical interpretation would not lie in imposing this simple pattern upon the text but in studying the way that gaps or differences between the poem and Freud’s theory which expose interesting details, in particular in the poem’s psychological gendering. So, for example, interestingly, Laura’s basic desires are, surprisingly, gendered as male in the form of the goblins. Further, Freud’s theory shows the formation of the superego in relation to the Oedipus complex, suggesting that the superego is the internalized form of the father. This reading associates Lizzie, Laura’s sister and superego, with paternal prohibition, which is borne out by how Rossetti constructs her as a poetic character: ‘“No”, Said Lizzie, “No, no, no”’ (64) and nine times uses the formulation ‘we must not’ or ‘you should not’ throughout the poem. Lizzie is characterized by refusal – though she ultimately bends enough to save her sister, her heroic non-consumption of the sexualized goblin fruit despite what amounts to an attempted rape by the goblins is what defines her as a superego figure. She could also be seen as associated with the reality principle.

Some critics of the poem, for example, Waldman, have suggested that Laura undergoes an Oedipal castration but they have generally linked this to her consumption of the goblin fruit. However, according to this paradigm that I’ve explored where Lizzie stands in place of the father it seems to me far more likely that the symbolic castration takes place at a different point in the poem, when, Laura gets a second taste of the goblin fruits via Lizzie:

Swift fire spread through her veins, knock’d at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense fail’d in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about,
Like a foam-topp’d waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life? (507-523).

Throughout the poem, Lizzie ineffectually attempts to assert power over Laura’s wayward desires: in this crucial scene, we see Laura ‘fall at last’ under the control of the superego through this violent, physical scene of castration and wake to a ‘healthy’ sexuality governed by the Law, allowing them both to become ‘wives / with children of their own’ (544-545).  Waldman emphasizes what she sees as ‘detumescent imagery’ in this passage, reflecting this idea of castration. Further, Laura does not die and is restored to health. The pleasure principle and the death drive are thus shown to be subject to the reality principle.

Finally, we could also build on this Freudian foundation to look at the poem in the light of more recent psychoanalytic theory by Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, which we also discussed earlier. And in many ways, Lacan works better than Freud in that Lizzie’s positioning as Laura’s superego seems less strange in a Lacanian system, where the phallus and the nom/non du pere have a much more symbolic, less literal status, making him more palatable for feminist critics. In ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Lacan addresses several problems in Freud’s theory in regard to female sexuality and concludes by seeing the symbolic phallus possessed by the father (here, Lizzie) as simply a signifier of power. Further, we could instead see Laura’s journey as one from the Symbolic (at the outset) followed by a return to the Imaginary (in her transgression) with finally (via Lizzie) a return to the Symbolic – in so doing, we would look at slightly different parts of the poem, focusing our discussions on the Lacanian ‘gaze’. So, for example, Waldman discusses scenes of looking at goblin men and goblin fruit and then writes that the poem manifests a ‘taboo on visuality’: ‘If, for Rossetti, seeing was knowing, then we might infer from the violence Lizzie undergoes that she has strayed far enough into the terrain of the imaginary to invite castration, or forceful subjection to the symbolic order’ (548).

Extending Lacan, the feminist psychoanalytic critic Julia Kristeva, would perhaps imagine the journey Laura goes on slightly differently: we could apply Kristeva’s idea of abjection to Laura’s decline after eating the goblin fruit. Abjection, for Kristeva, means our reaction to a threatened breakdown of subject and object, self and other – the simplest example of this that Kristeva suggests is a corpse, which is neither human nor non human. Abjection is again, as for Lacan, outside the symbolic order (and in fact the term has been productively applied to representations of fallen women and other marginalized groups). This theory of abjection nuances our sense of the relationship between Laura and Lizzie: in Kristeva’s theory we see that a sense of the abject is very much part of the function of the superego, as she explains ‘To each ego its object, to each superego its abject’ (2). In this sense, Laura is thus made abject to provide a function for Lizzie, the superego.

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