Sexuality and Androgyny in “Goblin Market”

The frontispieces of “Goblin Market” depict women, men, and goblins. Of the two illustrations, the characters depicted are Laura, Lizzie, and the goblins; however, no character in either illustration fulfills a Victorian stereotype of gender. Instead, the drawings (consciously or unconsciously) maintain and perpetuate androgyny and the rhetoric of sexuality present in the poem itself.

The righthand illustration shows Laura cutting off a lock of hair to pay the goblins for their fruit. In the context of the poem, Rossetti implies that Laura pays the goblins in part to enhance or produce the goblins’ own pleasure: the image of Laura “sucking” as well as the goblins’ later determination to make Lizzie “eat” their “fruit” suggests that women eating fruit stands in for giving pleasure of a different kind to the masculinely conceptualized “goblin men.” In some sense, Laura pays the goblins so that they will feel pleasure in her consumption.

The image of Laura cutting her hair reinforces this reading. Laura’s face is sad, almost grieving, as she puts the knife to her hair (symbolizing the loss of her virginity/reputation/maidenhood), but the goblins, depicted as various animals, are leaning in on her in a predatory way. The sexual connotations of the illustration appear in Laura’s exposed neck and hair, the outline of her legs under her skirt, and the clear desire expressed through the animals closing in. However, Laura’s face and body are not drawn as delicate and female; her arms are strong, her neck muscular, and her face distinctly androgynous; were she wearing men’s clothes with her hair cut short, even if her body was in the same position, her attitude and features would depict a male.

The second image, of Laura and Lizzie cuddling while the goblins cavort in a dream-bubble above them, has overtones of heterosexual/romantic love. In the poem, Lizzie calls on Laura to “come and kiss me. . . Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices . . . eat me, drink me, love me, Laura make much of me.” These distinctly sexual, un-sisterly commands are reflected in the image of Laura and Lizzie in bed together. Despite the Victorian valuation of platonic/familial love, given the context of Laura and Lizzie’s relationship in the poem, the illustration of the two girls has overtones of sexuality as well as an unmistakable androgyny. Although the sisters clearly engage in an unconventional semi-sexual relationship with each other (and the goblin men), here the heterosexual norm of a man comforting a woman plays into their depiction. This androgyny could also reflect a male voyeurism of the sisters’ sexual relationship.

Overall, “Goblin Market” and its accompanying illustrations are creepy at best and downright disturbing at most.

Eyre and Edward: queered gender

Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte in 1848 and published under her androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell. Based only on the fact of Charlotte Bronte’s revision of herself into a male (or at least uncertainly gendered) writer, Jane Eyre becomes weighted with the question of gender: who is a woman? who is a man? why might a woman wish to be or behave as a man? who gets to do what in Charlotte Bronte’s world?

The typed Victorian understanding of gender rested on a binary system: male and female. Men behaved masculinely (riding horses, killing animals, being manly) and women behaved femininely (embroidering, accepting marriage proposals, wearing corsets). Despite the Victorians’ efforts to uphold and perpetuate this kind of gender, their extremized gender system often fell through, as people of the “wrong” sex acted according to the gender norms of the opposite sex.

Jane Eyre is a deeply female text, relying on female strength and female spiritual power. However, its understanding of “femaleness” does not owe much to the Victorian understanding of female as feminine. Throughout, Jane behaves with her own volition, expresses her own agency, and insists on her own independence. In the scene of Rochester’s proposal to her, she addresses Rochester as an equal, despite their status differences. Her angry (and deeply unfeminine) speech to him ends in the declaration, “‘It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!'” (Chapter 23) Despite the tempering of religion, Jane clearly believes herself and Rochester to be spiritual and mental equals. Her repetition of their equality, as well as her claiming of her own natural independence (“I am a free human being with an independent will”), subverts the Victorian gender binary and expected female behavior.

In this way, Jane Eyre presents a queer understanding of gender. Jane behaves not as a “womanly woman” but as a “free human being”; by degendering herself, Jane in effect revokes her role as a feminine woman and claims agency over her own life. Her direct revision of “normal” behavior for a woman creates androgyny in the text, as she performs typically “masculine” behavior in her attempts to reach a level of equality with Rochester.

