She’s the Man: Gender Role Reversal in The Coquette
Although Hannah Webster Foster names her book The Coquette, there is ambiguity in who the true coquette of the story is. Eliza Wharton, named the coquette by Foster and the other characters of the story, does not follow the rules of coquetry. Instead it is Major Peter Sanford who falls under the social definition of a coquette which allows Eliza to demonstrate more masculine characteristics, as the main feminine identity is not her own. Foster creates a gender role reversal in an attempt to challenge the contemporary views for women in the public sphere. Foster presents Eliza as the victim to define the rules of society regulated women’s actions in the public. Eliza’s actions-the activities which her female counterparts deem coquettish- to Major Sanford’s own coquettish behaviors are not reconciled but instead offer reason as to why women are not allowed their quest for individual freedoms as defined by the patriarchy. The freedoms which Eliza lusts after include: sexual freedom, access to wealth and material gain, and a strong public appearance. The attack on Eliza’s coquetry has nothing to do with virtues or her character but rather a cover story to conceal the contemporary fears of gender roles, heterosexuality and marriage, and above all female agency in a changing world. The role reversals within the story create a new dynamic for gender roles, assisting Eliza in her reach for “power” in a masculine world. T
he primary role reversal within The Coquette is Eliza’s grasp at masculine power. Eliza Wharton, along with the rest of the women in The Coquette, struggles to confront the loss of self-definition as she tries to maintain balance in between the space of Republican Mother and cast-out coquette (Richards). While she is definitely not a Republican Mother, casting away all thoughts of marriage and family, Eliza finds herself facing the destiny of a ruined coquette.[i] When speaking of the domestic sphere Eliza says, “I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life…(Foster 23).” Although Eliza does not wish to be a man, she rejects the expectations of women of her time in an attempt to obtain masculine power. According to “Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences”, “her plot to elude the marital expectations placed upon her- causes her friends to call her coquettish.” She is not easily persuaded by Boyer’s overt exclamation of love nor does she seem interested when Sanford admits his feelings towards her. Eliza thinks of “marriage [as] the tomb of friendship. All former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten and the tenderest ties between friends are weakened or dissolved (Foster 19-20).” She has no interest in marrying anyone because she enjoys her freedom and friendships between other women. According to author of “Can your volatile daughter ever acquire your wisdom? Luxury and False ideals in The Coquette,” Laura Korobkin, “Eliza’s resistance to the constraining forces of bourgeois marriage and the conformist advice of her social cohort mark her as a powerful champion of personal freedom and political autonomy.” In today’s society it is often the man who rejects the social construct of marriage due to his lack of commitment and wish to be with the “guys”, but Eliza makes it well known that she will be no Republican mother. Boyer throws himself at the idea of love and marriage, while Sanford, although accidentally in love with her, refuses to marry someone of little financial value. Eliza is the only character in control of her emotions and those around her. It is through Eliza’s rejection of feminine norms that she is considered to be a coquette. However, by definition she lacks the means of being so. By social definition a coquette is “a bewitching girl” that is “happily calculated to break a husband’s heart (Anonymous).” Although the article “A Modern Coquette’s account of herself” found in The Salem Chronicle is a work of satire, it gives a societal definition of what a coquette does. The article reads, “If any gentleman, therefore, has the least inclination to be made both a beggar and a cuckold, he can by no means apply to a person more devoted to his service.” Eliza does try to better herself through marriage but she does not try to play both Boyer and Major Sanford on account of this. Instead she suffers within herself on choosing the “right” suitor. Her sentimental actions of taking the time to choose the man are contradictory of the characteristics of a coquette.
