Eliza Wharton is a character who stands on public trial against society in the epistolary novel, “The Coquette.” She is not a criminal in the eyes of the law, per say, but she is a criminal in the eyes of society. Society’s expectations for women do not match up with Eliza’s expectations for herself and it puts her in a problematic situation. The story of Eliza Wharton is captivating because it presents a woman who is different from all others – one who turns from the social constraints and makes her own way. In Hannah Webster Foster’s novel, “The Coquette,” society presents Eliza Wharton as a purposefully seductive woman – a coquette – one who is obstinate in her ways when she is actually a woman of independence who longs to break from the chains of social order.
A story could not be a story without a tragic flaw. In this story, the tragic flaw belongs to Eliza, and it is her excessive desire for singleness and freedom, which paradoxically leads to coquettish behavior and sexual submission (Diez Couch 685). In this excessive desire for singleness, Eliza does not mind entertaining the advances of two men, and she does not see a problem with it, since she openly expresses her distaste for romantic relationships. It is as if she cannot see that if she turns her back on love, but still prances around the idea of similar relationships, bad things can follow. In the end, her blindness leads to sexual behavior, which leads to pregnancy, and eventually her death – her final downfall, all because she thinks she is stepping away from her real enemy, love. Even so, the fascinating character of Eliza is remembered and studied today. In fact, the town of Peabody, Massachusetts, held a city-wide reading of “The Coquette” in 2004 (Harris 375) as an appreciation for the work.
The questions are asked: for a woman in the late 18th century, why are marriage and virtue valued so much more than independence and lively desires? Why does Eliza Wharton’s singleness stick out like a sore thumb, but it is society’s pleasure to watch a young woman like Lucy get married off quickly to a man she hardly knows? Why is stability favored over love, and why is love favored over friendship? Whether these concepts are fashionable to the day or hypocritical to the core, they are used to define Eliza as an outcast. The moralistic problems of the day are made out as if they have simplistic black and white solutions when they are really made of shades of gray.
In Eliza’s initial relationship, she proves her desire for independence. In the first letter of the novel, Eliza mourns the loss of her fiancé, Mr. Haly. She is quick to confess that “I believe that I never felt the passion of love for Mr. Haly” (Foster 819), but instead shares that “a habit of conversing with him, of hearing daily the most virtuous, tender, and affectionate sentiments from his lips, inspired emotions of the sincerest friendship and esteem (Foster 819). From the start, Eliza’s interest in lighthearted relationships is noted, which is the main reason she resents marriage for herself, saying that it is the “tomb of friendship” (Foster 830). It is important to note that Eliza does not choose to be in the relationship with Mr. Haly. It seems that Eliza’s parents pre-arranged her marriage. A pre-arranged marriage with Mr. Haly means Eliza does not have a choice in the matter, and without choice, Eliza is confined to everyone else’s expectations (Davis 399). Eliza respects the decision but is unhappy because she and Mr. Haly are not similar or compatible (Foster 818). After the ill-ending relationship, Eliza tells Lucy that “I shall never again resume those airs, which you term coquettish, but which I think deserve a softer appellation; as they proceed from an innocent heart” (Foster 820). This phrasing indicates a possibility that Eliza has had dealings with her tragic flaw and the results of her tragic flaw in the past. This is not explicitly revealed in the novel, but it points a finger to Eliza’s perceptions of her own past behavior, thinking it to have come from clean motives. At the same time, Eliza’s phrasing points to her future behavior, declaring that it will not be like it was before.
Eliza’s quest for long-enduring singleness continues after Mr. Haly’s death. First, she meets Mr. Boyer at a party. They become acquaintances, and although she thinks him to be lovely, she “wishes not for a declaration from anyone, especially from one whom I…do not intend to encourage at the present” (Foster 823). She holds herself back from any sort of romantic relationship, seeing it to be best for the time, as she wants to enjoy her prized and long-awaited freedom (Foster 823). Eliza does not believe she is presenting herself as a coquette at this point in time, nor does she believe she is encouraging any form of romantic relationship from her end. She simply wishes for freedom from the commitments of love.
