Marriage is a central part of post-Revolutionary American society in The Coquette. Foster’s protagonist, Eliza Wharton, is a single woman in her 30s, but her dear friends, General and Mrs. Richman, “are the picture of conjugal felicity.” Another of Eliza’s friends, Lucy Freeman, is to be married, as well, and their shared acquaintance, Julia Granby, is eager to follow in Lucy’s footsteps. Eliza, however, doesn’t share her friends’ high regard of marriage, and neither does her new suitor, Peter Sanford. Despite their negative opinions of marriage, both Eliza and Sanford believe marriage also has its advantages, namely that it allows for instant wealth and social mobility. Still, Eliza and Sanford avoid marriage for as long as possible and, in the end, both are ruined and disgraced, alienated by the very society they once enjoyed. Foster’s representation of marriage, including Eliza and Sanford’s resistance to this widely respected institution, underscores the importance of marriage in early American society, but it also highlights its limitations—not everyone is destined for wedded bliss, and, for some, it can lead to heartache.
The importance of marriage is well established in The Coquette, but both Eliza and Sanford view it as oppressive and confining. Eliza’s hand in marriage was once promised to Mr. Haly, a local man several years her senior, but his untimely death relieves her of her duties. “A melancholy event has lately extricated me from those shackles,” Eliza tells Lucy in a letter. Eliza’s engagement to Mr. Haly was an arrangement of her parents, not a result of her own heart, and her reference to the near union as “shackles” implies that she likens marriage to prison or slavery.
Eliza later claims that “marriage is the tomb of friendship,” which also suggests that marriage is like a dangerous trap that can’t be escaped. In a letter on the subject, she asks Lucy why “people, in general, as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families.” To do so, in Eliza’s opinion, leaves friends “neglected or forgotten,” and she is not eager to abandon her friends and attend to domestic responsibilities. Sanford likewise expresses an aversion to marriage, and even though he is exceedingly fond of Eliza, he is not prepared to marry her. “Were I disposed to marry, I am persuaded she would make an excellent wife,” Sanford tells his friend, Charles Deighton, “but that you know is no part of my plan, so long as I can keep out of the noose.” Sanford’s reference to marriage as a “noose” suggests that he sees marriage as a sort of social death as well, emphasizing that marriage is a dangerous or even fatal restraint.
Regardless of Eliza and Sanford’s views on marriage, neither can avoid it completely, but they both find consolation in the fact that marriage has the potential to secure wealth and allow for upward social mobility. Eliza’s mother, Mrs. Wharton, encourages her to accept the advances of Reverend Boyer, a local preacher whose profession guarantees Eliza’s lasting virtue and honor, but Eliza isn’t convinced. “This man is not disagreeable to me; but if I must enter the connubial state, are there not others, who may be equally pleasing in their persons, and whose profession may be more comfortable to my taste?” The “other” man Eliza refers to is Major Sanford, a wealthy and accomplished man who is better equipped to provide Eliza with a life of luxury, unlike the meager living Reverend Boyer makes as a preacher.
Eliza speaks more plainly about money in a letter to Lucy. “[Major Sanford’s] liberal fortune is extremely alluring to me, who, you know, have been hitherto confined to the rigid rules of prudence and economy, not to say, necessity in my finances.” In other words, Eliza has never been rich, and she welcomes the chance to increase her fortune and rise in social status, even if she must use marriage to do so. Sanford’s fortune, however, has been squandered by his “licentious” ways and is purely an illusion, and he is forced to marry Nancy, a wealthy woman from down south, to restore his social standing. “Necessity, dire necessity, forced me into this dernier resort,” Sanford tells Charles in a letter, emphasizing that marriage was a last resort for him. “Five thousand pounds in possession, and more in reversion,” Sanford says of Nancy. “This will compensate for some of my past mistakes, and set matters right for the present.” Even though Sanford is in love with Eliza—as much as he can love any woman—he is ultimately forced to marry Nancy for the sake of money, which he, like Eliza, sees as the primary benefit of marriage.
Eliza never does marry, and she dies, alone and rejected by Reverend Boyer and society, after giving birth to Sanford’s illegitimate stillborn baby. Sanford doesn’t find lasting happiness either. He barely hides his affair with Eliza and openly expresses contempt for his wife, at which point she leaves him, taking her fortune with her. The fact that both Eliza and Sanford’s demise is rooted in their aversion to marriage suggests that Foster supports the opinion that marriage is a sacred and crucial part of society. The only people who are truly happy in The Coquette are those with a healthy marriage, such as General and Mrs. Richman and Lucy and her new husband, Mr. Sumner, but these marriages are also blessed with the privilege of wealth and high social standing. Eliza endeavors to marry up in class and Sanford marries out of necessity to save the lifestyle he is accustomed to, but in both cases, a desire for wealth and disregard for the sanctity of marriage undeniably leads to their unhappiness and despair. In this way, Foster implies that not everyone marries for the same reasons and that some marriages will never be successful or happy.