Instead of being the coquette or the Republican mother, Eliza Wharton offers a new definition of the contemporary woman and a woman’s role in society. In the case of The Coquette it is a “bewitching” man who reeks havoc not only within the heart of Eliza, but also her reputation and relationships. Knowing the effects that a coquette has on a man, Sanford plans to beat Eliza at the game of her sex. He says “But I fancy this young lady is a coquette” and he plans to “avenge [his] sex, by retaliating the mischiefs, she mediates against us (Foster 15).” Sanford is not the only man that is considered to be a coquette of his time. According to Gillian Brown’s paper, “There are quite as many male coquets as female and they are far more pernicious pests to society, as their sphere of action is larger, and they are less exposed to the censure of the world.” Lucy weighs in on Sanford’s disposition by saying, “predilection for this Major Sanford… he is a rake, my dear friend (Foster 21).” During this time period, men were considered rakes while coquette was reserved for flirtatious women. Although Major Sanford is considered a rake, he is still invited to all the parties where the women wish to be with him and the men envy him. According to Korobkin, “Foster clearly censures Eliza’s society for permitting his seeming fortune to overcome their scruples about his character so that they fail to exclude him from their social circle, she also makes Eliza the recipient of a chorus of pointed condemnations of Sanford that reject him as an appropriate suitor.” Women were more harshly judged while holding the title of a coquette than a man who held the title of a rake. Eliza wishes to have the power of a public appearance as Sanford holds, but it is lost upon her due to her condemnation as a coquette. As a woman of little material resource she is “confined to the rigid rules of prudence and economy” while Sanford’s whole mode is dedicated to “show” and equipage” (Richards). The party culture of which she is a member of “required [women] to invest themselves deeply in their appearance and then [were] derided for this obsession (Rosenman).” Sanford’s foppish dress and overextensions of his wealth are what characterize him as masculine, while Eliza’s own attempt at a public appearance are rebutted. The importance of appearance is seen most when Eliza prepares for Boyer’s visitation and says, “I must begin to fix my phiz…and try if I can to make up one that will look madamish (Foster 48).” Although she attempts to have a wealthy appearance she fails and is still considered to be the coquette, losing not only her reputation but her life. While Sanford does take the form of a ruined coquette saying, “I am undone!” after he had schemed to avoid poverty by marrying the heiress, Eliza is the one who ends up a pregnant, single beggar.
Major Sanford’s reputation and appearance gives him the appeal of masculinity that Eliza lusts after when contrasted to Boyer’s demure, feminine demeanor. What Eliza loves about Sanford is not him but the materiality, clothing and the improvement of her own image that he offers.[ii] Although Eliza rejects Boyer’s advances this grants her a more masculine power over the man, and her lust for Sanford is not merely for his own being but more for the the power of masculinity he holds. When a woman was referred to as a coquette it is said she had ulterior motives, such as financial gain, for seducing the man. Eliza does want the power of wealth that men hold, but she wants it without the title of marriage. Eliza’s attraction to Sanford is due to her yearning for financial freedom that he presents. She declares in a letter to Lucy that Maj. Sanford possesses “a fortune sufficient to ensure the enjoyments of all the pleasing varieties of social life… My fancy leads me for happiness to the festive haunts of fashionable life (Foster 42).” It is evident that Eliza wishes for Sanford’s fortune for her own conveniences in an attempt for material gain (Korobkin). However, it is not Eliza who goes after Sanford in order to gain wealth, nor does she attempt to make him a cuckold after his marriage. Instead, Sanford forces Eliza into becoming the beggar. However according to Korobkin, “Sanford’s seeming wealth and privilege are doubly deceptive: he does not have them to offer,” but because he is a man his wealth is not questioned. Because of Eliza’s interest in material gain, she is deemed a coquette, however her arts of seduction are not specifically for the materiality but instead another act of masculine power. On the other hand, men who acted promiscuous were not judged for being in it for personal gain but had the excuse of sexual nature on their side.
Although Eliza does find pleasures in flirting with both Boyer and Maj. Sanders, she does not necessarily do so for financial gain, but instead just to enjoy the pleasures of the moment due to her volatile nature. If any of the relationships of Eliza are to be considered coquettish it would be her first engagement arranged by her parents. Her parents arrange the marriage to Mr. Haly in an attempt to better their daughter’s financial standings. In her description of the man Eliza says, “Mr. Haly was a man of worth; a man of real substantial merit (Foster 1).” Eliza has no real emotional attachment to the man but rather his pocketbook. She holds no desire to marry Mr. Haly out of love but instead out of duty. According to “Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences from Gillian Brown, “Her consent to this “alliance” signified no ‘passion of love for Mr. Haly’, only her compliance with her parents’ will.” In her submission to her parents she is representing a common constraint on female and filial consent (Brown.) During Mr. Haly’s illness it is Eliza who takes on the role of competent nurse. This is the only point at which Eliza takes on the role of Republican Mother in an attempt to save the wealth. When Mr. Haly dies, she is able to escape the role of Republican Mother and expands her own quest for wealth in the masculine world (Rosenman). Although society assumes that she will mourn the loss of Mr. Haly but she celebrates liberation from her “paternal roof”.