Eliza’s ideas start to change somewhat when she meets Major Sanford. She goes to a ball with him, but before she leaves, is met by Boyer. Boyer is surprised to see Eliza with another man, but she does not see it as a problem: “It was not the consciousness of any impropriety of conduct, for I was far from feeling any. The entertainment for which I prepared was such as virtue would not disapprove” (Foster 827). It is clear that Eliza does not see having suitors as any wrongdoing on her part because she cannot control how men feel about her. She also does not see the situation as a problem because she does not desire a romantic relationship, only seeing her relationships with Boyer and Sanford as lighthearted friendships. This continues to be seen throughout Eliza’s letters. Eliza will not take blame for having two suitors, even saying that she is not beautiful enough to be pursued (Foster 822). When Sanford asks for her affection, Eliza turns him down as well, seeking friendship instead (Foster 822). Again, her break from romantic constraints is affirmed – she wants to be single and enjoy the independence that comes from it.
Whether or not Eliza is already fighting a battle between herself and other’s opinions, she assures her friend Lucy that “my sanguine imagination paints…regulated by virtue and innocence” (Foster 832). Eliza sees herself as having clean motives and being a virtuous woman. When the prospect of love is brought up, Eliza continually shuts it down. She does not want it in any way, shape, or form, even telling Sanford that she has no intention of giving her hand to any man in the near future (Foster 844). Eliza is always asking for advice, despite her belief that she is independent and virtuous. Even though she says she will consider the advice given by Lucy, she still gives Sanford priority, overriding advice with the belief that “a reformed rake makes the best husband” (Foster 849). Eliza has previously stated that she is not looking for a husband, so she contradicts herself here. In another form of contradiction with herself, she suddenly renounces her relationship with Sanford, reasoning that her friends should now be satisfied because she will unite with their choice man for her (Foster 850). This demonstrates perhaps a chance that Eliza either does want to fit into the social boundaries accustomed to women of her time or is so tired of being pushed by her family and friends that she submits to their wishes. In the same letter, though, Eliza accepts a meeting from Mr. Emmons. This, though, continues to prove that she sees herself simply as a young woman enjoying her youthfulness and does not feign commitment on any level. Although she declares commitment to Boyer, she does not stick with it, which proves her continuous, independent spirit. Even so, her desire for freedom is already presenting a large problem by this point in the novel. According to Dill (258), Eliza’s insistence to maintain a social life instead of a domestic life puts her appearance of virtue at a dangerous risk – the sacrifice of public respect.
The crux of the story shows Eliza’s downfall, which is caused by her tragic flaw. Eliza loses Boyer so she gets closer and closer to Sanford – still in her eyes acting out of friendship, still not seeing a problem with going further and further down a dark path, all because she is not looking for a romantic relationship. This does not appear as friendship to the outside world, however, as Sanford eventually gets “the full possession of my adorable Eliza” (Foster 897). Eliza is quick to separate herself from the role of Sanford’s wife, yet her sexual act aligns with the role of a wife. The secret of sin is not kept for long – Julia confronts Eliza, who cries that Sanford has robbed her of her peace and then begs for pity and mercy (Foster 899).
What brought Eliza to commit this wrongdoing? Julia thinks Eliza’s sin was because she was weak in her mind and body, which came from the pain of losing Boyer (Foster 893). For Eliza, it is the same. Like Julia believes, Eliza is in deep pain from losing Boyer, the man that society “chose” for her. She is so numb emotionally that it is difficult for her to consider what she is doing, a sexual fall “unaccompanied by either pleasure or passion” (Dill 263). The sexual act, though, is not about sex. In her numbness, Sanford transforms sex into a luxury Eliza thinks she is looking for (Korobkin 91). On the other hand, Eliza does not express any problem with her behavior with Sanford until she is caught. It is implied that Sanford and Eliza have sex multiple nights, as Julia sees Eliza leave the room they share many nights (Foster 899). This is also understood because when Julia confronts Eliza, she confesses that she is already pregnant. Eliza is so overcome with guilt because she is caught by the people who love her, not because she is doing the act itself. American ideas of sexual acts were changing during the late 18th century. According to Korobkin (97), although the loss of virginity was not socially acceptable at the time, fornication was no longer considered a criminal act. Since sexual behavior no longer went to court, Eliza would have had no fear of public punishment. Instead, her worst punishment comes from the people she loves the most. Eliza does not quit doing the act, nor does she exhibit such intense emotion until right before Julia takes a stand. She even goes so far to say that “I must die, it is my only comfort; death is the privilege of human nature” (Foster 904). What Eliza does not realize when she says this is that her baby will die, and she will die as well – the consequence of her act with Sanford.
