The Coquette

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The Oxford edition of The Coquette

Written in the late-eighteenth century by Hannah Foster, The Coquette is a tragic cautionary tale about one woman’s rise and fall within society. Based on the true story of Elisabeth Whitman, this novel also serves as a critique of the limitations placed on women by social and institutional forces like marriage and friendship.

Eliza's Seduction

Through its epistolary format, The Coquette provides readers an intimate glimpse into the worlds of its characters, like the heroine Eliza Wharton who is introduced as a woman who has undergone many difficulties. After Eliza moves to the city to live with family friends, she becomes acquainted and subsequently courted by two very different men.

Mr. Boyer a man who “descended from a worthy family… [And] had a call to settle as a minister” (Foster 9) is the man her friends encourage her to marry. Major Sanford is a libertine with who Eliza is enamors. “His person, his manners, his situation, all combine to charm my fancy; and to my lively imagination strew the path of life with flowers” (22). As the novel progresses Eliza finds herself caught between these two men and her personal desire for freedom.

With no end in sight and no commitment from Eliza, Mr. Boyer eventually ends his pursuit of Eliza, citing her “levity in manners [where] inconsistent with the solidity and becoming a lady” (84) among other faults. While this leaves Major Sanford alone to vie for Eliza’s affection, he too decides to marry another woman because of his need of money to maintain his pretensions of aristocracy.

Shunned by society and without any suitors in her mid-30s, Eliza enters into an affair with Major Sanford. As her shame mounts and the social pressure on her becomes an increasing burden. Slowly isolating herself from her friends and family, Eliza finally disappears from sight during the night. As sources later report, an unknown woman was found dead during childbirth at an inn a short distance away.

Addressing Social Changes in Modernity

As The Coquette is written as a series of letters between friends, this narrative format allows readers to get a glimpse into the private thoughts of the main characters. As one begins to discover, the true nature of the characters in the novel is revealed not through their public actions. Rather is when the characters share their private thoughts with friends. Also because of the epistolary fashion of this novel, the reader is given an omniscient point of view and the ability to foreshadow events. Foster uses this rhetorical device to manipulate the sentiments of her audience as she draws them into the internal struggles of each character interacting within the novel.

For example, on a superficial level Sanford might charm a reader like he charmed Eliza. This charm quickly dissipates though when one reads his letters to Mr. Charles Dieghton. Sanford writes, "Were I disposed to marry, I am persuaded she would make an excellent wife; but that you know is not part of my plan, so long as I can keep out of the noose" (Foster 23). Equipped with this knowledge of Sanford's inner motives, the audience feels a sense of impending doom for Eliza that she is still unaware of.

This type of foreshadowing is not uncommon in novels of this time. The Coquette is defined as a seduction novel and Eliza is the archetypal woman of virtue that falls from grace. This novel is written in a time that, Nancy Armstrong claims is the period in which the was a rise of the genre. To our surprise though, she states the dominant authors of these seduction novel were the women; "...women began to write respectable fiction near the end of the eighteenth century, became prominent novelists during the nineteenth century, and on this basis achieved the status of artists during the modern period" (Armstrong 7). Armstrong states that women were not the primary authors arbitrarily, but that their writings were important historical catalysts. The Coquette is not solely about the story of Eliza Wharton, but really the novel illustrate and influences the changing situation of the women of the time.

This can be seen through the analysis in the introduction of the novel, "Eliza Wharton sins and dies. Her death can convey the conservative moral that many critics of the time demanded" (XX). Nancy Armstrong again stresses the point that the rise of the novel and the rise of the middle class were simultaneous and dependent on each other. Novels such as The Coquette are there to offer warning against being non-virtuous and the consequences that will arise when a women is a coquette.

The Ideology of Separate Spheres

These ideas further institutionalize the social constructs of the time. They create gender identities and impose social spheres for those genders. The woman is to remain domestic and in the private domain, while the man is to be in the public and political domain. As if to promote this separation, in The Coquette, Eliza is encouraged by those around her to do what is expected of her. Eliza is faced with the decision of choosing the lesser of two evils, Sanford who has the social disposition that she admires but has an adverse reputation and Mr. Boyer who is respectable, but only that. Union with Boyer would impose not only the confines of domesticity upon Eliza, but also that she live up to the expectations of a clergyman's wife.