[iii] Eliza has exercised her personal wishes while following her parents’ will but she did so with with a sense of odds posing a “rick” to her “future happiness”. Seeing upon Mr. Haly’s “first acquaintance, his declining health” Eliza was more voluntary to endure the relationship with the Reverend. Her speculation proves to be a success. This overt rejection of patriarchal authority gives Eliza her newfound power in the public world (Brown). It is Maj. Sanders who chases Eliza for financial gain only to drop her when he meets a woman with more wealth. Furthermore, he shows no remorse in hurting Eliza when he marries nor does he show remorse when he cuckolds his wife who recently lost their child. In “A modern Coquette’s account of herself” the author says, “I could say- My Life! to a husband, at the same time I was winking at another man in company, and call him a “dear creature!” Sanford does exactly this by seducing Eliza while staying “happily” married to his wife. Eliza’s lack of conformity to either a coquette or a lady of the time offers up a new type of role for women in society and creates the image of the modern lady, while Maj. Sanders behavior are that of the masculine man of the time. Eliza does take great pleasure in toying with both Maj. Sanford and Boyer, but she lets her own feelings become involved; thus, breaking the first rule of coquetry. In Foster’s The Coquette, it is Boyer who assumes the feminine role. This might be the reason why Eliza’s female counterparts urge her to marry him. His virtue ranks above all his stately value and his careful thought before each action rank him among the best women in the society, maybe even above Mrs. Richman who is the holder of feminine virtue and the image of the female expectancy.
While Sanford acts on impulse and desire, Boyer thinks of social customs and feelings. Boyer views women as both an object of conquest but more over as an object of affection. Eliza does not deal with affection when dealing with either man but is focused primarily on controlling them both. When Boyer comes to press Eliza for an answer to the proposal, but he is fearful to lose the object of his intrigue when he finds Sanford in the garden with Eliza (Richards). When Boyer discovers Sanford and Eliza talking discreetly at her mother’s house, he immediately begins to cry. Not only does he storm off but he says that Eliza has made him “the dupe of a coquetting artifice”. Due to his broken heart he says “I gave free scope to the sensibility of my heart and the effeminate relief of tear materially lightened the load which oppressed me (Foster 67).” He does not confront Eliza with the problem but instead writes a letter explaining his behavior and ending the relationship. It is almost as if he is too fragile to even confront the situation (Richards). Maj. Sanford however, takes no worry in Boyer’s interference with his relationship with Eliza. Sanford is not threatened by Boyer’s presence but is instead the more dominant male in Eliza’s life. Maj. Sanford beliefs he holds agency over Eliza’s heart. Eliza exercises her power of sexual freedoms within her relationship with Boyer. Although she does care for the man she still wants the power to express sexual desire outside of one relationship; the same power Sanford exercises in his marriage. Eliza has extended her need for material luxury to sex. Failed in her attempt of marriage, Eliza enters the sexual liaison with Sanford because she associates him with her lost dream of power of material gratification. Her sexual promiscuity grants her satisfaction in the world of the patriarchy (Korobkin).
While Eliza plays the role of the Coquette, a woman who flirts and controls men’s emotions, it can be seen that she is the true holder of the masculinity or power. She holds agency over both Boyer and Maj. Sanford, who believe that they are coquetting her for her affection and beauty. Foster allows the ideal of the “New Woman” to fall apart through Eliza’s own follies, leading up to her death. Doing so, Foster creates the illusion that the “New Woman” cannot cohabitate in the contemporary world. Eliza’s “luxury-loving materialism, her desire to live as a wealthy aristocrat, served and admired by inferiors, her preference for round after round of social “hilarity”, and her hostility toward anything that interrupts her fun or smacks even minimally of middle-class adult responsibility,” are the qualities in which she gains her masculine powers (Korobkin). When Major Sanford describes Eliza in his letter he says “gay, volatile, apparently thoughtless of everything but present enjoyment.” Eliza’s volatility is what creates her reputation as a coquette, although it is evident that her male counterpart suits that term better. Just as a woman is “apparently thoughtless of everything but present enjoyment” so is Sanford. He only wishes to be with Eliza for sex. It is his excessive confidence that defines his personal masculinity but at the same time he reasserts Eliza’s. Her lust for material gain has stretched outward to sexual enjoyment, thus giving her power through her new sexual “immorality”. Eliza finds new life in the power she holds over both men while her friends fall victim to the expectation of what women were to do during this time. Her quest for independence is ultimately her downfall. She rejects the norms of society to emphasize her power over society but yet she dies, unwed. Her pride and disregard for the consequences of living the life of a “coquette” are what define her as the masculine character within the book. Although Eliza is able to escape the gender role of the Republican mother, she does not escape the blame of a ruined coquette. Her friends cast her away because she does not follow social rule. Her reach for masculine power, although successful, caused her death.
