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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 na?vet?.
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.
Coontz, 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.
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