Marriage and Social Mobility ThemeTracker
Marriage and Social Mobility Quotes in The Coquette
I was introduced to Miss Eliza Wharton; a young lady whose elegant person, accomplished mind, and polished manners have been much celebrated. […] You will think, that I talk in the style of a lover. I confess it, nor am I ashamed to rank myself among the professed admirers of this lovely fair one. I am in no danger, however, of becoming an enthusiastic devotee. No, I mean to act upon just and rational principles. Expecting soon to settle in an eligible situation, if such a companion as I am persuaded she will make me, may fall to my lot, I shall deem myself as happy as this state of imperfection will admit. She is now resident at Gen. Richman’s. The general and his lady are her particular friends. They are warm in her praises. They tell me, however, that she is naturally of a gay disposition. No matter for that; it is an agreeable quality, where there is discretion sufficient for its regulation. A cheerful friend, much more a cheerful wife is peculiarly necessary to a person of a studious and sedentary life.
What, my dear, is your opinion of our favorite Mr. Boyer? Declaring him your favorite, madam, is sufficient to render me partial to him. But to be frank, independent of that, I think him an agreeable man. Your heart, I presume, is now free? Yes, and I hope it will long remain so. Your friends, my dear, solicitous for your welfare, wish to see you suitably and agreeably connected. I hope my friends will never again interpose in my concerns of that nature. You, madam, who have ever known my heart, are sensible, that had the Almighty spared life, in a certain instance, I must have sacrificed my own happiness, or incurred their censure. I am young, gay, volatile. A melancholy event has lately extricated me from those shackles, which parental authority had imposed on my mind. Let me then enjoy that freedom which I so highly prize. Let me have opportunity, unbiassed by opinion, to gratify my natural disposition in a participation of those pleasures which youth and innocence afford.
Of such pleasures, no one, my dear, would wish to deprive you. But beware, Eliza! —Though strowed with flowers, when contemplated by your lively imagination, it is, after all, a slippery, thorny path. The round of fashionable dissipation is dangerous. A phantom is often pursued, which leaves its deluded votary the real form of wretchedness. She spoke with an emphasis, and taking up her candle, wished me a good night. I had not power to return the compliment. Something seemingly prophetic in her looks and expressions, cast a momentary gloom upon my mind! But I despise those contracted ideas which confine virtue to a cell. I have no notion of becoming a recluse. Mrs. Richman has ever been a beloved friend of mine; yet I always thought her rather prudish.
I believe too, that I have charmed the eye at least, of the amiable Eliza. Indeed, Charles, she is a fine girl. I think it would hurt my conscience to wound her mind or reputation. Were I disposed to marry, I am persuaded she would make an excellent wife; but that you know is no part of my plan, so long as I can keep out of the noose. Whenever I do submit to be shackled, it must be from a necessity of mending my fortune. This girl would be far from doing that. However, I am pleased with her acquaintance, and mean not to abuse her credulity and good nature, if I can help it.
Marriage is the tomb of friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state. Why do people, in general, as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families? former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten. The tenderest ties between friends are weakened, or dissolved; and benevolence itself moves in a very limited sphere.
From a scene of constraint and confinement, ill suited to my years and inclination, I have just launched into society. My heart beats high in expectation of its fancied joys. My sanguine imagination paints, in alluring colors, the charms of youth and freedom, regulated by virtue and innocence. Of these, I wish to partake. While I own myself under obligations for the esteem which you are pleased to profess for me, and in return, acknowledge, that neither your person nor manners are disagreeable to me, I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life, and make me dependent for happiness, perhaps too, for subsistence, upon a class of people, who will claim the right of scrutinizing every part of my conduct; and by censuring those foibles, which I am conscious of not having prudence to avoid, may render me completely miserable.
How natural, and how easy the transition from one stage of life to another! Not long since I was a gay, volatile girl; seeking satisfaction in fashionable circles and amusements; but now I am thoroughly domesticated. All my happiness is centered within the limits of my own walls; and I grudge every moment that calls me from the pleasing scenes of domestic life. Not that I am so selfish as to exclude my friends from my affection or society. I feel interested in their concerns, and enjoy their company. I must own, however, that conjugal and parental love are the main springs of my life. The conduct of some mothers in depriving their helpless offspring of the care and kindness which none but a mother can feel, is to me unaccountable. There are many nameless attentions which nothing short of maternal tenderness, and solicitude can pay; and for which the endearing smiles, and progressive improvements of the lovely babe are an ample reward.
Slight not the opinion of the world. We are dependent beings; and while the smallest traces of virtuous sensibility remain, we must feel the force of that dependence, in a greater or less degree. No female, whose mind is uncorrupted, can be indifferent to reputation. It is an inestimable jewel, the loss of which can never be repaired. While retained, it affords conscious peace to our own minds, and ensures the esteem and respect of all around us.
[Eliza] is exceedingly depressed; and says she neither expects nor wishes to survive her lying in. Insanity, for aught I know, must be my lot, if she should die. But I will not harbor the idea. I hope, one time or other, to have the power to make her amends, even by marriage. My wife may be provoked, I imagine, to sue for a divorce. If she should, she would find no difficulty in obtaining it; and then I would take Eliza in her stead. Though I confess that the idea of being thus connected with a woman whom I have been able to dishonor would be rather hard to surmount. It would hurt even my delicacy, little as you may think me to possess, to have a wife whom I know to be seducible. And, on this account, I cannot be positive that even Eliza would retain my love.