Foster writes the role reversals in The Coquette in an attempt to question the normative gender roles, the institution of marriage, and the power that women held in the patriarchy. Although each character successfully takes on their new role, it is ultimately their downfall. Foster presents Eliza’s fancy for the masculine features not as a pull for political freedom and self-sufficiency but as a battle toward sensuality, self absorption, and social caresses (Korobkin). Foster does so in an attempt to reason whether or not women can really escape the domestic sphere or whether they would remain victim to the patriarchy. Foster forms the novel in an attempt to analyze the masculinist accounts of femininity, but it does not allow for female transcendence (Brown). Eliza Wharton obtained the masculine power she lusted after, however, her refusal of the Republican mother and marriage not only killed her but also her reputation. Some would argue that even though she escaped the patriarchy she could not fully escape its effects.
[i] To learn more about Republican Motherhood and the virtues it was meant to instill especially in the novel of The Coquette, see “Writing Vice: Hannah Webster Foster and The Coquette” by Jennifer Harris. This article also gives a historical background of the “crime” that Eliza committed on her virtue
. [ii] To discover more about the roles that the coquette challenged during the Victorian era, see “Fear or Fashion; or How the Coquette got her Bad Name” by Ellen Bayuk Rosenman.
[iii] To find out more about the short-lived liberation of Eliza from the patriarchal bonds that held the women of her time, see Gillian Brown’s “Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences”.
Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette, and the Boarding School: Authoritative Texts, Sources and Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Jennifer Harris, Bryan Waterman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.
Anonymous. “A modern Coquette’s account of herself.” Ed. Jennifer Harris, Bryan Waterman. Norton, 2013.
Brown, Gillian. “From Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences.” Ed. Jennifer Harris, Bryan Waterman. Norton, 2013.
Richards, Jeffrey H. “Theater, Sexuality, and National Virtue in Foster’s Novels.” Ed. Jennifer Harris, Bryan Waterman. Norton, 2013.
Harris, Jennifer. “Writing Vice: Hannah Webster Foster and The Coquette.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2009., pp. 363-381doi:10.3138/cras.39.4.363.
Korobkin, Laura H. “Can Your Volatile Daughter Ever Acquire Your Wisdom?”: Luxury and False Ideals in “the Coquette.” Early American Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, 2006., pp. 79-107doi:10.1353/eal.2006.0006.
Rosenman, Ellen B. “Fear of Fashion; Or, how the Coquette Got Her Bad Name.” ANQ: a quarterly journal of short articles, notes, and reviews (Univ. of Kentucky, Lexington), vol. 15, no. 3, 2002., pp. 12.
The Death of Marriage as Portrayed in The Coquette
There is a concept of “social death” which is often applied to those individuals discarded by, excluded from, or persecuted by society. Social death has been used to describe slavery, apartheid, ostracism, or, as in the case of Hannah W. Foster’s historical novel, The Coquette, the exclusion of women who do not abide by the sexual standards and common etiquette of society. Foster’s anachronistic heroine, Eliza Whitman, has all the makings of such a social maverick. As a woman recently entering society, she lives and personifies the inconsistent transition from a marriage of convenience to that of love. Eliza establishes herself as a surprisingly spirited and individualistic female for her time, borne into a world not quite ready for her—inevitably rendering her a victim of circumstance. From the very first letter, Foster makes it easy for the reader to relate to Eliza’s struggles and personal dilemmas with freedom, lifestyles, marriage, and obligations (her views are presented through first person and she is perhaps the most interesting and complex character in the exchange of letters). However, her ultimate, untimely death is the final (and disapproving) verdict on just how appropriate or conducive her avant-garde mentality is—to her setting. In her book Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz explains that critics of romantic marriage worried that “the values of free choice and egalitarianism could easily spin out of control” (149). Foster’s response to this fear is not to condemn the democratic principles themselves, but rather, their situational impracticality at a particular point in history. Foster has Eliza undergo the tragic fate of social death and (for that time period) its essentially resultant physical death, for in the end, hers is a realistic novel which acknowledges the pull of society in the late eighteenth century and the dictatorial influence it exerts over the lives of women. The novel’s empathetic view is best evinced through an examination of Eliza’s romantic, noncommittal personality, the lack of precedent for love marriages as the root of the characters’ conflicts, and finally, the underlying motives that purposely differentiate Eliza’s idealistic passion from Sanford’s in order to espouse her untainted standards for marriage. Eliza’s tragic end is thus not indicative of the novel’s condemnation, but rather, represents a sympathizing concession to society’s omnipotence and bleak reality. The Coquette is an epistolary novel of manners—that is, one which concerns itself with the customs and mores of a cultural group, especially those conventions that shape