The Treatment of Women in John Milton's Paradise Lost
And Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"
In literary history, the theme of the apparent female inability to curb curiosity has been a reoccurring one. In Greek mythology, Psyche's curiosity proved her undoing, when she fetched a lamp to see her husband's features that had been proscribed to behold. In Perrault's "Bluebeard", the fatal effects of curiosity are again depicted, with his new bride succumbing to the temptation to open the one door that was forbidden to her, with disastrous results. It would seem that the image of `woman' through the ages is somewhat unfavourable, suggesting that she is often weak, untrustworthy and is the harbinger of ill events. There is evidence of this doctrine of thought in both Paradise Lost and "Goblin Market", and yet it is manifested in dissimilar ways, influenced greatly by the fact that one author is male, the other female. It is arguably this factor which generates such differences in tone between two pieces which thematically are similar.
Both texts concern temptation - of which in each instance is symbolised by fruit - and the moral `fall' of a female character. Yet the approach to this theme in each piece differs, being inherently influenced by the period and social contexts at the time of writing, as well as the personal values of the respective authors. In Paradise Lost the only two female characters, Sin and Eve, are portrayed in a poor light. Sin is immediately introduced as `fallen', being the daughter and lover of Satan. Initially beautiful, being ."..a goddess armed/Out of thy head I sprung..." (2:766-767), she is borne out of the head of Satan. Her enamouring beauty leads to his incestuous pursuit of his `daughter' and culminates with Sin's womb conceiving ."..a growing burden..." (2:784-786), and suggests that her beauty, not the male persona, was to blame for the pregnancy. The subsequent birth of Death destroying her beauty from the waist down as he "Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain/Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew/Transformed..." (2: 784-786) seems to be a punishment, for nothing other than being attractive. The violent rape by her `son` that precipitates her eternal torture by the "hell hounds" that ."..about her middle...never ceasing barked...and rung hideous peal...there still barked and howled/Within unseen..."(2: 654-659), so encourages an unhealthy insinuation that she must also pay for her `crime` of incest, and cordially appears to justify it. Hence Milton's misogynistic doctrine is manifested, and begins a perfect prologue to the parallels with subordinate and weak Eve.
Conversely, Christina Rossetti's approach has a fairy-tale element which is the perfect vehicle for teaching a moral lesson, without the negative connotations implied by Milton. "Goblin Market" deals with temptation through an almost childlike innocence, with the poem...