I believe I shall never again resume those airs, which you term coquettish, but which I think deserve a softer appellation; as they proceed from an innocent heart, and are the effusions of a youthful, and cheerful mind.
The text raises the question of whether Eliza is a coquette or not. Her friends and the men who watch her and desire/condemn her refer to her as one, but she denies the characterization. She concedes that she is vivacious and loves amusements and entertainments, but she does not harbor any manipulative or calculating thoughts. While she seems to be a coquette to Major Sanford, she is only exhibiting her true love of social life. She seems to be a coquette to Mr. Boyer as well, but only because she has dared to flout the societal expectation that she marry a willing, sober-minded gentleman rather than indulge in her freedom. To call Eliza coquettish, then, is only accurate in the sense that as a woman she tried to make up her own mind and as a result was censured by patriarchal society.
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.
Friendship is just as important as marriage in the novel. Lacking intimate relationships with her parents, and not yet married, Eliza relies on her friends for counsel, solace, and entertainment. She is very aware that friendships grow and evolve though, as members of the circle of once-young and single women get engaged, marry, and have children. Eliza feels these losses acutely, mourning as much for them as for her own disastrous circumstances. This novel ably represents the complexities of friendship, especially as Eliza's friends often seem more condescending or judgmental than caring or understanding. That no doubt derives from both individual personality quirks, as well as society's molding of young women to value virtue above all else and seek to rout out immoralities in themselves and others.
In regard to these men, my fancy and my judgment are in scales. Sometimes one preponderates, sometimes the other. Which will finally outweigh, time alone can reveal.
For the first part of the novel Eliza cannot decide between reason and emotion. She does not particularly want to marry, and if she does, she would like to elevate her social status and to find someone who engages her fully. She knows Mr. Boyer is a wise choice since he is forthright, in her social class, a clergyman, and open about his devotion to her, but she cannot help but gravitate to the handsome, wealthy, and charming Major Sanford. Furthermore, Eliza and the Major share a great deal more in common. Their relationship is nevertheless dangerous, as his letters to Charles reveal that while he is also attracted to Eliza, he is deliberately leading her on regarding his intentions. Modern readers may sympathize with Eliza's desire to wed later and with someone she desires, yet groan in recognition and worry that she clearly yearns for someone with less-than-honorable intentions. As a result, the book creates not only a complex, but also relatable, reading experience.
They think to enjoy the pleasures which result from this source; while their vanity and ignorance prompt each one to imagine herself superior to delusion; and to anticipate the honor of reclaiming the libertine, and reforming the rake!
Foster's insights into the mind of Major Sanford provide a calculated addition to the traditional tale of woman-corrupted. She does this in order to cast a more sympathetic light on Eliza, who does not appear so much a coquette or a stupid and ignorant woman but a victim of a more powerful man's calculations, lies, and flattery. She is still held to account for her decisions, and cannot be let off the hook for her vanity and lack of self-awareness, but by demonstrating that Major Sanford, in fact, is the truly immoral one, she asks her readers to challenge their assumptions about who to blame for Eliza's death.
Besides, when I thought more seriously, his liberal fortune was 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.
Eliza spends a great deal of time discussing the merits and detractions of her two suitors. While she often focuses on the Major's charm and wit, she only rarely airs her feelings about his money. Nevertheless, his money is one of the main reasons she is attracted to him - she desires to leap a social class, joining the ranks of the Richmans and the Sumners. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, especially as her frankness here about wanting to live a life devoid of privation and rationing is very sympathetic. However, at the time of Foster's writing Eliza's aims were associated with the luxe-loving British Empire, which America had just broken away from. This makes the novel a moralizing tale in terms of suggesting young women should be satisfied with their current social class, and pursue a more frugal and appropriate lifestyle.
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.
In this long quote Mr. Boyer goes beyond criticizing Elisa for betraying their quasi-engagement and relays his disapprobation of her manners, dress, and behavior. The condescending and paternalistic tone is evident, but the passage is also interesting for its irony. Mr. Boyer and Eliza's other admirers touted these characteristics as components of her charm, but here they are framed as detrimental to her virtue. It is fair for Mr. Boyer to be wounded by her actions, but his words are carping and obnoxious. He ends up sounding like the hypocritical complaints about women in general that come from 18th-century men when they do not see women behaving in a way that conforms with their expectations.
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.
Like Mr. Boyer's strongly paternalistic comments to Eliza in the previous quote, Lucy's words here on the subject of the circus sound disconcerting to modern readers. Her views on women deviating from traditional gender norms are just as harsh as those uttered by men. They reinforce the reality that patriarchy is so incredibly entrenched in 18th-century America that even women themselves buy into the codes of conduct they are forced to adhere to.
Writing is not so agreeable to me as it used to be. I love my friends as well as ever; but I think they must be weary of the gloom and dulness which pervades my present correspondence. When my pen shall have regained its original fluency and alertness, I will resume and prolong the pleasing task.
In this quote Eliza's depression becomes very clear - it is so bad that she cannot even write anymore. For the entire novel thus far, Eliza has expressed herself through writing. She has pored herself into her letters, detailing her thoughts, feelings, and actions. She has dutifully and diligently written and formed her identity in her epistles. That fact that her letters become less frequent, lengthy, and voluble are a stark indication that she is wasting away, becoming a shell of her former self. She claims her bloom is lessening as she becomes older and sadder, but her loss of writing is even more problematic. That she leaves many scraps of paper at the end of her life implies that she has actually come to terms with her choices, but as of the writing of this quote, that reconciliation is still a ways off.
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.
One of the most famous quotes of the novel summarizes the pressures women like Eliza felt in late 18th-century America. Spoken by Lucy but representative of almost everyone's opinion, male or female, young or old, it articulates the main value women had - their virtue. Their virtue was to be guarded, celebrated, and relinquished only in the confines of marriage. They were watched and judged for any lapse in virtuous behavior, whereas men, who were rarely privy to the vicissitudes of reputation, were free to "make mistakes" and do with women as they pleased. Young women were supposed to navigate a very fine line - attractive and flirtatious, but never suspected as unvirtuous.
LET CANDOR THROW A VEIL OVER HER FRAILTIES, FOR GREAT WAS HER CHARITY TO OTHERS. SHE SUSTAINED THE LAST PAINFUL SCENE, FAR FROM EVERY FRIEND; AND EXHIBITED AN EXAMPLE OF CALM RESIGNATION.
The tombstone for Eliza is full of kind sentiments, but resonates differently with Foster's contemporary readers versus modern readers. Contemporary readers would have been pleased Eliza was seemingly full of repentance, but seen her story as a morality tale about the need to protect female virtue. They may have sympathized with Eliza - especially in Foster's telling as opposed to the newspaper articles about Elizabeth Whitman, the woman upon whom Eliza was based - but only a modicum. Modern viewers, especially those inclined toward feminist critique, see the story as a sad tale in which Eliza is the everywoman, the representative of how all women who live in strictly patriarchal societies have very limited freedom and are often punished by their society for attempting to deviate from gender norms. The celebration of Eliza's "calm resignation" is cold comfort to modern readers, who wonder why exactly wanting to wait for an ideal marriage, choose a suitable partner, and enjoy flirting and taking a lover are all so terrible.
The Coquette Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Coquette is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.