Jane tells Rochester directly, “‘I am better than you'” (Chapter 23). In context, the phrase seems only to point out that Jane is more morally admirable since she would never accept a spouse she did not love. However, in the gendered hierarchy of Victorian status, Jane’s expression of a direct superiority overturns Victorian understandings of gender position.

Thus Charlotte Bronte’s writing of Jane Eyre. However, fifty years after Jane Eyre was published, an edition came out featuring illustrations by Edmund Garrett, whose understanding of Jane Eyre’s gender owed more to Victorian norms than to the novel itself. Garrett’s representation of Jane and Rochester’s togetherness is wholly different than Bronte’s degendered, stormy Jane: in Garrett’s picture, Jane is below and behind Rochester, demoted to the background of their pose, while Rochester’s hands are occupied in hiding and enclosing (therefore possessing) Jane.

The illustration entirely misunderstands the scene and its implications for gender in the text. Jane Eyre is not a shrinking woman to be covered and protected by a male guardian, nor is Rochester (despite his attempts to fill the role) a stoic man offering protection and guidance to a young female. Jane Eyre herself subverts both these typified gender roles – but Garrett’s illustration misses this entirely, down to the title.

Garrett captions the picture “‘Are you happy, Jane?'” Clearly, we’re meant to decide that Jane is happy: head dropped onto Rochester’s shoulder, face half-hidden behind Rochester’s hand, body covered and dominated by Rochester’s, she’s leaning into him, submitting to him. Neither look happy in the picture, but Jane’s eyes are mostly closed, suggesting another form of submission (sexual or emotional) in addition to her stance.

The Victorians’ troubled relationship with gender stemmed mostly from their insistence on a binarized system, which contributed to their confusion when humans didn’t fit into “masculine” or “feminine” categories but understood themselves as simply human. Jane Eyre expresses this, but Edmund Garrett refuses to see it. In some ways, the fifty years between Jane Eyre‘s publication and Garrett’s illustration solidified the gender binary; although Jane Eyre explicitly refuses to be feminized, Garrett represents her as a stereotype of Victorian feminine womanhood. Neither Jane herself nor Charlotte Bronte understand Jane as a feminized woman; rather, she is a human woman, whose understanding of herself as a woman depends on herself rather than the cultural expectation of her time.

Because of this deviance from the Victorian norm, as well as the novel’s revisions and subversions of gender, Jane Eyre can be understood as a queer text. Jane herself is a queer character: she is not all man or all woman, but simply Jane.

Link to VQA:

As She Fills His Dream: Laura, Christina Rossetti, and Women as a Blank

“Think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir. Let the kind, candid blue eyes meet yours, as they met mine, with the one matchless look which we both remember so well. Let her voice speak the music that you once loved best, attuned as sweetly to your ear as to mine. Let her footstep, as she comes and goes, in these pages, be like that other footstep to whose airy fall your own heart once beat time. Take her as the visionary nursling of your own fancy; and she will grow upon you, all the more clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine.” The Woman in White, Project Gutenberg

In Walter Hartright’s imagining of Laura Fairlie, he literally strips her identity from her: instead of granting her a shred of individuality or personhood, he presents her as an utter blank, depicted as a woman – any woman – who the (presumed male) reader found attractive. Walter describes no character, no personal quirks, no endearing qualities, which Laura possesses. In the most descriptive passage he accords to Laura, he transposes Laura the person with Laura as a stand-in for male masturbatory fantasy of a woman.

On an even more disturbing note, Walter describes Laura as the woman who lives in his fancy (fantasy): if the reader “takes her” into his own “fancy,” the woman who Walter encourages the reader to think of as Laura will grow stronger within the fancy in the same way “as the living woman who dwells in mine” – in other words, in Walter’s fancy. “Fancy” here means imagination, fantasy, invention, dream – Laura lives in Walter’s head, not in her own self or even her own body – and this dream-like quality echoes the dreamed woman in Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio.”

