The Supernatural and the Superego in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”
young girls at the piano by renoir, c. 1892
i haven’t been posting because i have finals soon! below is a small commentary i wrote for one of my classes which gives one a good idea of my academic writing and interests
Christina Rossetti’s 1863 “Goblin Market,” published before Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical research, employs fairytale tropes by greatly enhancing the mind-bending, seducing, and frightening nature of the poem’s foes. As they attempt to lure a pair of sisters with their delectable fruits, the poem’s goblins act on their desire to satiate their need for pleasure. In this way, they portray similar desires to humans such as a need for fulfillment, but the goblins’ approach differs. They become dangerous and manipulative when they seduce their victims.
We cannot discuss the goblins in strictly human terms, so upon utilizing Freud’s research, his terms must be reconsidered to understand the lack of the morality of the goblins. The goblins are inhuman and they do not have a moral conscious. Freud theorizes the human psyche has three aspects — the id, ego, and superego — that drive our desires, our human connections, and our interactions with society. Humans with a low-functioning superego, for example, could be diagnosed with psychopathy because psychopaths tend to lack the ability to show or feel guilt and empathy. The term “psychopathy” provides a means of identifying, as it appears in humanity, the moral disconnect of the goblins which tend to view others as objects (Juni).
Psychologists understand that those with “superego deficit,” a trait of psychopathy, do not experience guilt or have value for “interpersonal rights,” but I must note that those with psychopathy are undeniably human and in need of sympathy of others (Juni 79). As cruel as the goblins may seem, it is to do them a disservice to discuss their actions based on human expectations, with explicitly human terms such as “psychopathic.” Because Rossetti’s goblins are hyperbolized, inhuman versions of dangerous men, we can utilize psychoanalysis to understand what functions of the brain motivate the goblins’ actions.
Psychologist Dan Mekur’s writings allow us to understand how the aspects of the psyche work. Dr. Mekur writes on the superego and the ability to feel guilty in his article, “Interpreting the Sense of Badness,” “Superego theory takes its point of departure from the observable phenomena of guilt. Freud attributed [guilt] to tension between the superego and the ego” (944). As the goblins lack guilt for their wrongdoings, they cannot have a superego because “tension” between the superego and ego does not exist. In that remaining space, the id overtakes the potential for development of a superego. Where the goblins lack proper social behavior and a moral conscious, their id is overdeveloped.
The goblins are all alike, chanting the same words, so they have conformed as a result of a strong ego and id. Oppositely, a human who has a strong superego stands out from the crowd because of her desire to be good. Lizzie acts as the ideal character with a superego because she intervenes, saving her sister from the goblins. Guerin suggests that if everyone succumbed to their superego, though, we would have an almost angelic society concerned with perfection, following rules and blending in (205). While this might resonate with humanity, goblin society expects all others to conform to its body of id-oriented creatures. No creature in particular stands out among the rest.
Guerin’s explanation of the superego does not consider the differing cultural expectations of other societies, especially those of non-humans. Dr. Mekur writes further on Freud’s theory of the superego, “The theory implied that moral standards are personal ideals that vary with individuals and cultures” (944). As the superego is generally discussed in the realm of humanity, when we look at how the superego works within goblin society, we see that conformity takes a malicious path. It is not possible for one creature to morally diverge from the rest because they lack guilt. Since they do not have superegos, they cannot respond with guilt, but, rather, ambivalence for their actions which allows their actions to be reoccurring.
The id appears more strongly in Laura who first becomes enticed by the goblins’ fruit. A high-functioning libido is suggested by this attraction. Laura displays a strong ego which does not consider the goblins a threat, but a challenge that one can overcome which results in pleasure. Laura becomes attracted to the goblins as a result of an overactive libido, the drive for sexual pleasure — in this same way, the goblins are controlled by their libido. As well, Lizzie’s ego appears less than her sister’s because she has the ability to restrain and warn against the fruits. As one sister falls for the temptation of the fruit, the other resists.
In presenting her tale of temptation, Rossetti allows Lizzie to be a voice of reason. As Laura’s sister, Lizzie begs her sibling not to indulge in the fruit, reminding her of another girl who fell for the goblins’ tricks. Eventually, Lizzie must save her sister, and as she saves Laura, the poem conveys a message of the danger of succumbing to fruit, life’s pleasures and temptations.
The blatant metaphor of eating fruit as sex correlates with the heavy-handedness of Freud’s theory on libido and suggestion that sex can be found in every desire. The poem reinforces the morality of traditional fairytales and their warnings against sex to engage its readers through overt sexual imagery. By the end of the poem, Laura tells her children about the goblin men, echoing Lizzie’s cries which warned against buying the goblins’ fruits.
We know her effort to steer her children away from the goblins is, well, fruitless — the goblins will endlessly tempt those with curious, open minds, especially the young with their overactive ids (Guerin 204–205). By writing fantastical creatures with an inability to feel guilt, Rossetti presents to readers a more terrifying fairytale than what was previously in children’s books. With a psychoanalytical perspective, we can understand that the goblins are terrifying not because of their inhumanity, but because of their similarities with humans. The goblins exemplify the threat of evil within humanity, working to warn young children to not fall for predatory tricks.
Guerin, Wilfred L. “The Psychological Approach.” A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 201–24. Print.
Juni, Samuel. “Diagnosing Antisocial Behavior and Psychopathy.” Journal of Criminal Psychology, vol. 4, no. 1, 2014, pp. 76–96, Psychology Database. Web.
Merkur, Dan. “Interpreting the Sense of Badness.” Psychoanalytic review, vol. 96, no. 6, 2009, pp. 943–82, Psychology Database. Web.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.