Eliza's friend Lucy Freeman makes clear that the choice should be easy, "But I am persuaded, if you wish to lead down the dance of life with regularity, you will not find a more excellent partner than Mr. Boyer. Whatever you can reasonably expect in a lover, husband, or friend, you may perceive it to be united in this worthy man" (Foster 27). Others have echoed this claim to Eliza and they continue to do so throughout the novel. However, Eliza wants something more than a man who is acceptable, she wants to find a man of her liking. Instead of inspiring the reader to be moved by Eliza's attempt at freedom of choice, the reader is more consumed with the ending of the novel where Eliza dies alone. It is in this way that the novel promotes conformity to the domestic way of life and thus to the bourgeoisie norms in society.

Women and Marriage

The social norms around marriage, during this time are created by giving some people the right to speak about it, mainly Lucy and Mrs. Richman, while other’s views - in this case, Eliza's - are silenced. Eliza seeks companionship from many men, with no expectation of marriage. She tells her friend Lucy that “marriage is the tomb of friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state” (Foster 24). For Eliza, marriage becomes the death of a friendship as “former acquaintances and are neglected or forgotten” (24). The women that marry then become preoccupied with the domestic chores of the household. She believes that it is very selfish for a man to ask a woman to give up her life, and become a homemaker. Recoiling “at the thought of immediately forming a connection, [that] must confine [her] to the duties of domestic life, and make [her] dependent of happiness,” Eliza explains to Lucy that she plans to never marry again (29). However, for the men in the novel, mainly the libertine, Peter Sanford, marriage does not confide him to domesticity but rather gives him the freedom to retain his playboy ways. However, whenever Sanford refers to marriage, he always uses the metaphor of imprisonment. He claims that he never wants to be “[shackled] in the bonds of matrimony” or he prefers to “[keeping] out of a noose” (34, 23). He believes that marriage will be a “regulation of his conduct” but still marries “the little Laurence girl” Nancy because he finds himself in need of money (36, 116). But he is adamant to say that although he is a lover, he is “not [a lover] of [his] wife” (116). For Sanford, marriage becomes merely a financial contract instead of marriage for love. The idea of marriage after the American Revolution has changed from one of arrangement, as seen in Eliza’s first marriage, to one of love and search for a soul mate. The Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century have influenced society to hold individual rights within social relationships. Because the pursuit of happiness is now the goal of the American people, a man and a woman now marry because of “love rather than wealth or status” (Coontz 146). A marriage is organized in a way that both parties are able to reasonably and justly decide whom they would like to marry, rather than by force. While industriousness and thrift are certainly still important characteristics in a mate, companionship and cooperation are added to the picture of the ideal mate (147). For Eliza she seeks companionship rather than being forced into another marriage due to status. This is clear because Eliza continues to break the tradition social norms placed upon her for the sake of love and friendship.

Women and Friendship

Through Eliza’s struggle against conforming to the social norm of a woman fulfilling her role in marriage and family, an important theme that continually reappears is friendship. According to Historian Nancy Cott, the subordinate position of women to men was solidified in the 18th and 19th century through religious and social institutions. From this perspective, women could only find true friendships with other women as they were all equal (Cott 168). In these friendships with one another, women could express whatever was on their minds without fear of consequences. A major shift occurs in the definition of friendship between women when in “the Second Great Awakening that the friendship of women becomes focused on gender”. Cott explains that it is in this shift where public discourse on women switches to private, as women begin to regulate one another’s conduct (181). It is this new definition of friendship that we see implemented between Eliza and her friends. Concerned with Eliza’s deviation from the societal norm of a woman’s place to marry and raise a family, her mentor Mrs. Richman cautions Eliza to “beware… [her] lively imagination [of freedom outside marriage], for it is, after all, a slippery, thorny path” (Foster 13). While Mrs. Richman tells this to Eliza as a friend, one can still tell the enforcement of social norms upon Eliza in Mrs. Richman’s words. Another close friend of Eliza’s, Lucy Freeman serves as a constant reminder of societal norms. When responding to a letter by Eliza, Lucy writes that Eliza should “let reason and religion erect their throne in [her] breast; [and to] obey their dictates and be happy” (108). These, of course, are the institutions in society that Eliza attempted to avoid through delaying marriage and enjoying her individual freedom. The friendships between women in The Coquette serve to identify and draw attention to the entire “sphere” that uniquely surrounds women. The purpose of this “sphere” is to enforce societal norms on all women through private discourse and correspondence. It is also this “sphere” that evolves into another societal institution that ultimately demands Eliza to conform during the entirety of the novel.

Women and Class Distinctions

Written after the American Revolution, The Coquette opens groundbreaking dialogue on the social hierarchy that results from sex and gender interaction during this time period. The heroine Eliza Wharton, practices an ideology ahead of her time in how she approaches interactions with the opposite sex and her ideas regarding marriage.

