Feminism In The Scarlet Letter And Goblin Market: Exploring Female Sexuality

Contextual Background of Desire in 19th-Century Literature

Both The Scarlett Letter (1850), a gothic romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Goblin Market (1862), a narrative poem by Christina Rossetti, explore the ideas of female desire and sexuality, which would have been a very controversial topic in the mid-19th century due to the religious nature of society at the time. Similarly, both texts feature the dangers of unbridled sexuality

and desire through the temptation and consequence the female protagonists face in the narratives. However, in The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne also displays Hester Prynne’s desire for independence within a very judgemental and puritanical society, shown through her condemnation by this same society.

Pearl’s Role in The Scarlett Letter

The female desire and sexuality are presented through Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne is displayed through her disregard for taboos against women’s sexuality. ‘Pearl gathered the violets, anemones, columbines, and some twigs of the freshest green… With these, she decorated her hair, her young waist, and became a nymph-child, or an infant dryad, or whatever else was in closest sympathy with the antique wood.’ In the 19th Century, flowers were used as a symbol of female sexuality and seeing as though she is the physical an embodiment of the sin of Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale, Pearl further defies the Puritan’s laws through how she acts in the forest and as the Puritans considered the forest to be the devil’s playground, it could be seen as Pearl freedom from the society which has never failed to condemn her from birth. ‘The talk of the neighboring townspeople seeking verily elsewhere for the child’s paternity had given out that poor little pearl as a demon offspring’ the typical view of Puritans is that they were gloomy characters, and they emphasized the importance of inner happiness and the development of private piety rather than the display of outer joy. In contrast, Pearl is a symbol of liberty, whereas the community has a standpoint of restriction.

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Desire in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market

Arguably,  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market displays clearer ideas of female desire and sexuality in comparison to The Scarlett Letter. The story Goblin The Market is the tale of two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, who seem to live with no parents and succumb to temptation in tasting the fruits of the Goblin Men. They are presented as animal-like goblins. In this, Rossetti captures the initial Victorian belief that men possess sexual predatorial instincts. These fruits were described to be forbidden as they were sold by the goblin men. Rossetti writes at the very beginning of the narrative

poem, ‘We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits…’. As the poem Goblin Market has been said to be a representation of the Victorian marriage market and the goblins, the demanding suitors, this could possibly be alluding to the widespread tradition of which women in Victorian Britain were to be innocent till marriage, because even the slightest knowledge of pre-marital requisites could contaminate their minds and make them less pure.

Contrasting to later in the poem where Rossetti writes, ‘She sucked and sucked and sucked the more, fruits which that unknown orchard bore; She sucked until her lips were sore.’. In this extract, the word ‘sucked’ is repeated three times in line 134 by the narrator, and the description of her consumption of the fruit is sensual and explicit, possibly expressing Laura’s sexual gratification from the goblins ‘fruit,’ an apparent expression of female desire and sexuality. In contrast to this very line, it has been insisted that Goblin Market was a poem first intended for children; however, it is hard for readers not to acknowledge the phallic imagery and sensual language that is spread throughout the poem. It could be said that Laura’s temptation to eat the goblin’s fruit time and time again was used as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. This is further emphasized when Rossetti writes, ‘Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted, for my sake, the fruit forbidden?’. This is a close allusion to the comparison of the goblin fruit to the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the Garden of Eden. It is written in the Bible, ‘the woman eats the forbidden fruit and gives some to the man who also eats it.’ Genesis 3:3. The inclusion of these references comes as no surprise as Rossetti’s religious influence in her work is no secret. She spent the majority of her life living by strict religious principles, and as a result, she gave up two engagement commitments due to religious factors.

Sexual Imagery and Interpretations in Goblin Market

In the Goblin Market, the dangers of unbridled sexuality and desire are displayed through the two main female protagonists, especially when Laura gives in to temptation. Rossetti writes, ‘…then sat up in a passionate yearning, And gnashed her teeth for balked desire, and wept As if her heart would break.’ Laura shows signs of addiction, and it can be seen by the reader that she is actually experiencing physical pain. As Laura gives in to her desires with the goblin fruit, she now has to face the consequences, which her sister warned, in that once she tastes the fruit, she will not be able to resist. On the other hand, another reading of this could be that there is a parallel between Laura’s condition and the physical effects of addiction which can be traced to Rossetti’s family line. Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Sydell Rossetti died of an overdose of another ‘Forbidden fruit’ of the Victorian Era, Laudanum. However, the idea of the dangers of unbridled sexuality and desire is reinforced when Lizzie is forced to eat the forbidden fruits, ‘Held her hands and squeezed their fruits, against her mouth to make her eat.’ It has been criticized that the eroticized description of the exotic fruit is used to symbolize an attempted rape and, in this particular scene, due to the violent and restrictive nature of this extract, hence ‘held her hands.