and often repress its characters. Eliza’s personality tests the limits of such social constraints; particularly notable is her aversion to marriage. Her main dilemma is not only choosing between independence and being “tied down,” but in the case of the latter, deciding based on practicality or romance. Eliza has a naturally capricious image, quicker to give in to her “fancy,” and more easily tempted by the idea of a love match, no matter how contentious to society. She is painted as a coquette, and in many ways fits the label with her talents, i.e. her wit, intelligence, and charm with men. However, Foster makes a visible effort to depict Eliza’s side of the story. Eliza’s letters are filled with dramatic irony, revealing that the general timing of events lends to great misunderstanding about her role in the courtship process (particularly with Peter Sanford) in that she is much more innocent and passive than it may seem to third party observers.Eliza further deviates from social norms in her oddly avant-garde, traditionally masculine mentality towards marriage; she struggles with commitment and what she perceives as the corollary loss of freedom. In the early chapters, she is especially composed in her rational approach to romance, keeping her wits about her as she weighs the pros and cons of her two main admirers. She is almost businesslike in her pursuit of happiness, acting with her self-interest at the forefront of her mind and referring to the courtship as “this sober business” and “the progress of the negociation (sic)” (Foster 32). Eliza’s use of business-like terms are indicative of her dispassionate view of marriage, and her detachment is also seen in her description of marriage as a necessary tradition—“Both nature and education had instilled into my mind an implicit obedience to the will and desires of my parents” (Foster 5).Eliza’s reluctance to commit also manifests through her projection of negative images onto her perception of marriage—“[Marriage] appears to me a very selfish state. Why do people…as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families?” (Foster 24). Eliza sees marriage as a selfish withdrawal from society and communal activity—effectually, social death. She views matrimony with an outsider’s contradictory disdain and jealousy, wondering at its mysterious faculties from afar, while plaintively criticizing the specific qualities she has observed from indirect experience. This dichotomous nature of marriage’s image forms the foundation of such studies as Nancy Cott’s Public Vows, which memorably introduces marriage as a “sphinx” of both monumental visibility and intimate secrecy (1). It is this gap in understanding between marriage’s public and private images which contributes toward the Eliza’s conflicting views on the union. For Eliza, marriage seems to be “the tomb of friendship,” at once a rite of passage into an unknown world beyond bachelorhood, as well as the end of one of life’s greatest relationships—friendship (Foster 24). The latter assumption also gives insight into the role of marriage—it was established for practical purposes, and the ideals of love and companionship, or friendship, are unquestionably assumed incompatible (Cott 11). While Foster’s rendition of romantic love is perhaps realistically bleak, she emphasizes that this type of thinking is unprecedented (at least in a public sense), and thus lacks guidance which may have greatly facilitated the success of such a “love match.” Indeed, the passionate Eliza and Sanford experience the greatest internal conflicts over their attempts to reconcile the perceived incompatibility of their desires for freedom and marriage. Both characters hunger for the other, but cannot fully come to terms with the concepts of ownership, exclusivity, and monogamy in marriage in their day and age. In particular, marriage without full dependency (particularly on the female end) was not yet a familiar (or at least comfortable) concept, and the characters are not equipped with previous examples or models to follow in their unique pursuit for a balance between independence and conjugality. Foster makes it clear they are taking first steps down new roads in attempting marriages of romance, with little to no assistance from the rest of society. The society of Coquette typically views the love match as impractical, in a time when women had little means by which to support themselves, cultivated by their upbringing with the sole purpose of fulfilling a subsidiary role to their husbands. The general consensus is epitomized by one of Lucy’s responses to Eliza’s letters (Foster 27). Lucy is all pragmatism and reason, valuing security in marriage over precarious and short-lived passion, and far more willing to compromise than Eliza. She patronizes Eliza’s youthful whims and concerns, voicing clearly her own appreciation for substantial values in a relationship, i.e. loyalty, responsibility, “sense and honor,” etc (Foster 27). At a quick glance, Eliza’s actions could easily be considered frowned upon (given Lucy’s reprimands, Boyer’s rebuff, the novel’s finale, etc.), and perhaps indeed affirming the aforementioned critics’ fear of rampant individuality and egalitarian ideals undermining societal order, personal wellbeing, and security. Yet on a deeper level, Foster’s portrayal of Eliza as a social maverick is very often sympathetic, and at times, filled with subtle approbation. Eliza thinks for herself and dares to question the social order of her time, caring for her personal happiness and aspiring to do what she wants rather than what is dictated by society. To the