Sex Makes Women Mad

Comparing Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market with Michael Fields’ The Faun’s Punishment with each other through a lens of “sexuality” and “gender” raises interesting questions.


In Goblin Market, the young girl Lizzie is abused by a group of goblins that want to force her to eat the forbidden fruit. It becomes clear that this scene can be read as sexual abuse when the goblins torment her as she disagrees to open her lips. The goblins would keep trying to “cram a mouthful in”. Through the lens of sexuality, this could mean that the goblins want to force her to practice oral sex. However, Lizzie remains resistant and in the end, the fruit’s juices are all over her body. Lizzie describes the fruit juices as “goblin pulp” and “goblin dew” which could be an analogy for semen. This scene can be read as (attempted) gang rape and Lizzie trying to resist it.

In The Faun’s Punishment a group of maenads, abuse a faun because he was looking at them. The poem alludes to a painting from 1531. In the picture, we can see naked women sitting around a naked man, tearing on his skin, blowing a reed into his ear, preying on his helplessness. While this poem (and the picture) does not seem to be about rape, it does show signs of sexuality and violence. The nudity combined with images such as the woman playing the flute is very suggestive.

What is striking, is that the action seems very similar but it is performed on people of opposite genders. In Goblin Market the victim is a young girl and the goblins do not have a gender (or seem rather masculine), The Faun’s Punishment has a male victim and female abusers. Therefore, both of the poems mirror each other from a gender perspective. However, what both of the poems have in common is that the women are portrayed as mad, either in the position of the victim, or as the people driving men crazy. In Fields’ poem, they are “maenads”, which is a term that directly translates into “madwoman”. Maenads are known for their animalistic and sexual behavior. Laura, in Goblin Market is the first victim of the goblins’ abuse and she gives in to their form of seduction. As a consequence, she falls into a depressive state. Depression, in the Victorian Era, might have been seen as “hysteria” or “madness” as well as the opposite behavior of the maenads. Thus, according to the poems, the consequence of sexual activity, either as the product of abuse or as the active part, is always a mad woman.

4 thoughts on “Sex Makes Women Mad”

  1. What an amazing comparison – I didn’t connect these two pieces but you make a really compelling points. Like we’ve discussed, sexuality and violence were underpinning all Victorian discourse in art and literature. However, readers and scholars of the present day may assume it would be rare to see female abusers represented. I want to build on your points about the similarities and point out that both of these scenes take place outside. What does this say about the way Victorians felt about “the outside” and sexuality? Something about the ‘untamed’ growth of the outdoors feels very related to sexuality and colonialism.

  2. I love this connection that you have made! I too, had realized how the two were in comparison, however, what I did not notice was the overt sense of masculinity and male gaze in both pieces. Specifically, as you have pointed out in “Goblin Market”, the goblins seem to have no gender, but in actuality, they are perversive and predatory. They try to entice the girls into having some of their fruit, and are extremely persistent about it. By them having this ‘gaze’ upon women, it also connects to the story behind the painting itself. The man, who is now tortured by women, was once inappropriately watching them. All in all, great post!

  3. What an analysis! What struck me most was the juxtaposition of the two images at the beginning — to see the two pieces right next to each other like that was so compelling, I almost stopped right there and jumped straight to a new page to write my own blog post. The fact that both the Faun and what we can assume is Lizzie in the Goblin Market image have their heads turned to the left (their right) is very interesting; they also both have someone reaching toward their faces, which, as you pointed out, is reminiscent of rape or abuse. It also seems that both the Faun and Lizzie have their legs spread out as they sit back. This contributes to the mirroring that you point out and furthers my interest in these pieces.

  4. The connection between sexuality and madness is so interesting here in the Victorian Era. “Madness” as an end result of sexuality, whether is be abuse or consensual, also speaks to the fact that women were thought to be the same or redundant. The lack of any distinction between female sexuality and the grouping of all female sexuality into “hysteria” or “madness” highlights the inclination to group all women together because regardless of the root of the sexual act, the label is the same. This also highlights the freedom, power and agency men had because they could do anything, as noted in “Goblin Market,” without consequence because the woman gets the negative label. However, this is more complicated in “The Faun’s Punishment” because the man is being punished for watching the girls when he shouldn’t have been. Yet even still, the women who are punishing him already have the label of “mad” which could imply a notion that perhaps the punishment is undeserved? This would certainly fit with Victorian Era thought and conceptions of female sexuality.

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