Freud was a Dick-wad: Modern Critical Theory and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”

I hereby copyright that title.

So, I have a friend with whom I enjoy geeking out. Last week’s topic of discussion was authorial intent, Freudian analysis, and applied modern critical theory to Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”. If you haven’t read the poem, here’s a link:

At a first glance, this poem just seems overtly sexual, precisely where I take issue with Freud. Before he came along, people didn’t automatically assume that whatever they were reading (or saying or doing for that matter) was all about sex. Sure, the Victorians were a pretty sexually repressed bunch but, despite the sexual undertones of the Goblins’ croak to “come buy, come buy” [our ripe fruit trololol], there’s so much more at work than possible homoerotic overtones. This was one of the first things my friend’s professor brought up when discussing Goblin Market. It wasn’t “clearly Laura is some representation of addiction, similar to that experienced so commonly in the Victorian Era by men who find themselves wandering wayward into grimy opium dens”. No, it’s obvious that she and Lizzie, whose bond is established as that of sisterly affection (“nay, hush my sister”), is some sort of representation of homoerotic love. Obviously, that’s the first thing that pops into our heads when we read the lines where we are first introduced to the young women.

And why is that so important? Why do we have this perverse fascination with sex and literature? Does it really matter whether or not Lizzie and Laure are lesbian lovers? How does that change the themes of Goblin Market? At the end of the day, we still have the exact same experience of a woman dealing with symptoms of withdrawal and addiction. She tasted the fruit, she wants more, but she cannot find the Goblins so that she might get more. Sound familiar?


(Kind of like me when I run out of guayusa at 2 in the morning)

So anyway, having tasted the fruit, Laura goes into a sort of madness (often referred to as a Bacchic frenzy, like the greek god Bacchus and his followers, they drink and dance themselves balls to the wall insane, often ripping unsuspecting bystanders apart with their bare hands). She then falls into a depression because she cannot get more fruit, she stops doing her chores and when she finally comes to her senses again, nothing grows from the seeds she plants (Ooohh symbolism!). So she wastes away and is on the verge of death until Lizzie decides to go find the goblins but they beat her to a pulp when they realize she wants to pay with actual money (THE NERVE OF HER–>Laura paid with tears and a lock of her hair. Strange but true) and she returns to Laura, covered in fruit and juice and uh…Laura licks the juice off of her…But finds the taste repulsive and goes into another frenzy and finally reverts to her old self. The end.

So here we are, stuck in this world of literary analysis where sexual overtones take precedent, centre stage, the limelight, whatever you want to call it. Okay, not everyone’ first instinct is to say “Shakespeare is all about sex!” (it is, but that’s a discussion for later), but my experience has been that social/political/economic context is taking a backseat to applied Freudian theory in literature (do I sound smart? That’s good, I’m making this up as I go along). I spent two semesters with a prof whose sole purpose in life seemed to be explaining just how overtly sexual all of Shakespeare’s plays are (from his rants on the insignificant relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Twelft Night–seriously, who gives a crap about whether or not Antonio is in love with Sebastian and why does it even matter???– to suggesting that Iago is motivated by love for Desdemona –or something about trying to pretend to be in love with her because that way he could actually have motive for doing what he does–which, in my opinion, oversimplifies his motivations and diminishes the impact of his actions). But I digress.

I don’t care if half the jokes made in plays of the renaissance/early modern era/restoration are sexual in nature. The people then had their own sex jokes, and we have ours (except ours are not half as funny because language today isn’t quite as colorful as it used to be). I was reading John Milton in class today. Damn Johnny boy could spin a phrase. The point, dear readers, is that the sex jokes are nothing but jokes. They are meant to entertain an audience that didn’t really have much else to get on with. Just because a woman dresses like a man to escape notice does not mean she has an elektra complex or some such nonsense, much as two girls living together have to be homosexual lovers (though this would be kind of weird because they are, after all, sisters. flesh and blood and all that). If they are, fine, I apologize for not understand your intent Christina. But the fact that we are so ready to apply all these different forms of analysis to literature written so long ago shows that we are caring less and less about authorial intent. Who knows what Rossetti meant to convey in her poem? Personally, I think she was making a point about addiction in opium-riddled 19th century europe, but she could just as easily have been writing a love letter. A really creepy one at that. Though apparently she wrote this as a children’s poem. Because that’s not freaky at all.

Thanks to Freud and his minions, everything reads like an erotic novel (fuck off E. L. James). It’s like “read this, and then explain what the sexual overtones of the text reveal about society”. Well, I say…um…Contextualize what you read and then hash out the rest of it…or something. Modern critical theory people; the social sciences are where it’s at. Umbrella-term it. Not everything is about sex.


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