audience, she is the underdog, and at times, a tragic hero. Her ambitions are shot down by those around her, such as Lucy, who chastises Eliza for trying to improve her lot in life, for aiming above and beyond, and for not settling for good-enough—“[Mr. Boyer’s] situation in life is…as elevated as you have a right to claim” (Foster 27). Foster’s tone toward her protagonist upholds her democratic principles and individualistic ideals, bemoaning instead the incompatibility of the era. In the end, it is not Eliza’s inherent values of free choice and freedom, but her situational inexperience and lack of direction in a specific historical setting, that condemn her to a tragic and unfortunate fate. Finally, it can be argued that Eliza is the most idealistic of the three in her view toward marriage. She is the least willing to settle or compromise, and refuses to limit the opportunities of her vivid youth by committing early on and possibly missing out on true fulfillment in love and marriage. During the early courtships, she is intensely alive and clearly passionate about her future. She is very attracted to excitement and the idea of actualizing her greatest possible happiness in life. Eliza has high expectations for herself and lacks Lucy Freeman and Sanford’s penchant toward compromise brought on by financial considerations. Because of her higher and purer standards, Eliza is slower to decide, to commit, and to relinquish her “freedom,” before she is certain that it is for a worthy enough cause (i.e., suitor). Eliza is a romantic at heart, and her writing style particularly reflects her idealism. Whereas Lucy and Sanford write like scientists, sporting detached tones or greater regard for rationale and rhetoric, Eliza writes like a poet. She is at times prone to theatrics—“The heart of your friend is again besieged…”—and chooses diction full of imagery and nature—“We go on charmingly here; almost as soft and smooth as your ladyship…love must stagnate, if it have not a light breeze of discord…we had a lovely tour…and returned to dinner in perfect harmony” (Foster 24; 32). The novel shows an understated admiration for Eliza’s romanticism, and though it is this passionate nature which links her to Sanford, she is differentiated by her lack of base motives, and, to an extent, her naïveté. Sanford, who is cast as the familiar role of a rake, or dissolute libertine, is driven fully by his passions sans regard for the concerns of others besides himself. While Eliza may err unknowingly, Sanford is most despicable in that he takes pleasure in his flaws—“it is the glory of a rake…” Foster 34). He has a frank awareness of the level of depravity in which he conducts himself, often blatantly acknowledging what he is doing, so there is a conscious choice in leading his immoral lifestyle. When speaking of his future wife, Nancy, he states blankly, “The girl looks very well. She has no soul though, that I can discover. She is heiress, nevertheless, to a great fortune, and that is all the soul I wish for in a wife” (34). Sanford views marriage as a shackle or noose much in the same vein as does Eliza, but he is impetuous with full understanding of his dissolution, acting on his impulses and driven by his sensual desires with disregard for etiquette and customs. Though he certainly does feel strongly for Eliza, he is not so idealistic that he would marry her and only her—though that is what he wishes to do. Sanford, like Lucy, values practicality—though conspicuously for dishonorable motives—in the sense that he can intentionally marry another for whom he feels no compassion or ardor, simply because of the great fortune she ensures. He justifies this moral sacrifice as a necessary evil, though he is not respectful of his new wife enough so that he would refrain from an affair to satisfy his passions for Eliza. Sanford does not respect the institution of marriage enough so that it truly encumbers him from satisfying his lust. Even when he cannot “possess her wholly [himself],” Sanford keeps Eliza close by for his convenience and at her expense—“I will not tamely see her the property of another” (35). Sanford’s treatment and view of women is one of belittlement and disrespect, exposed through his own marriage and affair. The novel’s unmitigated contempt for his character is thus juxtaposed with the entirely individuated Eliza—his antithesis on the same spectrum of impassioned marriage.There is a lesser known application of social death that describes a change in an individual’s identity—e.g., a theme often applied to the Renaissance. It is perhaps this interpretation that the novel most strongly endorses. Under that definition, there exists a distinct social death in marriage—the end of one lifestyle and the beginning of another. Eliza once criticizes this social death as a selfish option for those who choose to remove themselves from society, concentrating solely on their family. She fails to reconcile this transition from bachelorhood to conjugality because the situational, historical terms of marriage are inherently incompatible with her forward-thinking female character. For a young woman in her time, the implication of marriage is essentially, and unacceptably, social death. Eliza is borne into the wrong century, representing a dissonance that is greater than herself. In many ways, she is meant for a century that is still yet to arrive. Works CitedCoontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.Cott, Nancy. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.Foster, Hannah W. The Coquette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1797.