Eliza realizes what she has done even though she is numb – she can do nothing but notice the consequence that grows inside of her. She admits that she has fallen and become a victim of her own folly (Foster 906). Even in Eliza’s pain and agony, she never once yields to the term “coquette.” Never even one time does she admit fault under that particular definition. The fact that she does not give herself the name society gives her is stunning. When society shoves the letter “C” on her breast, all she can do is call it something else. She does call herself a wretch when speaking to her mother (Foster 903), but nothing more. Even so, she only blames herself and apologizes wholeheartedly for not taking the advice that her friends and family so readily gave her. Does Eliza finally see her tragic flaw in this painful awakening? Does she finally realize that in her excessive desire to be single, she steps over so many boundary lines, all because she believes “it” would never happen to her? It seems that she becomes mightily aware of the consequences of her actions, but cannot seem to link it to her tragic flaw. She cannot connect her desire for freedom with what she did because now she is anything but free. The babe that grows inside of her will keep her in chains for eighteen years, if not the rest of her life. Ironically, the chains fall much quicker than that. It seems that Eliza does not see her tragic flaw as a tragic flaw, even after there are tangible effects that come from it.
When the pressure on her becomes too large, Eliza runs away, possibly from the accusations of sin, possibly from the guilt of pregnancy, possibly from the sting of being proved wrong, but one thing is for certain – she runs away from everything she has ever known. Once Eliza runs away and lives on her own, she theoretically has nothing else to do but to come to grips with her behavior. The novel does not reveal Eliza’s thoughts, feelings, or desires during this time, but one can assume that she does not want anyone to help her – only she can face her own consequences, a rather brave and romantic notion. She does not even allow Sanford to keep in contact with her, though he is the father of her child. No one has any idea that she has died until a neighbor notices an anonymous death from childbirth in a local newspaper (Foster 910-911). If it had not been for her ongoing health decline, she may have lived. The privilege of death finally comes to her. The babe that would “disclose its mothers shame” (Foster 901) also meets the privilege of death before ever seeing the light of day. Whether or not Eliza truly comes to grips with herself and her shame, death conceals it all.
If there is one thing death cannot conceal, it is the omnipresent voice of society. Society has a voice throughout the course of the novel from the time Eliza initially loses Mr. Haly to the time she loses her own life. This voice of society comes most often from Eliza’s three friends: Lucy, Julia, and Mrs. Richman. During the late 18th century, it was considered important for women to have a positive social group to depend on, but the problem with Eliza’s social group was that it has tension each time a woman moves to a new stage in life (e.g. Lucy’s getting married, Mrs. Richman’s having a child). Eliza’s friends continually criticize her thoughts and actions, and use the idea of friendship to justify their harsh words (Pettengill 186-187, 193). The social circle that functions as society’s voice is not always kind to Eliza. The circle is kindest to Eliza on her tombstone inscription, remarking on how charitable, how tender, how distinguished she was, a way of hiding their former criticism behind a wall of sorrow. During her life, society binds Eliza by a title, but after her death, society can only back off and remember her name (Diez Couch 684, 690). Each friend has her own interpretation of who a woman of the time should be and they share it openly with Eliza in letters, in person, and in spirit.
