The Call to Arms!
Hélène Cixous shouts a call to arms “And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it!” (Cixous 876). She was telling women so much more than to just write. In her article “The Laugh of the Medusa” she often compares the act of writing to the act of masturbation. It is something that has been taken away from women, our “right” to experience pleasure, because for so long we have been made to be pleasure for men. That we have been taught to sacrifice our pleasure to ensure the man has his. Writing is essential for women, communication, expression, our ability to relate to one another are all things that were lost to us when we became the product of male desire. To write, and to experience our body in ways that have been frowned upon is a way for women to take back some of their power in society. To write ourselves and our own desires not only shows other women that these acts are ok, but they allow men a glimpse into what our bodies feel. That we exist with or without them and even offer them a chance to grow and learn as well. In the poem “Goblin Market” Rossetti uses the sexualized imagery of eating fruit, Laura struggling with consent with the goblins, and Lizzie saving her sister by stealing fruit juices and restoring sisters power delivers some of Cixous most important messages about taking back the body.
Laura makes a tough decision to indulge herself by eating the fruit of goblin men, she knows it is forbidden and that other girls they knew had DIED from looking upon goblin man and buying their fruits. She thinks that she can handle it, that it could be different for her if she could just try the fruits. While I think Cixous would argue that Laura has every right to try the fruits it’s the imagery of how she enjoys them that makes me feel like Rossetti was setting a very sexual image,
She sucked, and sucked, and sucked some more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore,
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gathered up one kernel-stone,
And knew not if it was night of day
As she turned home alone (Rossetti 8).
The way that Rossetti describes sucking on the sweet fruits until her lips become sore, and the gluttonous nature with which she casts the emptied rinds away and continues for more, brings the picture of a very pleasurable sexual experience. It seems cleverly hidden in an innocent poem about a little girl breaking the rules, but when certain scenes are isolated it is like she is writing about female pleasure, the fact that there are sexual ways a woman experiences the world. Women have been told for so long that their own desire is something close to a sin, that it is a relatively unexplored topic. The voice of woman who want their desires to be known and heard has been growing throughout history in literature, even as yearly as 1859 when Rossetti was writing. This poem, and many others written by woman attempt to break the sexual double standard, which is the double standard the privileges male desire while denigrating female sexual desire and shaming as promiscuous or immoral (Class Worksheet).
Another key issue the poem recalls is the issue of consent that Laura faces with the goblins. When she is ready to taste their fruits of course there is a fee. She must pay for the pleasure of eating these exotic fruits. When she tells them, she has no money the goblins tell her they will take a lock of her hair. In 1859 a lock of hair was an extremely intimate gesture. Girls would give a lock of their hair to a man to be worn as a ring as a symbol of love and affection. Which to me seems like an extreme parallel for her to be giving a lock of golden hair to a goblin. This is where things begin to go south, because she gave a lock of hair, she already paid for the fruits yet the goblins try to steal her life. She pays, she eats what she pays for, then she leaves. But then she begins to yearn for the fruits and this yearning for the fruits starts to drain the life from her. The worst part of this situation is that the goblins haven’t even left, they are still there and Lizzie can still hear them cry “Come Buy, come buy”, this is also a theme that Cixous talks about. The fact that men create unnecessary competition between women, and that woman hate one another because of men. This is another way they take power that isn’t freely given, her consent doesn’t matter, once she has already tasted the exotic fruits she is no longer of use to them. As if they took her virginity and tossed her aside for no longer being pure. This was a common occurrence of the time, that if a woman was not a virgin she was not worthy of being a wife. With such strict implications perhaps, Laura would have skipped tasting the fruit. There is also the moment that Lizzie turns down the goblins, and they try to force the fruits into her mouth, because the moments before while Laura ate the fruits was so sexualized this moment feels a lot like unwanted sexual attention towards Lizzie. They hit her and beat her and try to force the fruits into her mouth so that she might yearn for them until her own death. Which symbolizes men using their physical strength against women in unwanted sexual situations. In general, most men are physically stronger than women and they exploit this fact. If women were innately the physically stronger sex perhaps “women rights” wouldn’t be an issue.
The final parallel between these works is the message that women are more powerful when they stick together. There is a central message shown by the sisters that women’s love and cooperation together that they can return from even the direst situations.
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.” (Rossetti 20)
Lizzie tricks the goblins into squeezing the juices all over her, she goes to them with the intent to buy the fruits so Laura doesn’t die fighting the desire in her to eat the fruit. When they won’t sell and they make aggressive moves towards her she endures their aggression knowing she will get the luscious juices that her sister needs to survive. Once again, the sucking of juices is oddly sexualized as Laura sucks them off her sister, breaking the goblin curse and allowing Laura to return to a normal life. Though homosexual acts were considered indecent at the time this little sexual snippet of one girl sucking exotic juices off another may have been a way to indicate that desire has no gender. That a woman may desire whatever she desires and at that moment Laura desired the juices off her sister.
There are a few moments in the poem that Cixous may not fully be in line with. The moments where Laura is being described before meeting the goblins as a swan, a lily and as a vessel at launch. While the vessel has some sexual symbolism of its own I was more taken with the description of these majestic white images, indicating her purity. Another spot is when the two girls lay down to go to bed, after Laura eats the fruits,
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest,
Folded in each others’ wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like tow flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro,
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest (Rossetti 10)
So much of this section makes me think of “The Angle in the House” by Coventry Patmore, the fact that all the creatures in the night do not fly, as if time is standing still at the beauty of these two young girls in bed together, speak directly from the poem, where he describes the beauty of his wife with the ability to inspire faith in men that had none. Because her beauty could make you believe in god. Specifically, in this poem it puts the girls, and women in general up on this pedestal of purity, and it is done directly after Laura is defiled by eating the cursed goblin fruits but before any symptoms show her as being less than pure. Although, it could be said that this imagery is used to show that Laura wasn’t defiled by the eating of cursed goblin fruit, but that is her inability to satiate that desire that causes her to fall from this pure image.
Overall, I think Cixous would support this poem, especially from the year it was written as a way for Rossetti to write her body and talk about her passion without it being so obvious that it couldn’t be published. She subtly gave women this sexual fantasy driven imagery and allowed the women to win victory with their intellect. Not only was Laura able to fulfill her desires but her bond to her sister was made stronger by them overcoming the obstacles of man… Or goblins in this case. Laura was still able to take a husband and raise children with her sister at her side, because as they say it takes a village to raise a child, and women are much better off when they work together at anything.
Cixous, Héléne, Keith Cohen, and Paula Cohen. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.4 (1976): 875-893 accessed 4/12/2018
Rossetti, Christina., “Goblin Market” The Complete Poems, Penguin Books, London (2001) Accessed 4/12/2018
Patmore, Coventry. “The Angle in the House” 1854 (Recited in several books used in reference from Wikipedia on 5/5/2018)