Eliza Wharton vs The Common Woman
The common woman in the late 1700s was clearly different from the common woman of today. Only recently has the idea of marriage been contemplated as something unnecessary to a woman’s success in society. In Hannah Webster Foster’s book, “The Coquette”, the writer uses a distinct writing style and vivid details to contrast the common woman of the era with the main character, Eliza, in order to question the effectiveness of morality and the consequences of breaking social order.
Eliza Wharton is the main character in the 1797 epistolary novel by Hannah Webster Foster. Eliza is young, beautiful, intelligent, blunt, and adventurous. Eliza’s inclination toward coquettish behavior goes against everything her mother (Mrs. Wharton), her best friend (Lucy Freeman Sumner), her other friends (Julia Granby and Mrs. Richman), and her “fiancé” (Mr. J. Boyer) encourage her to do. Throughout the course of the novel, Eliza describes her thoughts, feelings, dreams, desires, and struggles. More than anything, Eliza longs for the freedom that comes with singleness, and this desire ultimately leads to her end.
The epistolary, or letter, writing style provides a unique way to discover the characteristics of Eliza. Readers have the opportunity to discover Eliza’s characteristics from the perspectives of several main characters. The majority of the letters (close to half) are written by Eliza, most commonly to Lucy. Lucy, Major Stanford, and Mr. Boyer are also key letter writers. On occasion, a minor character will write a letter to add to the storyline. Each letter builds on the previous. Some letters rewrite the same occasion, but from different perspectives, giving the reader a round view of Eliza. Readers can see not only how she sees herself, but how everyone else sees her. The major example – letter forty is written from Mr. Boyer to Mr. Selby, his dear friend. Mr. Boyer describes the pain and agony he felt when he saw Eliza in her garden with Major Sanford, and his ending of their relationship because of it. Here he encloses his letter to Eliza, in which he laments his blindness to her ways and his disgust with Major Sanford:
…And a prepossession for Major Sanford, infused into your giddy mind by frippery, flattery, and artifice of that worthless and abandoned man. Hence you preferred a connection with him…What the result of your coquetry would have been, had I waited for it, I cannot say… I bid a last farewell to these fond hopes, and leave you forever! (864)
Previously, Mr. Boyer had been presented with the idea that Eliza was a coquette, but he refused to see her that way, despite the evidence presented by Mr. Selby. Here, Boyer corrects his perception of who he believes Eliza really is, based on his understanding of her actions. Boyer finally sees Eliza as a coquette, giddy, and faltering. Boyer is preparing for ministry, and the life of a coquette does not line up with his career or what a “common woman” is. With this in mind, Boyer makes his move to separate himself from her. He recognizes that he cannot pursue a woman who does not follow the moral lifestyle of a woman in that day.
Eliza’s thoughts vary dramatically in her letter (41):
…I begged him to sit down…my motives were innocent, though they doubtless wore the aspect of criminality, in his view…He replied…my motives were sufficiently notorious! He accused me of treating him ill, of rendering him the dupe of coquetting artifice, of having an intrigue with Major Sanford, and declared his determination to leave me forever…There was too much reason in support…When I saw that he was gone…I fainted. (870)
Eliza, on the other hand, does not see herself as a coquette. Eliza simply does not want to be married yet, “Let me then enjoy that freedom which I so highly prize” (823). She considers marriage to be “the tomb of friendship” (830). She believes her motives of being involved with both men are completely innocent. She realizes that Mr. Boyer suddenly sees her differently, and she wants to “fix” his perception, but there is too much evidence against her. Eliza feels trapped by her own actions. She lost her “fiancé” because he believes she is a coquette, which is the exact opposite of the image she was going for.
