At the center of post-Revolutionary American social fabric is the importance of virtue, or high moral standing and righteousness, which is tantamount to modesty and chastity. “Virtue in the common acceptation of the term,” the Reverend Boyer maintains, “is confined to that particular, you know.” Indeed, as protagonist Eliza Wharton entertains the attention of various men, her image of modesty and chastity is tarnished, and her virtue is likewise lost in the eyes of society. The mere allegation of promiscuity is enough to ruin Eliza’s reputation and render her morally bankrupt; however, Foster suggests that it is those who judge Eliza most harshly that are truly lacking in virtue. Eliza is scorned by her friends and Reverend Boyer for associating with Peter Sanford, a man widely known to be promiscuous, and when their ill-advised relationship results in Eliza’s pregnancy, she is shunned by society. Hannah Webster Foster’s sympathetic portrayal of Eliza Wharton implies that virtue is complex and multilayered, and that there is more to righteousness than chastity, or the abstention of sex.
As Eliza is pursued by both Reverend Boyer (a respected preacher) and Peter Sanford (an admitted libertine and rake), Eliza’s friends attempt to appeal to her sense of morals and virtue, but their definition of virtue is extremely narrow and hinges on sexual purity more than anything. Eliza’s friend and cousin, Mrs. Richman, explicitly warns Eliza that Sanford’s intentions are not pure. “In my opinion,” Mrs. Richman says, “[Major Sanford] is deficient in one of the great essentials of the character, and that is, virtue.” She fears that Sanford’s reputation as a womanizer will have a negative effect on Eliza’s own reputation and perceived virtue.
As Lucy Sumner, Eliza’s closest friend, also attempts to persuade Eliza to shun Major Sanford’s advances she claims: “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.” If Eliza consents to a relationship with Sanford, no matter how innocent, she is likely to be sexually corrupted in the eyes of society simply for associating with him. Reverend Boyer, on the other hand, is man of high morals and standards and thus will be a better match for Eliza. Lucy assures Eliza that “Mr. Boyer’s honor and good sense will never abridge any privileges which virtue can claim.” Unlike Major Sanford, Eliza’s association with Reverend Boyer does not adversely impact her reputation or perceived moral standing.
Eliza, however, has a different understanding of virtue that runs counter to the generally accepted definition. While broader society views sexual purity and virtue as one and the same, Eliza’s definition is more inclusive. After Mrs. Richman warns Eliza of Sanford’s inappropriate ways, Eliza responds, “But I despise those contracted ideas which confine virtue to a cell. I have no notion of becoming a recluse.” Eliza criticizes the way that society defines virtue narrowly—or “confine[s] virtue to a cell”—because virtue can’t be pinned down to just one thing. She already considers herself a good and righteous woman, and she doesn’t believe that enjoying the company of Sanford or any other man should suggest otherwise. Although she is aware that Reverend Boyer’s life as a preacher makes him a more agreeable match in the eyes of her friends and society, she can’t help but find Sanford’s comparably exciting life as a man of wealth and experience more enticing. “What a pity,” Eliza tells Lucy, “that the graces and virtues are not often united! They must, however, meet in the man of my choice.” Politeness is an important part of virtue, too—not just chastity. As Eliza continues to defend her affection for Sanford, she tells Lucy that “some of our old dons think him rather licentious; yet, for ought I can see, he is as strict an observer of decorum, as the best of them.” By arguing that Sanford is in keeping with “decorum”—which means behavior that is proper and respectable—Eliza further emphasizes that Sanford is virtuous in many ways, even if he is a womanizer.
Sanford’s intentions toward Eliza are neither honorable nor virtuous, and he ultimately leaves her pregnant and utterly alone, but not before Reverend Boyer accuses her of being “apparently inattentive” to the “decent virtue” of “prudence.” Even Eliza’s closest friends are critical of her choices, and Julia Granby claims that “[her] blood thrills with horror at [Eliza’s] sacrifice of virtue.” When Eliza confides in Julia the delicate state Sanford has left her in, Julia is harsh and unforgiving in her response. “You are ruined,” she tells Eliza. “You have sacrificed your virtue to an abandoned, despicable profligate!”
Eliza later flees Connecticut, a disgrace and “reproach” to even her own friends and dies after giving birth to an illegitimate child at a roadside inn, but still her friends are shocked. “Happy would it have been,” Lucy says, “had [Eliza] exerted an equal degree of fortitude in repelling the first attacks upon her virtue!” Lucy later looks for the lesson in Eliza’s scandalous death and states, “I wish it engraved upon every heart, that virtue alone […] can secure lasting felicity.” Of course, “virtue alone” could not bring Eliza happiness, and Foster implies that Eliza’s attraction to Sanford is not enough evidence to render her immoral. Instead, it is those with the greatest claim to virtue, namely Reverend Boyer and Eliza’s self-righteous friends, who are lacking in morality, as seen through their harsh treatment of Eliza in her greatest time of need. In this vein, Foster implies that compassion and understanding are equally important in defining virtue and wholly absent in society’s treatment of Eliza.