The “nameless girl” (line 6) reflects Walter’s refusal to describe Laura’s actual identity; the girl of the paintings has no name, no identity except her face. In the same way, Walter describes Laura’s physical attributes – eyes, voice, footstep – without lingering on her selfhood, the qualities that make her herself, or even giving her a name, rather encouraging the reader to substitute another woman’s self and name in order to increase male pleasure in the conception of Laura.

Rossetti describes the eponymous artist as “feed[ing] upon her face by day and night” (line 9), in the same way that Walter “feeds” upon the watercolor of Laura, fetishizing its physical presence in the same way he fetishized Laura’s physicality while her body was present. The metaphor of consumption encompasses the mental/bodily possession of Laura that Walter craves as well as the fetishization of her body. If Walter acts as the artist in Rossetti’s poem, he is also a reversal of the artist, transferring Laura onto all attractive woman rather than turning all women into her. However, the concept of consumption stands: rather than allowing Laura to stand on her own, to claim her own identity, Walter and Rossetti’s artist prefer to consume the “beloved” into themselves, projecting their own ideas of the female self onto an idealized, masturbatory fantasy of a woman.

The last two lines of Rossetti’s poem perpetuate the projection of false ideals onto an actual woman: “Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;/Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (lines 13-14). The repetition of “not as she is” emphasizes the falsity of the male artist’s conceptualization of the woman, just as Walter’s description of Laura has nothing to do with Laura herself. “As she fills his dream” directly echoes Walter’s creepy line about having Laura within his fancy; these two women, the blank of the artist’s model and the blank of Laura, have been consumed and subsumed by their male idealizers. Idealization is dangerous and unreal, and it always has a quality of fantasy and falseness. The false idols of women that the artist and Walter create are absolutely nothing like their real counterparts: we see the fictional Laura and the nameless girl as figments of the male imagination, neither how they actually are nor how they themselves think they are, but solely as the men around them think they should be.


Mine: The Language of Possession and Female Objectification

“The most wretched of her sex, if she must give herself in marriage when she cannot give her love” (171) L

“She will be his Laura instead of mine! His Laura!” (185) M

“I [have] just come back from a stolen look at Laura in her pretty little white bed . . . My own love!” (194) M

“My poor, faded flower! my lost, afflicted sister!” (478) W

“In the right of her calamity, in the right of her friendlessness, she was mine at last! Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to restore. Mine to love and honor as father and brother both. Mine to vindicate through all risks and all sacrifices” (414) W

“If I am to fight our cause with the Count, strong in the consciousness of Laura’s safety, I must fight it for my Wife.” (559) W

In simplistic terms, Laura Fairlie is the object of desire that The Woman in White works toward possessing.

Laura is loved and desired by Walter Hartright; she is sought and desired by Sir Percival Glyde; she is kissed and loved by Marian; she is stolen from Blackwater; she is cared for and coveted by both Walter and Marian in their tangled ménage á trois. In all these cases, syntactically as well as contextually, Laura is the object of desire: she is passive, the desired rather than the desirer. Similarly, she is spoken about as the possessed object – but not by Percival Glyde or Count Fosco, the ostensible villains of her life: by Walter and Marian, her husband and sister.

In the six excerpts above, Laura gets ten possessive pronouns (or, in keeping with the Laura’s syntax and context, ten are given to her). Laura is “my” love, “mine,” or “his.” She is not her own Laura; she is discussed as an object passed around from hand to hand. Marian discusses her marriage to Glyde in almost economic terms, as if Laura’s marriage is a transaction involving a change of possession. Laura herself, describing marriage, uses the phrase “give herself,” reinforcing the possessional aspects of marriage as a contract and a relationship.

Perhaps the worst instance of Laura as an object of possession is Walter’s in-narrative monologue. He refers to Laura as “mine” four times; the paragraph’s anaphora enforces the possessional language, enhancing the concept of Laura as an object of possession which Walter as “at last” gotten into his own hands.