As characterized by the comparison between the prominent male figures Sanford and Eliza Wharton, the relationship between men and women differed drastically within society because of social status. Sanford was a man of wealth (or supposed wealth). Because of this his standing in society was desirable and in some aspect made his actions above reproach. Sanford was a libertine. As a male during this time period it was more acceptable to pursue his passions and not lose face in society. He speaks of women as objects for him to take and leave as he pleases saying, “and the girl is my own. That is if I shall have her. I shall take my own time for that, however” (94). This is an example of the place of women in society as objects and necessary for marriage, but on the man’s terms.

Another contrast between the sexes seen in society at this time in history can be seen in where their value is placed. For the men value was placed in property and ability to provide, or as seen in the case of Boyer in his virtue and uprightness. For women value was found in their chastity, purity. Because of women’s value being placed in their purity being sexually promiscuous in this time period was the ultimate destruction of a woman’s value in society. A woman completely surrendered her power when entering into a marriage where as a man withheld his property and gained power over his wife as well. A woman was expected to “renounce; and content [herself] with domestic duties” (50). The differentiation in the placement of value between the genders perpetuated what was sexually and socially appropriate. Not only were women and men held to different standards regarding sexual conduct but also in reference to politics and work. Women were to be homemakers and support their husbands in their business. Women, also, were not to be involved in politics and were discouraged to speak about them. This period of history was a time in which a woman’s home was her place of confinement, she did not venture far from it and the values of the home were to be supreme.

Review: Reading The Coquette through The History of Sexuality

As seen through the portrayal of different gender roles and standards portrayed in The Coquette this time period of history was a time in which sexuality needed to be spoken of but was yet silenced. Sexuality played a role in the societal placement of power and what was valued between genders. Women were valued for their chastity and its absence destroyed their social standing. While on the other hand men’s value was placed in property and social standing which was not so easily destroyed by sexual conduct. Also, marriage was a supreme part of the social construction in which women were to find complete fulfillment in life and be confined, while a man's life after marriage went relatively unchanged. Seen in this novel can be the ways in which society and sexuality inversely have impacted each other through out historical time periods.

Who become the objects of a discourse on sexuality? In other words, who become the subjects of conversation?

Eliza Wharton, who practices ideology ahead of her time in the way she approaches interactions with the opposite and her ideas regarding marriage. Because of her modern ideas, Eliza becomes the focal topic of discourse regarding relations with the opposite sex as her method of interaction with males is juxtaposed against that of the other women in the novel. Sanford, a libertine, plays the male counterpart which is most discussed throughout the novel as the actions of Eliza and Sanford are played off of each other in a comparison between the sexes.

Who does the speaking? What are the positions and viewpoints from which they speak? In this novel everyone is speaking about Eliza in some fashion or another. The men speak of her as an object of desire either as a wife or a concubine. Sanford, speaks of her as his desire, stating that “the girl is my own. That is if I shall have her. I shall take my own time for that, however” (Foster 94). This points to one male attitude toward women during this time period, that could pick and chose the woman they desired and through them away when they are through. The other women in the novel speak of Eliza as well, calling her a coquette because of her unwillingness to commit to one man in courtship, and her desire to “enjoy [her] freedom, in the participation of pleasures” (50). Eliza’s women friends speak to her constantly cautioning her about her actions and encouraging her to conform to social norms, to get married, have children as they are doing.

What institutions prompt people to speak? One institution that prompts people to speak of Eliza is the church. Boyer being a clergyman harshly rebukes Eliza upon finding her talking with Sanford in the garden. Boyer speaks however, not necessarily from his position as a clergyman but with jealousy as a man who has realized that he is not going to have what he wants the way he wants it. The family as a social institution also prompts people to speak about Eliza and Sanford. Eliza is encouraged that a family will be fulfilling to her life and marriage is seen as the completion of a woman during this time period. Sanford is spoken up because of his standing as a libertine and his lack of respect for the family, marriage, and the purity and value of women.

Works Cited

Nancy Armstrong. "Introduction: The Politics of Domesticating Culture, Then and Now." Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 3-27

Stephanie Coontz. "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage." (1988): 145-160. Course Reserves. University of Washington, Seattle. 16 Apr. 2008. <>.

Nancy Cott. The Bonds of Womanhood. London: Yale University Press, 1982

Hannah W. Foster. The Coquette. New York: Oxford UP, 1797. 24.

Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 18.

Jeffrey Weeks. “‘That Damned Morality’: Sex in Victorian Ideology.” Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800. New York: Longeman, 1981. 19-37.