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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.
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.
How it works
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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