In fact, Eliza has been quite blunt and honest with Boyer and how she feels about him. In response to a desire for marriage, Eliza tells Boyer, “You must either quit the subject [of marriage], or leave me to the exercise of my free will, which perhaps may coincide with your present wishes” (832). Eliza also openly tells Boyer that she would prefer friendship, “Well then, said he, if it must be so, let it be esteem or friendship. Indeed, sir, said I, you are entitled to them both” (830). She even went so far to cut off Boyer’s letter writing of marriage, “In regard to the particular subject of your’s [sic] I shall be silent. Ideas of that kind are better conveyed, on my part, by words, than by the pen” (843). Eliza makes it very clear to Boyer that she is not looking for marriage yet, but she will gladly accept him as a friend. Boyer does not take this to heart, which is why he sees her as a coquette and a promise breaker. Eliza’s actions prove she does not cherish Boyer like he cherishes her, but the loss of him proves to be too much, “When I saw that he was gone; that he had actually forsaken me, I fainted” (870), and even “I was insensible of my regard for Mr. Boyer, till this fatal separation took place. His merit and worth now appear in the brightest colors” (873). Eliza breaks at the loss of a man she did not seem to care about, which ultimately shocks everyone close to her.
Eliza is not as blunt with Major Sanford, and her friends are not pleased with this, continually talking of Sanford’s “rake” behavior. Eliza even wonders aloud to Lucy, “But is it not an adage generally received, that a ‘reformed rake makes the best husband’?” (846). Eliza is more receptive of Sanford, telling Lucy, “What shall I say about this extraordinary man? Shall I own to you, my friend, that he is pleasing to me? His person, his manners, his situation, all combine to charm my fancy; and to lively imagination, strew the path of life with flowers” (828). Sanford takes this attitude as interest from Eliza, but when she tells him in the garden that she is choosing to be with Boyer, he erupts. Sanford makes no move towards marriage with Eliza, but does not want her with anyone else. When Eliza realizes this trap, she makes her move, “I must leave you, said I. Where will you go? Said he. I will go and try to retrieve my character. It has suffered greatly by this fatal interview” (869). Eliza separates herself from Sanford once she realizes Boyer has left her, but in the end, Eliza ends up in the same circle as him, and even pregnant with his child.
At the beginning of the novel, Eliza tells Lucy she will not live the lifestyle of a coquette – a lifestyle looked down upon by society. She writes, “I believe I shall never again resume those airs, which you term coquettish, but which I think I deserve a softer appellation; as they proceed from an innocent heart” (820). From the start, Eliza expresses her motive of innocence, but her actions portray a different one. Eliza, after Boyer leaves, prefers to stay to herself for fear of the gossip among the people. She does not want everyone to see her as a coquette. She believes she has made it clear what her intentions are, but the public does not seem to understand her.
Eliza lives in a time that pushes marriage as the ultimate goal for women. Marriage signifies completion, not only spiritually, but for the women who now have the opportunity to raise a family. Eliza’s closest friend suddenly “gave her hand to the amiable and accomplished Mr. George Sumner” (856). Even Sanford, a male, only wants to marry for money, “Whenever I do submit to be shackled, it must be from a necessity of mending my fortune” (829). Eliza’s free spirit challenges the idea of marriage for convenience. She certainly does not mind having suitors though, “Why should I refuse the polite attentions of this gentleman? They smoothe [sic] the rugged path of life, and wonderfully accelerate the lagging wheels of time” (866). Contrary to popular belief at the time, what Eliza is doing is not morally wrong. The only sin Eliza commits is when Sanford has “full possession” (897) of her. Before this, Eliza was simply entertaining the attractions of two different men. There were no sexual advances, which were considered highly immoral in that day. Eliza’s desire for simple friendship is pure, but she also voices a desire for social pleasure, “If I am to become a recluse, let me, at least, enjoy those amusements, which are suited to my taste, a short time first” (866). Eliza enjoys parties and social gatherings, and does not want to be stuck in a marriage that does not allow her to participate in these. Her fear is that marriage will be a noose around her neck, similar to the attitude of Sanford.
Eliza Wharton is nothing close to the common woman of the day. Eliza defies standards of monogamy by entertaining two suitors. She defies the standard of mortality by sleeping with Sanford. She defies the common practice of marriage by refusing to settle down. She defies domestication by frequently attending parties and social gatherings. She defies the idea that a woman should be dependent on a man by being independent. Hannah Webster Foster effectively created a female character who defies social norms and questions the importance of morality in her day. That character – Eliza Wharton.
The Freedom of a Woman
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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