First, the most powerful voice of society comes from Eliza’s dearest friend, Lucy Sumner, formally Lucy Freeman. Lucy is a solid friend who is more likely to speak from her head than her heart. Lucy’s first letter in the novel is the thirteenth, giving previous insight to Eliza’s referenced behavior. Lucy understands that no matter what she says, Eliza will want her own way, “You will ask, perhaps, whether I would influence your judgement? I answer, no; provided you will exercise it yourself” (Foster 831). Even though Eliza will not heed Lucy’s advice, she still gives it because she cares deeply for how her friend appears to the watching world, not just what she does. She tells Eliza to “put aside those coquettish airs which you sometimes put on” (Foster 831) when Eliza displays interest in Sanford. Lucy has no fear in telling Eliza that she is acting like a coquette, even though Eliza just sees the behavior as an enjoyable part of being single. When Eliza shows interest in Boyer, Lucy congratulates her on her stability, saying, “happiness will crown your future days” (Foster 833). It is evident by the continual references throughout Lucy’s letters to Sanford as a rake and Boyer as a gentleman that Lucy has her suitor preference for Eliza. When Eliza loses Boyer and Sanford, Lucy blames it on Eliza’s being a “first-rate coquette” (Foster 878). When Lucy finds out Eliza has died, she is horrified, unable to believe that Eliza’s coquettish behavior could have led to such a tragic event. She goes on to tell Julia that virtue is the most important thing to look for in a life-long romantic relationship (Foster 914), believing that if Eliza had changed, she would not have died.
Lucy is quick to blame all of Eliza’s problems on coquettish behavior, but she does not explicitly define what a coquette is in her own eyes, leaving Eliza somewhat in the dark about Lucy’s expectations. According to Braunschneider, a coquette is not “an example of dissipated sexual culture” like Lucy may think. She instead says that a coquette is a novel character who is associated with the wealth and fashion of the middle class (690). This definition is much different than Lucy’s, but it does not matter to her – she sticks with the former. What Lucy fails to understand is that Eliza is not looking for a romantic relationship, which is why she does not see walking closely to societal boundaries as a bad thing. Lucy pushes Eliza to focus on virtue instead of coquettish behavior. Although Lucy quickly marries a man society deems respectable, it is considered virtuous because the man she marries is considered virtuous. In a society that believed marriage taught couples the importance of love, affection, and virtue (Dill 277), it is understood why Lucy is so hard on Eliza, especially after she gets married. Lucy is just beginning her marriage stage, but sometimes acts as if she is better than Eliza because of it, since marriage is considered virtuous and grounded. Lucy loves Eliza, though it may be hard for Eliza to feel it through the stern societal voice.
Next is Julia Granby and although she does not enter the story until late, she represents another voice of society. By the end of the novel, Julia is the only virgin, so hers is the voice of youth and of callowness. Julia is protective of Eliza, “I tremble at her danger” (Foster 893). Julia is physically with Eliza, so unlike Lucy, she is able to pick up on Eliza’s gradual advances towards sin. She is the first to learn of Eliza’s final fall in righteousness saying, “my blood thrilled in horror at this sacrifice of virtue” (Foster 899). She calls Eliza “a wretched, deluded girl” (Foster 899) while attacking Eliza’s reputation and the effect it will have on her mother, Mrs. Wharton. She jumps to conclusions in the situation because Eliza never actually confesses to having sex with Sanford. Although there is evidence the act may have taken place (multiple times at that), Julia does not give Eliza a chance to fully explicate her thoughts (Harris 372). Julia is also the first to find out that Eliza is pregnant, but thankfully, she does not attack the baby. According to Harris, early American women were given the responsibility of passing virtue to the next generations by avoiding corrupt characters and sheltering their own innocence (364). Eliza, according to Julia, has sacrificed her virtue, but this is not the fault of the babe – the babe is just a consequence of the fall. Instead, she tells Lucy how she feels about Eliza, “Not only the life, but what was still dearer, the reputation and virtue of the unfortunate Eliza, have fallen victims at the shrine of libertinism! Detested be the epithet! Let it henceforth bear its true signature, and candor itself call it lust and brutality” (Foster 912).
Julia is not blunt to the degree of Lucy, perhaps due to her age and lack of life experience. Perhaps Lucy has never seen anyone act the way Eliza is acting or simply does not want to be as harsh as Lucy. Nevertheless, Julia never calls Eliza a coquette. Although Julia does not share the strictness of Lucy, it is clear that Julia has a negative perception of Eliza’s attitudes and behavior and voices it accordingly. Harris goes on to say that there will always be a Julia Granby, a person who will criticize quickly, judge, and try to correct the wrongdoing (377).