The description of a spouse as “my wife” doesn’t seem especially ominous until connected with the numerous other instances of possessive language. Walter insists to Marian that he wants to marry Laura because it will enhance his position as Laura’s guardian angel, savior, chevalier, knight in armor, etc. – not because he loves her or is attracted to her, but because his possession of her legally will make it easier for him to “save” her (return her to her legal identity, stolen by SPG and CF through AC’s resemblance). We know this through Walter’s umpteenth use of “my” to describe Laura.

Furthermore, Laura is never given her own narrative; not once, except in her (relatively rare) dialogue, does Laura speak in her own voice. The utter exclusion of Laura as a major figure of the action reinforces her presentation as an object; she is handled, desired, passed around, and exchanged, but she does nothing, acts as nothing, performs nothing. The possessional language consistently applied to her reduces her to a possessed object, and the refusal to let her speak as herself reduces her to a thing.

Laura is reduced and possessed throughout The Woman in White. Whether or not Collins is a feminist, whether or not TWIW is meant to argue for better women’s rights, whether or not Marian is supposed to be an example of a “freed” woman – Laura is an object, through the novel’s syntax as well as its contexts. Her objectification and possession are the root of the novel’s dilemma, and her submission to these concepts is the product of them.

Victim-Blaming and Sexual Transgressions in “The Woman in White”

“Her ‘misfortune’. In what sense was she using the word? … In a sense which might show it to be the too common and too customary motive that has led many a woman to interpose anonymous hindrances on the marriage of the man who has ruined her? …. ‘There is another misfortune,’ I said, ‘to which a woman may be liable, and by which she may suffer life-long sorrow and shame. … The misfortune of believing too innocently in her own virtue, and in the faith and honor of the man she loves'” (Collins 101).

It’s easy to dismiss Victorian attitudes toward female sexuality as prudish and repressive, but this is an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of Victorian sexual mores. In an era when treatment for “hysteria” (a “disease” of the “womb”) involved giving women orgasms, sexuality – even female sexuality – is far more polyvalent and complicated than simply repressed and ignored. In The Woman in White, Anne Catherick’s “misfortune” is not actually sexual, but the way Walter Hartright immediately concludes that it is reveals common Victorian trends of thinking about sex and about women having sex.

The premarital sexual liaison that Hartright attributes to Anne’s misfortune he refers to as “the too common and too customary motive.” Common and customary are close to synonyms, except that “common” carries a connotation of inferiority, poverty, vulgarity, low class status. Although the man in the situation is the one committing the action – “ruining” the woman – the woman’s response is “common,” not merely frequent but vulgar, lower-class. It’s a way of blaming the victim: although the man receives the blame and the agency for the sexual part of the affair, the woman’s response and the consequences are her fault, endowed with negative qualities specifically connected to the woman.

As well, the woman “interposes anonymous hindrances” on her “ruiner’s” marriage. “Interpose” doesn’t carry any distinctly negative connotation but in conjunction with “anonymous” and “hindrance,” the phrase as a whole takes on a sinister quality, suggesting venom or malice on the woman’s part, as she performs deeds meant to prevent the man’s marriage. This marriage would legitimize and validate for good the man’s social and sexual status: as a male with the potential for socially endorsed progeny, his position in society would be confirmed.

However, Walter’s inner monologue doesn’t contain an actual accusation of a woman involved in premarital sex. What he says to Anne, however – the outward expression of his thoughts – does contain an accusation: the woman is “liable” to misfortune because she may “believe too innocently in her own virtue” (101). She believes too innocently, and it’s this, her own surplus of innocence, is what gets her into trouble. The man may have no “faith and honour,” but it’s still the woman’s fault for being “too innocent” and for not having enough virtue.

In this situation the woman is unmistakably the victim. She engages in sex or sexual activities, possibly without consent or understanding; she ends up with “life-long sorrow and shame.” Yet Hartright blames her for her own “misfortune,” and he doesn’t give her any possible agency for engaging in an affair with full consent to and desire for a sexual relationship. Here, as in so many situations, women can’t win: if they don’t understand what’s happening, they “believed too innocently” and had too little virtue. There is not even the possibility of their engaging with their own sexuality in any self-realized way.