Women and Commodities
In both Jonathan Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room" and Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," women are presented both in a world of commerce and as commodities themselves, but only Rossetti's text is critical of this formulation. In both poems, the value of a woman is dictated by her physical appearance, but whereas Swift seems to be arguing that the value produced by a beautiful woman outweighs any of the undesirable or otherwise unattractive elements which go into maintaining that beauty, Rossetti suggests that the woman who allows herself to be tricked into believing that a woman's value comes from her physical appearance will ultimately be doomed to waste away and die. By examining the conclusion of Swift's poem in conjunction with certain relevant scenes from "Goblin Market," one may see how the former serves to reinforce the notion that women are essentially semi-autonomous commodities, existing solely for visual consumption, while the latter attempts to challenge this ideology by proposing that in matters of money and exchange women are no more or less commodities than men.
The first instance in which "The Lady's Dressing Room" commodifies women comes when the narrator proposes to give "an Inventory" of the various things Strephon finds in Celia's dressing room (Swift 10). The poem reduces Celia to a manufactured product, complete with a list of the required ingredients, as if one were compiling an inventory of all the ingredients necessary for making sausage. Thus, at the outset the poem makes clear its interpretation of women, as any and all agency is stripped away from Celia. "Goblin Market," on the other hand, takes care to establish that the two central women are autonomous, capable people. For instance, Laura and Lizzie live in their own home without any need for male oversight or companionship, and even after Laura has been tricked into exchanging with the goblin men, the two sisters are...
Only after Laura has been ill for some time does she finally stop doing this work, and her weakness is a direct result of her willingness to be commodified (Rossetti 294-299). In Swift's poem, women are literally nothing more than visual objects or maids (in the form of Betty), but in Rossetti's poem, they are actual people, capable of taking care of themselves and experiencing a range of emotions and thoughts.
However, this is not to suggest that women are not commodified in "Goblin Market," because the goblin men explicitly seek to commodify women. When Laura meets them and expresses a desire for the fruit they are selling despite the fact that she does not have any money, the goblin men allow her (and in fact, tell her) to pay with "a golden curl" and "a tear more rare than pearl" (Rossetti 125, 127). Upon first reading this segment it appears that the goblin men are being gracious by allowing Laura to pay with her body in lieu of money, but their reaction when Lizzie does show up with money reveals that their true desire is the continued commodification of women, as they violently attack her for supposedly being "proud, / cross-grained, and uncivil" just because she is so presumptuous as to think that it would be reasonable for a woman to buy some fruit with actual money (Rossetti 495-96). In fact, realizing that the goblin men seem almost exclusively oriented towards commodifying and eventually killing women makes Laura's offer of "a tear more rare the pearl" all the more tragic, because it seems to suggest that Laura previously did not cry that often, and that some part of her actually realizes in the act that she is engaging in a marketplace that serves to demean and destroy women.
Even thought both poems commodify women, the difference between the two could not be more stark. Swift's poem attempts to generate humor by essentially chastising women for participating in all of the unattractive, undesirable activities necessary to attain the standard of beauty dictated by the hegemony of the male gaze. "Goblin Market" includes the commodification of women explicitly as a means of challenging that ideology, but Swift's poem serves to effectively reinforce it essentially by pretending to challenge it. The "inventory" of disgusting things that Strephon finds could almost be taken as justification for the ludicrous requirements placed upon women, except that the narrator's final lines serve…
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