A Woman’s Damnation
‘The Coquette’ by by Hannah W. Foster is about a young woman, Eliza Wharton, who has an inclination towards coquettish behaviors. The story is a series of letters that warns Eliza about the danger of her life choices, which is primarily a choice between two men, Reverend Boyer and Major Sanford, to court and possibly soon to marry. Both men have very polarized characteristics – the former is a reputable, serious Reverend and the other is openly known as a libertine. Eliza’s life is pressured by the expectations from the women in her life. The main theme revolves around the contemporary American society and the freedom of female choices within a confined selection; anything outside the selection is deemed as morally depriving by society. Eliza’s life is a clash between competing ideas, the vertical versus the horizontal social construct. At the end, Foster justifies the destruction of coquetry through Eliza’s death. ‘The Coquette’ is clearly a cautionary tale. However, there are aspects of the book that critiques the impossible expectation of women by society. The main question Foster poses is that whether the story, to what extent, endorse the prevailing social morality?
Foster articulates the expected social morality of a woman through the character of Lucy Freedom. Lucy is Eliza’s main confidante, who also gives and insists Eliza to be a woman that lives up to social expectations. Unlike Eliza, Lucy is not blinded by love, or ‘charmed’ by Sanford’s ‘rhetoric’ (Foster, 36), which makes her voice trustworthy to the reader because she is an outside observer to the three-way love. Many of Lucy’s letters to Eliza shows her urgent denial of her relationship with Sanford – ‘Beware of the delusions of fancy!’, ‘You are strangely infatuated by them’, ‘Let not the magic arts of that worthless Sanford leads you’ (Foster, 51) – the multiple use of exclamation marks shows the urgency of her warning. The dictions ‘delusion’ and ‘infatuated’ show the extreme extent that Eliza is under the bewitchment of Sanford. His flirtation is associated with ‘magic arts’, implying evil intents. The verb ‘lead’ shows Eliza’s powerlessness as she is incapable of making sane decisions whilst under his spell. Foster wants to associate the freedom of love with the depravity in decorum.
Lucy’s defamation of Sanford is also justified by reason: ‘His taste is undebauched, his manners not vitiated’, ‘Major Sanford is certainly destitute’ (Foster, 26). The use of extreme adjectives such as ‘undebauched’ and ‘vitiated’ to amplify his despicable character in the eyes of a feudal society. She acknowledges Sanford’s destitution to point out the importance of financial dependency of a woman on her husband, a key aspect of a vertical, and feudal relationship.
Moreover, Lucy cares for the long-term stability of Eliza, not for a love that is caught at first sight: ‘Remember that you are acting for life; and that your happiness in this world, perhaps in the next, depends on your present choice!’ (Foster, 58). This quote clearly shows Lucy’s modernist belief in cause-and-effect and the fact that time travels in a linear, progressive order. Moreover, modernity also believes that one’s social ranking can easily be corrupted if they don’t adhere to the expected social decorum. The dictions ‘next’ and ‘present’ shows the chronology of time. Overall, Lucy urges Eliza to settle a marriage with a well-polished man for her own stability and investment.
Foster warns about the manipulation of coquettishness through Sanford’s interaction with Eliza. In their initial encounter, Sanford clearly wants to slyly take advantage of Eliza’s gossiped coquettish behavior with hopes that she would return his attention. Sanford reveals that he ‘shall avenge my sex, by retaliating the mischiefs’, ‘to play off her own artillery, by using unmeaning gallantry’ (Foster, 18). Initially, his ‘unmeaning’ flirts are only to have frivolous short-term ‘mischiefs’. Eliza however sees this first conversation as ‘a conversation perfectly adapted to my taste’. She believes that they both share a common mentality that sparks the glow of first love. This is not true since their conversation is carefully crafted by Sanford to win her heart. Her misunderstanding proves that Eliza’s coquettishness is associated with foolishness, which makes room for sweet yet evil manipulation. Consequently, their bondage grew to the point where Eliza mistakenly perceives it as ‘affectionate tenderness’ (Foster, 21). It is as though Eliza is a puppet to Sanford’s entertainment.
Their meetings nurture into a courtship between the two. When Sanford finds out that she is also courting Boyer at the same time, jealousy erects in him. As a result, he pursues Eliza tirelessly to fulfil his conquest of a lady’s affection and of sexual intercourse, which Eliza mistakes for love.