Dangers of Desire in The Scarlett Letter

Similarly, In The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, dangers of unbridled sexuality and desire are displayed through the main female protagonist Hester Prynne who is a symbol of the town’s misbehavior and is a good representation of how feminism and sexism were affected in the era of the Puritans. The novel is set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, during the years 1642 to 1649. It tells the story of Hester Prynne conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Through this, she is condemned to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin, branded as an animal would be. Hawthorne writes ‘Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her… with the Scarlett letter flaming on her breast … that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.’. Hester Prynne’s sin was adultery, and adultery was regarded very seriously by the Puritans and was often punishable by death. Hester’s punishment was to endure public shaming on a scaffold for three hours and wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest for the rest of her life in the town. Although Hawthorne does not pardon Hester’s sin, from a Puritan perspective, the punishment is extraordinarily lenient in comparison to the Biblical punishments at the time. The Bible used by the Puritans states in Exodus 20:14, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery with Leviticus 20:10 stating, ‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.’. In that, it could be said Hester giving into her carnal desires was Hawthorne’s way of expressing that it was an accepted matter. Contrastingly to this, he also writes, ‘Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.’ The author exposes the supposed hidden pleasures of women that cannot be expressed in public; this quote emphasizes the role of women from the time of Hawthorne. It could be said that it shows Hawthorne did not understand the desires of women or his naivety in thinking that women have desires similar to their male counterparts. However, it could be said that Hawthorne could be seen to be breaking the social norms of the time, as women were not supposed to feel pleasure in anything. They had a divined duty to their husbands and children. Contrary to the presentation of the independent Hester Prynne, it could also be seen as the regular presentation of women in that they find bliss in domestic household activities.

Hester Prynne: A Desire for Independence

Nathaniel Hawthorne displays Hester. Prynne’s desire for independence within a very judgmental and puritanical society ‘…she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion’. Through this, it can be seen that Hester Prynne has become the symbol of what women shouldn’t do. To society, she is just a Fallen Woman, allowed to live to be an example to other women not to give in to their ‘frailty and sinful passions.’ In the Puritanical era, women’s morals were seen as weak through this; they possessed qualities that could be exploited and become sinful due to Eve’s role in original sin.

Furthermore, it can be seen that Hester expresses disinterest in being accepted by society once again, ‘that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength’. Originally the Scarlett letter was meant to be a symbol of shame intended to mark Hester as an adulterer, but instead, it becomes a powerful tool to identify Hester; as time passes, the “A” eventually comes to stand for ‘Able.’ Hester desires freedom from a society of restraints when she decides that life isn’t really worth living ‘with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them?’. She decides that life isn’t worth it for women but still accepts the punishment and rules of her community, which emphasizes how powerful the religious and social pressures were. It could be said from a religious point of view that The Scarlet Letter points out the way in which women were treated badly in the Puritan society and the way in which their sins were severely punished, frequently unjust.

Conclusion: Presentation of Desire in Literature

In conclusion, it could be said that the presentation of desire through women is completed in contrasting ways by the authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Christina Rossetti. For Christina Rossetti, it is arguable as to whether the poem depicts sexual innuendos, temptation, and desire, as the narrative poem was destined to be a child’s poem. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne simply weaves the aspects of desire through the narrative of the poem.

Works Cited

  1. Hawthorne, N. (1850). The Scarlet Letter. 
  2. Bloom, H. (Ed.). (2000). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.
  3. Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  4. Bowen, J. (2001). Otherness in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Studies in American Fiction, 19(2).
  5. Marsh, J. (1994). Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life. New York: Viking.
  6. Palazzo, L. (2003). Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”: A Critical Analysis. Journal of Literary Studies, 19(3), 58-73.
  7. The Holy Bible, particularly Exodus 20:14 and Leviticus 20:10.
  8. Robbins, R. (2001). Comparative Literary Dimensions: Essays in Honor of Melvin J. Friedman. University Press of America.
  9. Showalter, E. (1977). A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  10. Bristow, J. (1991). Victorian Women Poets: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. In Sexuality and Subordination: Interdisciplinary Studies of Gender in the Nineteenth Century.

Allegory Of The Cave Rising Examples In Real Life

Rising from the Ashes. “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” In this scene from The Matrix, Neo realizes that his truth is just an illusion. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato illustrated that many of us are stuck in the same illusion as Neo. In “The Allegory of the Cave,” Plato clarifies that individuals experience intellectual and emotional scholarly disclosures through various phases in their lives. This portion, from his exchange, “The Republic” is a discussion between a philosopher and his pupil. The contention made by this thinker has been translated a huge number of times across the world.

Stages of Development: Unveiling the Mind

My very own understanding of this purposeful anecdote is simple enough as Plato communicates his thoughts as independent phases. The phases, very much like life, are spoken to by developing acknowledged and recently discovered “pains.” Thus, each phase in “The Allegory of the Cave” uncovers the connection between the development of the mind and age.