Sex and Virtue ThemeTracker
Sex and Virtue 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.
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 first saw [Miss Eliza Wharton] on a party of pleasure at Mr. Frazier’s where we walked, talked, sung, and danced together. I thought her cousin watched her with a jealous eye; for she is, you must know, a prude; and immaculate, more so than you or I must be the man who claims admission to her society. But I fancy this young lady is a coquette; and if so, I shall avenge my sex, by retaliating the mischiefs, she meditates against us. Not that I have any ill designs; but only to play off her own artillery, by using a little unmeaning gallantry. And let her beware of the consequences.
My friends were waiting for me in the parlor. They received me sociably, inquired after my health, my last evening’s entertainment, the company, &c. When, after a little pause, Mrs. Richman said, and how do you like Major Sanford, Eliza? Very well indeed, madam: I think him a finished gentleman. Will you, who are a connoisseur, allow him that title? No, my dear: in my opinion, he falls far below it; since he is deficient in one of the great essentials of the character, and that is, virtue. I am surprised, said I: but how has he incurred so severe a censure? By being a professed libertine; by having but too successfully practiced the arts of seduction; by triumphing in the destruction of innocence and the peace of families!
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.
I am quite a convert to Pope’s assertion, that “Every woman is, at heart, a rake.” How else can we account for the pleasure which they evidently receive from the society, the flattery, the caresses of men of that character? Even the most virtuous of them seem naturally prone to gaiety, to pleasure, and, I had almost said, to dissipation! How else shall we account for the existence of this disposition, in your favorite fair? It cannot be the result of her education. Such a one as she has received, is calculated to give her a very different turn of mind. You must forgive me, my friend, for I am a little vexed, and alarmed on your account.
I have not yet determined to seduce her, though, with all her pretensions to virtue, I do not think it impossible. And if I should, she can blame none but herself, since she knows my character, and has no reason to wonder if I act consistently with it. If she will play with a lion, let her beware of his paw, I say.
I look upon the vicious habits, and abandoned character of Major Sanford, to have more pernicious effects on society, than the perpetrations of the robber and the assassin. These, when detected, are rigidly punished by the laws of the land. If their lives be spared, they are shunned by society, and treated with every mark of disapprobation and contempt. But to the disgrace of humanity and virtue, the assassin of honor; the wretch, who breaks the peace of families, who robs virgin innocence of its charms, who triumphs over the ill placed confidence of the inexperienced, unsuspecting, and too credulous fair, is received, and caressed, not only by his own sex, to which he is a reproach, but even by ours, who have every conceivable reason to despise and avoid him. Influenced by these principles, I am neither ashamed nor afraid openly to avow my sentiments of this man, and my reasons for treating him with the most pointed neglect.
Many faults have been visible to me; over which my affection once drew a veil. That veil is now removed. And, acting the part of a disinterested friend, I shall mention some few of them with freedom. There is a levity in your manners, which is inconsistent with the solidity and decorum becoming a lady who has arrived to years of discretion. There is also an unwarrantable extravagance betrayed in your dress. Prudence and economy are such necessary, at least, such decent virtues, that they claim the attention of every female, whatever be her station or her property. To these virtues you are apparently inattentive. Too large a portion of your time is devoted to the adorning of your person.
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.
Should it please God to spare and restore me to health, I shall return, and endeavor, by a life of penitence and rectitude, to expiate my past offences. But should I be called from this scene of action; and leave behind me a helpless babe, the innocent sufferer of its mother’s shame, Oh, Julia, let your friendship for me extend to the little stranger! Intercede with my mother to take it under her protection; and transfer to it all her affection for me; to train it up in the ways of piety and virtue, that it may compensate her for the afflictions which I have occasioned!
[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.
I foresee, my dear Mrs. Sumner, that this disastrous affair will suspend your enjoyments, as it has mine. But what are our feelings, compared with the pangs which rend a parent’s heart? This parent, I here behold, inhumanly stripped of the best solace of her declining years, by the ensnaring machinations of a profligate debauchee! 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 shall call it lust and brutality!
How sincerely I sympathize with the bereaved parent of the dear, deceased Eliza, I can feel, but have not power to express. Let it be her consolation, that her child is at rest. The resolution which carried this deluded wanderer thus far from her friends, and supported her through her various trials, is astonishing! Happy would it have been, had she exerted an equal degree of fortitude in repelling the first attacks upon her virtue! But she is no more; and heaven forbid that I should accuse or reproach her!
Upon your reflecting and steady mind, my dear Julia, I need not inculcate the lessons which may be drawn from this woe-fraught tale; but for the sake of my sex in general, I wish it engraved upon every heart, that virtue alone, independent of the trappings of wealth, the parade of equipage, and the adulation of gallantry, can secure lasting felicity. From the melancholy story of Eliza Wharton, let the American fair learn to reject with disdain every insinuation derogatory to their true dignity and honor. Let them despise, and for ever banish the man, who can glory in the seduction of innocence and the ruin of reputation. To associate, is to approve; to approve, is to be betrayed!