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Published in 1797, Hannah Foster’s The Coquette proposals an imagined account of actual factional events and people. In this fictional rendering, Foster stays true to the key facts and events that transpired in the actual events. Similar to the real-life figure, Elizabeth Whitman, Foster’s heroine, Eliza Wharton, has a condonable affair, gives birth to a stillborn child, and dies soon after giving birth. Seduction novels are known for their climactic moment of the heroine’s inevitable sexual fall that marks the loss of female innocence, however, Eliza Wharton’s loss of innocence happens even before she has fallen into the sexual acts brought on by seduction.
Eliza’s refusal of the marriage proposal of a suitable suitor demonstrates her refusal to operate as a woman of the house who is confined by marriage. Foster portrays Eliza as an independent and strong-willed female protagonist who becomes torn by her desires of rebelling against the social norms of her society and becoming hostile to the aspect of marriage.
Eliza attempts to teeter between two critical stages of life, independence and wifehood, which results in her being in a precarious place in society. Eliza’s seduction by the radical ideas of freedom and independence and her desire for these revolutionary ideals are the flaws that lead her to her fall from grace.
Eliza challenges the female collective of the day who singings the praises of married life. The novel opens with the language of seduction, as Eliza declares: ‘An unusual sensation possesses my breast; a sensation, which I once thought could never pervade it on any occasion whatever.
It is pleasure; pleasure, my dear Lucy, on leaving my paternal roof!’ (5). This feeling of ‘pleasure’ that has enveloped Eliza, and that she experiences so fully, is directly linked to freedom. The novel begins with the death of Mr. Haly, Eliza’s fiancé, which, in turn, releases her from the constraints of an unwanted marriage which was only arranged to please her family and her dead father’s request. Having now been released from the shackles of matrimony, Eliza finds herself free not only from paternal authority, but also free from any form that male authority can manifest itself in her life at this moment. In the opening letter of the novel, Eliza announces her deep desire for an independent lifestyle: “Calm, placid, and serene; thoughtful of my duty, and benevolent to all around me, I wish for no other connection than that of friendship” (6). In this way Eliza is putting into question the notion that marriage is every woman’s desire. She attaches her hope for “no other connection than that of friendship” to duty by claiming that she has performed according to her father’s wishes to become engaged to Haly.
In addition to Eliza, every other female character in Foster’s text is defined in relation to the marriage market. These female characters enact the female circulation that is necessary for the society to succeed. But Eliza Wharton counters this ideology and disrupts this circulation by desiring an independent life away from the constraints of marriage. After some time of reintegrating into the society as an unmarried and single lady, Eliza is again pressured into seeking a suitable husband. Eliza is presented with two possible suitors: Mr. Boyer and Major Sanford. Mrs. Richman, Eliza’s happily married friend, tells her: “Your friends, my dear, solicitous for your welfare, wish to see you suitably and agreeably connected” (24) to her new suitor, Reverend Boyer. Her best friend, Lucy, informs Eliza that “[Boyer’s] situation in life is, perhaps, as elevated as you have a right to claim” (27), however, Eliza hesitates and deliberates. Unsure about becoming a wife, she attempts to prolong her status as daughter. Eliza states, “I do not intend to give my hand to any man at present. I have but lately entered society; and wish, for a while, to enjoy my freedom, in the participation of pleasures, suited to my age and sex’ (50). Eliza puts off Mr. Boyer’s frequent requests for an engagement. Eliza wishes to prolong her premarital state. Eliza does not only refuse due to the machinations of the deceitful antagonist Sanford, but because she is aware that as soon as she gives her hand in marriage then she will seize to have the free single life. Eliza believes that the life of a married lady is far smaller then that of one who is single. She knows that she will relinquish her freedom and her power once she a wife, so she attempts to avoid the marriage market.
Eliza chooses not to reject society’s notions of marriage because she desires to be a subject rather than an object and sees marriage as a binding contract. Eliza states to Lucy that “Marriage is the tomb of friendship.” (24) implying that when someone is confined to the marriage contract they are regulated by the will of the husband and have no free will to go out and make more friendships or keep up the relationships that they once had. Eliza sees friendship as a considerable part of everyday life and does not with for meaningful friendships to die away. These feelings against marriage are seen radical by her close circle causing them to become worried as they think she is being too naive. Eliza believes that once you are married you lose who you are as a person, you forget your friends because you are too busy with your new life. When Eliza relates marriage a tomb, she firmly believes that friendships will die after marriage and that the bonding contract of marriage will hinder her from having the same type of friendships that she once had. Eliza was going to be married but after her fiancé’s death she felt liberated. With this renewed freedom she wished to live her own way, the way of a coquette. She did not want to hurry back into the marriage market but choose to relish in the freedom that she now had. She took her time to ensure that the man she would marry would be worth it, but she also wanted to maintain her freedom and see and do what she wished. Eliza’s desire for freedom made her view marriage as a prison which, in turn, lead to her wishing to pursue all things that were not marriage and created a mindset against society and the norms that it presented to her.
Eliza’s desire for freedom above all else leads her to go against the thoughtful advice of her family and friends regarding her relationships. It could be noted that Eliza’s friends and family’s attempts to hinder Eliza’s relationship with Major Sanford was somewhat lackluster and they could have been more proactive in their attempts; however; any attempts, no matter how large, may not have been successful in swaying Eliza’s mind. Eliza’s desire for a freedom of will and choice leads her to have a personality that wishes to break the rules and norms of the society and go in the complete opposite direction. This mindset is what leads her to pursue the one person that everyone in her circle is advising her against. Eliza’s continual rejection of Mr. Boyer is not due to her lack of interest in him, as she notes that he is a very virtuous man but is due to the fact that she had become too charmed by the notion of freedom and free will that she was blinded from seeing the virtues of Mr. Boyer and the many faults of Major Sanford. This attraction towards what society deems unvirtuous, and the ignoring of the many opinions against the matter is what leads Eliza towards the impending destruction of her reputation. Even after Eliza is rejected by Mr. Boyer, he still continues to urge her to not pursue any further relationships with Major Sanford. He does this, not out of jealousy, but because he sincerely wishes for Eliza’s well-being and he knows that any relations with Major Sanford will lead to disaster. However, even with the advice that she has received, Eliza ignores them all and chooses the dangerous path that eventually leads to the destruction of her reputation. Eliza consciously chooses to exert her freedom and free will by ignoring the advice of her family, friends, and Mr. Boyer and to go against everything they and society tell her.
Freedom and free are a predominant theme in The Coquette as it relates to Eliza and her friends. This relation forms contrasting viewpoints between Eliza and her acquaintances and illustrates the growing desires for rebellion against the society’s norms. Eliza’s resistance to marriage disrupts the perceived views of society and threats the views of others. Eliza’s refusal of the marriage proposal of a suitable suitor demonstrates her refusal to operate as a woman of the house who is confined by marriage and is an effort at self-government. Eliza desires for her life to be ruled by no one other than herself and rejects marriage and the confinement that she sees in it. Eliza’s desire for individuality and freedom alienates her from the more virtuous Mr. Boyer. She becomes torn by her desires of rebelling against the social norms of her society and becoming hostile to the aspect of marriage. Eliza’s need for independence instead of married life, is the true cause of her ruin. Eliza is a strong-willed individual who attempts to teeter between independence and wifehood, which leads her to seek to deviate from the will meaning advice of friends and family and fall into the trap of a malicious man who seeks for the destruction of her reputation.
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