Beauty & The Beast: Looking at the Use of Sexual Assault in a Narrative

"Salammbo" (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier
“Salammbo” (1889) by Gabrial Ferrier (Image provided by Dickinson College Trout Gallery)
"The Goblin Market" (1933) by Arthur Rackham
“The Goblin Market” (1933) by Arthur Rackham (Image provided by The British Library)

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.

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Noah S. Thompson

Noah S. Thompson is an Senior English and Art & Art History double major at Dickinson College with a passion for bees, gluten-free pastries, and all things queer. His work primarily focuses on portraiture and abstraction.

4 thoughts on “Beauty & The Beast: Looking at the Use of Sexual Assault in a Narrative”

  1. I thought it was very interesting how you put these two pieces in context with another. Looking at these two pieces side by side highlights the sense of temptation by some sort of scary, deceitful creature. Your post also relates to popsicle’s post titled, “The Pleasure in Danger.” This author also looks at the same two images that you have chosen and draws similar connections but focuses more closely on the temptation and sexuality aspect. Reading both of your posts helped me make more connections between seemingly different texts and offered me two different analyses involving sexuality, temptation, and colonialism.

  2. It’s interesting how you reflect on the male gaze as the justification for colonialism while exploiting women. In a sense, drawing women in these seductive poses is a kind of exploitation – the models have to consent to be drawn, but they’re being drawn for the purpose of being looked at (possibly lecherously) mostly by men. Colonialism is also an interesting lens to look at the female body and its appearances in art – men might think of themselves as “colonizing” women to improve the women’s lot through pervasive male sexuality.

  3. I would like to put your blog post into conversation with my own, “Andromache + Propaganda.” We both talk about the ways in which art and literature of the Victorian period were used as tools of propaganda/ways of justifying colonialism and xenophobia within the popular consciousness. In my post, I focus on the “Andromache in Captivity” piece from the Trout Gallery. I see a lot of parity between
    “Andromache” and “Salammbo.” Both feature women who appear to be captive (though, granted, Andromache seems far less enchanted and is fully clothed), held hostage by exotic and troubling forces. Both include implicit danger, in the form of the snake and the musician (Salaambo) and the darker-skinned strangers who look upon Andromache (at best, with curiosity, at worst, greedily). When putting images such as these side by side, it becomes apparent how xenophobia and colonialism were ingrained and reinforced through artwork in the Victorian era.

  4. I would just like to comment on your observation of the sexually assaulting characters being animals/animalistic i.e.- the snake, and the goblins who had a variety of animal features. I think it’s interesting to ponder the cliche “men are pigs” when thinking about this representation of the sexual assault of Lizzie and the woman in Salammbo. “Men are pigs” enforces a gender binary in that men are excessively savage and animalistic while females tend to favor nature. This is crucial because while nature can overcome many things it is often destroyed by its inhabitants. By displaying the assaulting parties as having animal qualities the images preface that the snake and the goblins are male without any other textual clues. What is troubling about this cliche is that it provides the impression that all men are this way. I would argue that the reason the assaulting parties in these pictures cause expedient concern revolves around the question of race. The blackness of the snake compared to the whiteness of the woman (who is arguably not even white) presents an interracial relationship, as does the “attractiveness” gap between the goblins and Lizzie. If this relationship were not interracial, I doubt there would be as much of a sense of “danger and degradation” or as thick a moral plot to stay away from the unknown.

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