Light and Darkness in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market

Victoria Chanel Lee’s analysis of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” explores the ambiguity of evil and temptation through binaries presented in the poem. In the essay, Lee juxtaposes themes of light and darkness, day and night, and fire and ice in highlighting the spectrum of morality. In nuancing the complexities inherent within Rossetti’s presentation of ostensibly disparate entities like “good” and “evil”, Lee successfully challenges the blanket generalizations that threaten to define the two.

Christina Rossetti’s use of specific periods of time of light and darkness in “Goblin Market” showcases the ambiguity of evil and temptation. This is seen through her use of twilight, which is defined as “a period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline” (“Twilight”). The poet also uses binary oppositions such as good and evil, day and night, and light and darkness to provoke a sense of comparison in the poem. The comparisons serve to illustrate the ambiguity of evil and temptation, as compared to the idea of goodness, which can be easily defined.

Twilight, a time in which both day and night co-exist harmoniously together, is portrayed as a time that “is not good for maidens” (Rossetti, 144). It is only when it is twilight, a period “between daylight and darkness”, that the goblins appear to sell their fruits. This could be a reference to the notion of twilight being the beginning of darkness; a time often attributed to when evil appears. Through the appearance of the goblins selling their forbidden fruits and Lizzie’s caution that “The sunset flushes”, the notion of associating twilight with temptation and sinful activities is presented (Rossetti, 221). The line highlights the red rays of the setting sun through the use of “flushes”, and also personifies sunset, giving it a human quality. The colour red is often used to denote something “forbidden, dangerous or urgent” and therefore, the idea of the lack of light can be associated with danger (“Red”). Furthermore, by personifying the sunset, the notion of danger is placed upon the goblins, as they later appear only when darkness falls. The goblins only appear during times when darkness is present, like twilight and night, as seen in “Evening by evening”, and when Jeanie meets the goblin men “in the moonlight” (Rossetti, 32, 148). The presence of darkness enables the goblins to somewhat hide under a both figurative and physical veil of “dimness”, therefore also hiding their impurities and evil intentions, which allows them to successfully tempt and entice innocent maidens (Rossetti, 262).

This is further reiterated in the description of the goblins’ jingle as “sugar-baited words”, where their simple “Come buy, come buy” jingle is made effective because it is sugar-coated, and therefore made superficially attractive to bait young maidens (Rosetti, 232; 234). It is also interesting to note the use of diction, as “sugar-baited” is used instead of the commonly known “sugar-coated”, highlighting the idea of the goblins’ evil intentions to entice and trap potential customers. Moreover, since the goblin calls can be heard but not seen during the day, the “Come buy, come buy” calls in daylight gives the goblin men a mysterious and ambiguous air about them. Their mysteriousness prompts the curiousity of their weak listeners, such as Laura, as she goes to peep at them although Lizzie cautions her against it. Their calls also serve as a warning, as a jingle is an advertisement designed “to be easily remembered” (“Jingle”). This description establishes the goblin cries as being addictive, and is used to persuade someone to attain something, as seen in how Laura “loitered still among the bushes” and her “longing for the night” (Rossetti, 214, 226). This description then serves as a warning to Lizzie, who is the only one, other than Laura and Jeanie, who has not been tempted by the “forbidden” fruits of the goblins (Rossetti, 479). The presence of such a jingle is evil and is used to aid the goblin men in enticing those who are weak at heart, like Jeanie and Laura.

In appearing when darkness falls, the goblins also operate through a veil of mystery, thus instilling curiosity in their targets, making them anticipate their coming, as “Laura bowed her head to hear” the goblins arriving and she also “whispered like the restless brook”  (Rossetti, 34, 53). Laura’s excitement and action of bowing her head simply just to pick out the goblins’ repeated jingle showcases the effect of the sugar coated jingle, and also foreshadows Laura’s later actions of consuming the goblins’ fruits. In addition, the poet’s choice in placing “night” before “day” in “knew not it was night or day”, “sought them by night and day” and “night and morning” also asserts the goblin men as creatures of the night, as this placement of night before day is only presented after an encounter with the goblin men (Rossetti, 139, 155, 302). This unique placement of night before day is a break from the traditional convention of the usual phrasing that follows the sequence of a day, whereby the day starts and then ends with night. By switching the sequence, night is given more importance, and therefore triumphs over day. Therefore, the goblin men appear at the first sight of darkness, appearing during twilight and disappearing after the second twilight of a day, suggesting an association of the goblins with an evil night, and also further reinforcing the idea of night and darkness representing evil.

In addition, moon imagery in the poem is also used to portray how the victims of temptation “pined and pined away” and how they longed for the evil fruits (Rossetti, 154). It also represents evil, as seen in the point above that the goblins always appear under the moonlight. Furthermore, Laura’s deteriorating state is described as, “She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn / To swift decay” (Rossetti, 276-279). By associating the image of the full moon with decay, and connecting Laura’s deteriorating state to the movement of the moon, the idea that moon and night is waning Laura’s life away is presented, further emphasising that evil is winning the battle between good and evil. The moon also provides minimal light in the darkness, therefore causing a sort of dimness for the goblin men to hide their evilness. The lack of light also highlights the lack of warmth, indicating a relationship of darkness and coldness as well. Through this, the notion of darkness and coldness housing evilness is again presented.

