Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel, The Coquette, focuses on Eliza Wharton, a middle-class woman from Connecticut, as she navigates the patriarchal society of eighteenth-century America. The novel takes place in 1797, mere decades after America’s independence from Britain, but the role of women in the new nation has not been similarly liberated. Women have very little control over their fate and are typically confined to the domestic sphere, where they are valued for their role as wives and mothers. Nearly all the women in The Coquette fit this standard of womanhood, but Eliza grows resistant to this inevitable role and tries, in vain, to live a life of her own choosing. Eliza’s resistance leads to her eventual undoing, and her tragic death serves as a cautionary tale for women who step outside the predetermined path for women. However, through the portrayal of women and traditional gender roles in the late 1700s, Foster highlights the oppressive and patriarchal nature of early American society and advocates for increased freedom and autonomy for women in the new republic.
The ideal post-Revolutionary American woman is plainly established in the letters of Eliza’s suitors, which illustrate what men, and therefore broader society, expect from women: selflessness, poise, and graciousness. Reverend Boyer, one of two men who vie for Eliza’s romantic attention, initially describes Eliza as “a young lady whose elegant person, accomplished mind, and polished manner have been much celebrated.” Eliza is attractive and educated, and her “celebrated” and “polished manner” is a reference to the attention she gave Mr. Haly, the first man she was arranged to marry, during his illness and death. Eliza’s dedication and servitude make her the ideal woman in Boyer’s—and greater society’s—opinion. Clearly, Eliza’s engagement to Mr. Haly was not of her own choosing, but she nevertheless committed to him and dutifully behaved as an ideal woman should. Eliza is pursued by a second man, Peter Sanford, who describes her as “a young lady whose agreeable person, polished manners, and refined talents have rendered her the toast of the country.” Sanford’s description of Eliza is nearly identical to Boyer’s, and it also portrays her as a shining example of eighteenth-century womanhood, which hinges on impossibly high standards of beauty and sophistication and being “agreeable” to the service of men and family.
Just as Eliza initially conforms to the standards of ideal womanhood, the women in her life are likewise the picture of dedication and obedience. Eliza’s own mother, Mrs. Wharton, has been recently widowed, but her devotion to her children has “roused [her] from the lethargy of grief.” She finds solace in attending to her children’s “education and interests” and has, in turn, been “rewarded by their proficiency and duty.” As a woman, it is expected that Mrs. Wharton’s primary responsibility is to her family, even when facing her own emotions after the death of a spouse. After Eliza’s dearest friend, Lucy, is married to Mr. Sumner, Eliza relays the news to their shared friend, Julia Granby. Julia responds: “I am both pleased and instructed by the conduct of this amiable woman. As I always endeavored to imitate her discreet and modest behavior in a single state,” Julia continues, “so likewise shall I take her for a pattern should I ever enter a married life.” Like Eliza, Julia is not yet married, but views the “discreet and modest behavior” of Lucy and her marriage to Mr. Sumner as the standard of female behavior in society.
However, Eliza begins to resist the strict gender roles of early American society, which underscores her own desire for increased freedom and autonomy, as well as the oppression of women within the broader context of their patriarchal society. After Mr. Haly’s death, Eliza desires the “opportunity, unbiased by opinion, to gratify [her] natural disposition in a participation of those pleasures which youth and innocence afford.” In other words, now that Mr. Haly is dead, Eliza wants to have fun and date multiple men before settling down with a husband and family. Eliza is young and beautiful, and she wants the freedom to enjoy it. Of course, patriarchal society does not permit Eliza to behave this way, and her attempts to do so are met with scorn and criticism.
As Eliza vacillates between the respected Reverend Boyer and the libertine Peter Sanford, she becomes “besieged” by her own desires and society’s conflicting expectations. “Sometimes I think of becoming a predestinarian, and submitting implicitly to fate, without any exercise of free will,” Eliza says, “but, as mine seems to be a wayward one, I would counteract the operations of it, if possible.” Eliza knows that she is expected to marry a man like Boyer and be a devoted and boring wife, regardless of her personal preferences and feelings, but she longs for the choice to behave otherwise. The romantic advances of Major Sanford offer Eliza the opportunity to act on these desires and exercise some “free will.” Of course, Eliza doesn’t possess “free will” in the true sense of the word, and her tragic death is evidence of this. After Eliza’s actions leave her pregnant and unmarried, she banishes herself from society. Her resistance to traditional notions of womanhood have left her a public disgrace, and she ultimately dies alone after giving birth to a stillborn child. While Eliza’s choices undoubtedly lead to her demise, Foster also suggests that Eliza is at the mercy of a rigid and unforgiving patriarchal society, which has a heavy hand in guiding her actions. Through Eliza’s death—and that of her baby—Foster implies that patriarchal ideals are both unjust and dangerous, and it is in this way that she argues for increased freedom and autonomy for women in the new nation.
Women and Society ThemeTracker
Women and Society 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.
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.
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.
Miss Wharton and I, said Mrs. Richman, must beg leave to differ from you, madam. We think ourselves interested in the welfare and prosperity of our country; and, consequently, claim the right of inquiring into those affairs, which may conduce to, or interfere with the common weal. We shall not be called to the senate or the field to assert its privileges, and defend its rights, but we shall feel for the honor and safety of our friends and connections, who are thus employed. If the community flourish and enjoy health and freedom, shall we not share in the happy effects? if it be oppressed and disturbed, shall we not endure our proportion of the evil? Why then should the love of our country be a masculine passion only? Why should government, which involves the peace and order of the society, of which we are a part, be wholly excluded from our observation? Mrs. Laurence made some slight reply and waived the subject. The gentlemen applauded Mrs. Richman’s sentiments as truly Roman; and what was more, they said, truly republican.
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.
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.
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.
The circus is a place of fashionable resort of late, but not agreeable to me. I think it inconsistent with the delicacy of a lady, even to witness the indecorums, which are practised there; especially, when the performers of equestrian feats are of our own sex. To see a woman depart so far from the female character, as to assume the masculine habit and attitudes; and appear entirely indifferent, even to the externals of modesty, is truly disgusting, and ought not to be countenanced by our attendance, much less by our approbation.
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.
Indeed, I feared some immediate and fatal effect. I therefore seated myself beside her; and assuming an air of kindness, compose yourself, Eliza, said I; I repeat what I told you before, it is the purest friendship, which thus interests me in your concerns. This, under the direction of charity, induces me again to offer you my hand. Yet you have erred against knowledge and reason; against warning and counsel. You have forfeited the favor of your friends; and reluctant will be their forgiveness. I plead guilty, said she, to all your charges. From the general voice I expect no clemency. If I can make my peace with my mother, it is all I seek or wish on this side the grave.
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.
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!