Once Sanford has successfully slept with Eliza, he is overridden with joy. He expresses their sexual intercourse as a ‘full possession of my adorable Eliza’ (Foster, 139). The diction ‘possession’ shows his vertical relationship between man and woman, where the woman is downgraded to the extent of being objectified, or even enslaved. He then reveals that this whole flirtation with Eliza is part of a crafted game: ‘I have never yet been defeated in my plan’ (Foster, 139). ‘Defeated’ shows Sanford’s view that this relationship is like power play between winning and ‘losing’. Sanford is a man of great contradiction in his virtues and intentions which makes his character appalling, he is vertical in marriage due to his destitution, and horizontal in companionship, which allows him to be with two women at once (his wife and Eliza). This makes the reader feel like Eliza is cheated because she is fully horizontal and expects the same from Sanford. Sanford’s coquettishness, and the sexist society that allows Sanford to act like this whilst shaming that of Eliza, is the cause of her tragic ending. Her pregnancy outside of marriage makes her unbearable to face society, whilst Sanford is only lightly shamed upon. Overall, the patriarchal society that allows Sanford to behave coquettishly whilst also being intentional evil is certainly out of Eliza’s control, which makes her feel victimized in the novel. This is one of Foster’s rare hints that the novel defames traditional, sexist values and the burden that women carry.
However, Eliza’s downfall is also due to her stubborn behavior – she does not listen to the warning signs from the women in her life: ‘I am persuaded that his passion for me, was sincere, however deceitful he may have been with others’ (Foster,100). This further justifies the fact that Eliza’s death is caused by her persistence to live upon her coquettish will. These women insist that she becomes a virtuous woman by rejecting coquettish behavior and find happiness in her constrained, domestic lifestyle. Eliza fights the battle between female freedom and social expectations. If she were to marry, she would want to have a balance between a loving companionship and marriage, to bond a relationship with a like-minded man. However, Foster creates the character of Eliza as a warning to say that those who push the boundaries too far are at risk. Her death is an accumulation of all her emotional investment to Sanford, only to find out that she is betrayed by it.
Eliza’s death is a self-destruction and it serves as a message to the reader about the perilous consequences of a woman who acts impulsively upon her free will. At her death, she pleads all her regrets in her letter to her mother and her friends. The ending is powerfully constructed because it seems as though Eliza has learned her lesson the hardest and most painful way. In her last letter to her mother, Eliza speaks with the most hurtful of self-blame: ‘Your Eliza has fallen; fallen, indeed!’, ‘She has become the victim of her own indiscretion’ (Foster, 153), she cries that her coquetry is a ‘crime’ of a ‘guilty child’, and she explicitly calls herself a ‘disgrace’ and a ‘ruined child’. The language used is the worst of damnation to the point where there is no virtue left for her to honor. Foster decides to end Eliza’s life with a self-realization because it is a more powerful effect than an unjustified death by murder or by natural cause; it is herself, and her rebellion to status quo that caused her tragedy.
The death of the new-born child is symbolic to the novel, although it is hardly mentioned. The child is a product of a short-term passionate love. The child could be a symbol of modernity where relationships are founded by intimacy and of having shared feelings. When Julia finds out about Eliza’s pregnancy, the child (still yet a fetus) is expressed in shame and dishonor. It dies before it was given a chance to live which shows the destructive consequences of a bond of free love. Eliza’s departure is abrupt and known, which further implies that the road to freedom is directionless, and possibly leading to death.
Sanford at the end lives in impoverishment, isolation and guilt due to the horrors of Eliza’s death. His realization is reflected through the quote where his corrupted libertine character is a ‘a beacon to warn the American fair of the dangerous tendency’ (Foster 158). The ‘beacon’ is an imagery for a guiding light of morality for young men. He hopes his example will prevent the male egoism to cross such boundaries like what he did.
In conclusion, the story of Eliza Wharton is a message that the extent to which a woman can exert her freedom must be controlled because she lives in a vertical world of dependency and obligation, and a world in which having impeccable decorum is expected. This, of course, is a story in contemporary America. The two social constructs – modern and traditional, vertical and horizontal – exist in parallel to the story where Eliza and Sanford exercise the horizontal features whilst the women (except for Eliza), and Boyer are part of the vertical structure. However, ‘The Coquette’ is not fully a cautionary tale, because it does address the sexist society, which allows men to mingle with multiple women and women remain monogamous. Eliza is also faced with impossible expectation – the hardest one is probably to sacrifice her freedom and friendship to a domestic lifestyle once she is married. In my opinion, Eliza is a woman of modernity who is trapped in traditional America, however it is her blame that she does not adapt to the social constructs.
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