The idea of coldness is shown through the imagery of “cooling” and “windy” weather in the poem (Rossetti, 37, 121). This is related to darkness and evil, as these images are only mentioned during night or evening. In addition, the season of winter is also used for the same effect and represents death or a coming end. Readers are told that Jeanie died “In earliest winter-time, / With the first glazing rime, / With the first snow-fall of crisp winter-time” (Rossetti, 317-319). Jeanie slowly “dwindled and grew grey” and died (Rossetti, 156). There is a lack of colour presented in the descriptions of wintry coldness, and Jeanie’s worsening state is described as “grey”, a colour often associated with dullness, paleness, and aging. These lines therefore indicate a relationship between coldness (winter) and death. This idea is repeated later when Laura faces the same fate as Jeanie, and Lizzie recognises that Laura “Seemed knocking at Death’s door:” (Rossetti, 321). Furthermore, the melons from the goblin men are also described as “icy-cold”, and Laura later dreams of these melons when she is going to die, adding onto the idea that winter signifies an approaching death or end (Rossetti, 175). Therefore, the idea of evilness, sin, temptation and death is consistently presented through the imagery of darkness, dimness, coldness, and winter, thus emphasising the relationship between the evil and darkness.

On the other hand, the idea of light is associated with the notion of goodness in the poem. Morning represents goodness, as seen in Lizzie’s contentment and “warbling for the mere bright day’s delight” (Rossetti, 213). Therefore, the goblin men do not appear during daytime, as light clears our sight and makes things visible, therefore exposing their horrifying selves to those whom they want to tempt. They never appear during morning and day, although the cries of the goblin men can be heard through “Morning and evening” (Rossetti, 1). It is interesting to note that although their jingle is heard throughout the day, it seems to have no effect on young maidens until darkness falls. Moreover, although their jingle is heard in the day, the lack of their presence indicates the goblins’ inability to show themselves in the light. The goblin men’s shunning of light concretises the binary divide between good and evil, and light and darkness. This suggests that the goblins are afraid of light and brightness, as they are afraid of revealing their flaws, therefore suggesting that light can overpower darkness.

Furthermore, the sisters are “sweet and busy” in the mornings and milk cows, fetch honey, and knead cakes, which is in contrast with “At length slow evening came:”, a time where darkness slowly seeps into the day (Rossetti, 201, 215). The contrast between morning and night activities in which the sisters engage in also shows that constructive, useful and productive things are done in the mornings, therefore promoting life and an “open heart” (Rossetti, 210). Light is also used to represent life and goodness, as seen in “Must your light like mine be hidden, / Your young life like mine be wasted,” (Rossetti, 480-481). This further reinforces the idea of morning and day as representations of life, goodness and purity.

Additionally, the recurring usage of fire-related descriptions in the poem also stands out as these descriptions bring out the dual meaning of fire as a symbol of both life and death. Fire is commonly known to be a provider of warmth and a destructor of the cold. However, it can also destroy life. These nuances of the word, as well as the duality and contrast of fire can be seen throughout the poem. This duality can also be seen in the later conclusion that the forbidden fruits are both the “fiery antidote” and the cause for Laura’s illness, thus showing fire as both the giver of life, an antidote and cure, as well as the helper of death and illness (Rossetti, 559).

Fire symbolises the illness and death through the danger of the fruits, because even though they look bright and beautiful, they also can lead one to illness and death. For example, the bright colour of fire is used to bring forth the idea of death and illness, as seen through the description of the barberries as “Bright-fire-like” (Rossetti, 27). The barberries are one of the evil fruits that the goblins are selling, and will therefore bring the eater illness and death. The description of the colour of the barberries to be as red as a bright fire therefore puts forth the emphasis of fire as a symbol of death.

Fire also represents life, as seen in the poet’s description of Laura’s deteriorating health as “ … and burn / Her fire away.” (Rossetti, 279-280). The idea of fire symbolising life and strength is presented when the goblin men are attacking Lizzie, as she is “Like a beacon left alone / In a hoary roaring sea, / Sending up a golden fire,” (Rossetti, 412-414). In describing Lizzie as beacon – a fire amongst sea, sending out a distress signal of fire, it highlights the theme of good versus evil, as a golden fire represents goodness. Lizzie being a beacon also further proves that fire represents life and strength in the poem. It is also important to note that most of the fire-related description is concentrated towards the end of the poem, especially when Laura transforms back to her old self and is cured. The dual meaning of fire as life and death is shown through Laura’s transformation, in “Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart, / Met the fire smouldering there / And overbore its lesser flame”, showing that “swift fire” is the antidote, which are the juices from the goblin fruits, and “smouldering fire” is the “lesser flame”, the root of the illness (Rossetti, 507-509). It shows that a stronger fire, goodness, is needed to overthrow evil, whose fire has many flaws and is weak. The use of figurative language in description of the fire as knocking at Laura’s heart emphasises on the process as an awakening. As the “fiery antidote” takes effect in Laura, “Her lips began to scorch,” and “Her locks streamed like the torch”, showing the battle being won by goodness (Rossetti, 493, 500). Therefore, fire can then be seen to represent the dual ideas of life and death, thus presenting the binary of life and death.

In conclusion, in using such binary imagery of day and night, and morning and evening, the themes of light versus darkness and the theme of good versus evil are showcased in the poem. Furthermore, in placing such contrasting nature themed imagery in the poem, the notion that good and evil is part of human nature is showcased. It is also argued that the evilness in human nature can be resisted, as seen through the example of Lizzie. The duality of twilight and fire further reiterates the idea that there has to be an equal balance of both good and evil in the world. However, despite the various representations of evil in the poem, the idea of evilness is still ambiguous and cannot be defined, unlike goodness, which is easily defined by Lizzie, mornings, day, and light.

Works Cited

“Jingle”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

“Red”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2006. 1466-1478. Print.

“Twilight”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

Currently imparting her Literature knowledge to teens, VICTORIA CHANEL LEE is a Singlit aficionado who finds joy in web and graphic design. She firmly believes that Tablo is a literary genius, even though many may scoff at the idea.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng


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