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Chained Ignorance: Childhood and Adolescence

The main phase of the extract, which is described by chained and restricted individuals, is an allegory speaking to the newborn child and child ages of people. Like the bound individuals, children are not permitted to wander openly outside of their homes and should remain nearby to their parent’s careful gaze. Those living in the underground cave have their heads situated such that they should not see a flame blasting behind them. The leaders of the people just observe the shadows thrown by the flame and items going by behind them, and they can make just suppositions in regard to the actual physicality of the object. This additionally is fundamentally the same as children who are interested in items around them. Although children don’t comprehend complex objects, they would like to know the reason and capacity of the object. The attitudes of the people in the cave and of the children are 100% subjective and are caught in their own obliviousness: “To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”, as stated in “The Allegory of the Cave.” Completely developed in seclusion and without experience, those in the cave have no clue concerning what the genuine idea of the shadow is. Their solitary truth is the shadow, and they can’t gain proficiency with the genuine significance behind the shadow except if set free.

Seeking Independence: Adolescence

Besides, when Plato writes to set free those in the cave, he is proceeding onward to the following phase of human development: being a teenager. The prisoners in the cave are without set to meander and move about. This symbolizes the time in life when teenagers move far from their folks. After teenagers have been under their parent’s supervision and repression for quite a

long time, they want to go out and adopt new things all alone. “At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards

the light, he will suffer sharp pains.” Teenagers want to encounter new things themselves. Even though, when they do experience new encounters, they some of the time discover that the

experience has caused them incredible torment. Moreover, young people may change their vision of life. Normally teenagers end up solidified and progressively used to torment; they turn out to

be increasingly comfortable with this present reality. Even though numerous adolescents feel they have encountered a lot of torment and think they know everything, they have not seen a

very unforgiving life until they are totally all alone.

Grown-up life is the thing that Plato plans to symbolize in the following phase, when the general population is compelled to see the sun. In this phase, the people are raised on a precarious climb and compelled to investigate the sun. Yet again, people experience sharp torments as they are not used to the light of the sun. The torments of adulthood might be anything, including relationships, employment, and finances. After the individuals who are compelled to gaze at the sun have become used to it, they see the “master plan” and have more prominent mindfulness.

Embracing Responsibility: Adulthood

Adults, too, need to continue through their own torments. However, the reward is justified, despite all the trouble: a family, work, house, and so on… “And when he remembered his old habitation and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change and pity them?” In the wake of seeing the light of the sun and mulling over past phases throughout everyday life, people feel sorry for the time spent in the cave. This symbolizes how grown-ups are genuinely objective, simply taking a gander at the physical qualities of their life now. Numerous grown-ups are known for their negative contemplation about the children of today and how they feel sorry for their insensible activities; in any case, they are overlooking that they also inhabited that phase of life and had a similar outlook. The people at the highest point of the climb, like grown-ups, need to remain on top perpetually, yet it is almost difficult to perceive genuine magnificence for long.

At last, the last phase of the allegory, which manages the drop from the best, resembles being an older individual. Presently the people must descend from their stature of life once more into the dim cave, which again causes them torment. This plummet is hard as the individual is currently acclimated to the light rather than dim. The people who are currently in the cave are viewed as ludicrous as they attempt to portray the shadow. This is valid as elderly individuals are not recognized by the young. At times observed as moderate and delicate, the old are not allowed to be heard. Likewise, when they do endeavor to give understanding, they are not acknowledged. “Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes.” Even though the people in this phase have seen genuine excellence and enlightenment, they are old and silly. Even though the person who has descended from the best may endeavor to instruct others on what he/she has seen. A case of this is when grandparents show their kids or grandkids about existence, at that point rehashing the cycle by giving children the assurance to see the light.

Application in Modern Life

Plato was a huge number of years comparatively radical when he composed The Republic. His understanding of the physical capacities of the mind might be connected to a wide range of circumstances, notwithstanding being connected to Hollywood movies, for example, The Matrix. With Plato’s faith in the human mind, we have moved far from antiquated ideas to the innovations and advances of today. As people become more seasoned with age and experience, they additionally develop the ability to see new things. Infants may see only an image or a shading, yet a grown-up may see a show-stopper or a profound edification. The changing of the inner consciousness through time assumes a critical job in the way all individuals see life.

Appreciating the inner being, what Plato completed quite a while prior, is the thing that may enable individuals to proceed onward to the following phases of their own lives. In sum, in my experiences, the guidance of my parents has been proven to be helpful and truthful. My parents symbolize the man who escaped the cave and has superior knowledge of life compared to me. I am like the men in the cave who have a limited way of thinking, living, and knowledge. The same way the man who has seen the true brightness of the sun, who has experienced life’s true challenges and would want to share his experiences with the men in the cave. My parents want to show and guide me, to prepare me for what is out there in the world. People have a choice whether to escape the cave and experience what life has to offer.

Conclusion: Embracing Enlightenment

Unfortunately, many people choose to stay in the cave and stay in their ways of living that hinder their success, happiness, peace, and overall their ability to reach their highest potential. I must make that choice whether I listen to my parents or neglect their wise instructions. For example, my parents have suggested that I continue my education and get my bachelor’s degree. They know that having a degree will help me get a good job. Since I am still young, I have not experienced the true necessity of supporting a family. From the ashes, the unknown, I will rise. I am glad I chose to listen to their suggestion and not be like the men in the cave and stay in ignorance!


  • Plato, & Jowett, B. (2018). Allegory of the Cave: From The Republic by Plato [Paperback].
  • Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros..

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