Lastly, Mrs. Richman’s voice may be the most important societal voice. She is a fine and domesticated woman who often houses Eliza during their friendship under the common societal idea that respectable women were to be secluded, separated, and set apart from the rest of society as a safe-haven from influence of wrong (Harris 364). As discovered from the name, she is married and a mother, many times using this experience as leverage in her attempts to get Eliza to settle down, “All my happiness is centered within the limits of my own walls; I grudge every moment that calls me from the pleasing scenes of domestic life” (Foster 872). When Eliza calls marriage “the tomb of friendship,” Mrs. Richman jumps right in to say marriage is “the little community” of home and family (Dill 273). She longs to correct Eliza’s ideas “of freedom and matrimony” (Foster 833), with the strong conviction of making Eliza fit society’s mold for a female. Mrs. Richman believes women play a crucial role in the community, being the people who connect the members and maintain civic virtue (Dill 271). Mrs. Richman is the first to speak into Eliza’s love life during the novel, in which she declares Sanford to be absent in virtue, warning Eliza of his libertine and seductive behavior (Foster 827). Mrs. Richman is almost controlling of Eliza when she insists that Eliza give her heart and hand to Mr. Boyer as an engagement (Foster 833). Just like Lucy, she has Eliza’s choice man picked out for her, a man of virtue, of respectability, of tender affections, and of domesticity. The strongest word Mrs. Richman uses about Eliza’s fall is “misconduct” (Foster 872). Mrs. Richman is better at taking a step back and allowing Eliza to make her own choices. She wants Eliza to be married and enjoy domesticity like she does, but does not rest in the idea that Eliza’s only value will be placed when her name has a Mrs. attached to it. Mrs. Richman is the kindest societal voice.
Eliza Wharton fights the societal voices of her friends because she just wants to be free. For her, freedom means a lack of engagement, which would allow her to court men or just be friends, as well as participate in a variety of social spheres and activities. Freedom to Eliza means having a choice for her life, a choice to not be confined to everyone else’s expectations (Davis 399). Eliza’s desire for a choice shocks her women friends because choice during that day was considered a masculine trait and/or role (e.g. men being the heads of the households, men choosing whom they wish to marry) (Diez Couch 688-689). Society gives Eliza mixed messages about confinement – the opposite of choice. Society tells women to look for a man who can provide for their needs, but when Eliza is drawn in by Sanford’s wealth, “provision,” (even though it was a false picture), society criticizes her for not considering virtue instead (Korobkin 80). Society encourages virtuous women to be shelter themselves from negative influences, (Harris 364) but being a social butterfly, attending a variety of social events, and having a good disposition is what makes a woman “popular” (Hamilton 141). At the same time, being a social butterfly, attending a variety of social events, and having a good disposition are some of the things that society uses to define Eliza as a coquette, making it understandably difficult for a late 18th century woman to know where to draw the line. Because it was early America, social codes of conduct were still being written to fit the new country’s ideals (Hamilton 136) leaving Eliza at a loss to know what was truly right and wrong.
Society defines Eliza as a coquette because it is so incredibly unsure of itself. Eliza is not the one in the wrong until she commits sin, but society wants to define everything she does by a moral code that it does not own. Eliza is perceived as a coquette because “she attempts to balance all of her opportunities, sanctioned and unsanctioned, until one should present itself as that which will best satisfy her in the pursuit of happiness” (Hamilton 148). She only wants options – a choice – a life completely different from all the women around her. She does get a life completely different, a life condemned to misery all because she is pregnant. Death saves her by bringing her the privileged end – a sympathy for the woman who was continually criticized for coloring outside the lines (Harris 374).
When she relies on the power of her own conscience, society tries to shut her up. When she cries for independence, society tries to shut her up. When death brings her the freedom she has so earnestly craved, society can do nothing but weep for the loved one it loses. Eliza Wharton is not a coquette. She is a fighter – a fighter against societal boundaries because she is a woman who wants what society will not give. In a nation of freedom, Eliza’s is cut short. In a nation of freedom, Eliza makes her stand, proving to the world that she does not accept the title they try to give her. In the aftermath of her glory, there stands a grave, the tragic and somber end to a life lived on the wrong side in history.
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