Many works of art and literature from the Victorian period, in particular illustrations for children’s novels, represent a method used to justify colonialism or at least xenophobia. Arthur Rackham’s 1933 (while not Victorian, it draws heavily on the text) illustration of Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Goblin Market” is one such example. He depicts a young girl, Lizzie, moments into her assault by the goblin merchants, depicted as grotesque anthropomorphic creatures that attempt to force the girl to partake of their fruit. The goblin merchants have a mystifying and almost hypnotic air about them, as Lizzie’s sister Laura has already fallen prey to them.
Another illustration that portrays the entrancement of a maiden and a beast (or at least can be interpreted that way through the Victorian male gaze) is Gabrial Ferrier’s 1889 print Salammbo. Beasts enwrap the titular character, like Lizzie, in this case a black serpent that coils around her frame. Her pale and nude figure is exposed in what can be seen as a sexualized, yet relaxed, position. This is not the case with Lizzie, as she is clearly distressed and afraid as the goblin merchants swarm around her. Thus the question I ask is why use these sexualized images and metaphors with animals, in particular portraying them as powerful and mystifying figures?
Colonialism is a part of the answer, as you can distance other people and cultures by portraying them as animals, making it easier to justify colonizing them or at least fearing them. Combining this racism and xenophobia with sexism further complicates the images, because while the stories to have sexual tones (and in the case of Rossetti’s story it has a moral lesson), strange creatures assaulting women and young girls further enforces the authority of an Anglo-Saxon man. However, if the concept is to justify colonizing and “improving” the lives of people in other cultures then why portray them as powerful? Part of this has to do with the gender of the creator/illustrator.
Christina Rossetti’s poem, while it does carry racial overtones, presents a moral tale for young girls regarding relationships, how the bonds of sisterhood are everlasting and can withstand the forces and desire of men. Rackham’s illustration fits well with her poem, although the age he has given Lizzie remains ambiguous. She resists the goblins for the sake of her sister, and it is made clear they care not for money but rather for power over women and possession of their bodies.
“If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I tossed you for a fee.
No longer were they wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring
Grunting and snarling.” (Rossetti 11)
Overall the difference between the two images is whether or not the woman gives in to her temptation, yet both cases remain for the male gaze, even if Salammbo presents a more familiar image of the nude, or rather any image available for the pleasure of men. A better way to understand her narrative would be to look at the novel the print is based on. Gustave Flaubert is the author of the 1862 novel Salammbo, and his identity brings to light an interesting comparison. Christina Rossetti is the only woman among these four creators, so her narrative contains the most moral view (even with the racial tones). Thus we can see how the male gaze twists this narrative to justify colonialism while exploiting women and the violence inflicted upon them, calling for men to come save these pure and pale women from foreigners.