The Coquette

The Coquette Summary and Analysis of XX-XXXVI


Eliza writes to her mother, saying she thinks it can be confusing to hear from so many people but a mother always provides "disinterested affection" (39). She desperately wants her mother's advice. She does not want to enter the life of a clergyman's wife; there seem to be other lives that may be more to her taste.  

Her mother writes her back, opening with how much she misses her. As a widow, watching over her children has given her satisfaction. She tells her daughter that clergymen make fine husbands and are respected by all. She urges Eliza to remain upright and fortitudinous.  

Mr. Boyer writes to Eliza about how he can only think of her, even as he begins his new profession. In particular, he thinks of their conversation and hopes to continue to retain her favor. He says his friend, Mr. Selby, will deliver the letter and can continue their conversation by bringing a letter from her.  

Mr. Selby writes back to Mr. Boyer that he was charmed by Eliza. He found her form and her face pleasing, and that she is both dignified and easy. She seemed pleased with the letter. A Major Sanford was already there, along with Mr. Laurence and his daughter. Mr. Selby observed how he seemed very attentive to their conversation, but tried to look careless. The conversation turned to politics, and Major Sanford and Miss Laurence remained quiet. Eliza and Mrs. Richman expressed their opinion that women "think ourselves interested in the welfare and prosperity of our country; and, consequently, claim the right of inquiring into those affairs" (44). He was invited to dinner that evening by Mr. Richman.  

He continues, saying that the next morning he was riding to the dinner and came upon Major Sanford and Eliza on horseback. They seemed disconcerted. The Major left, and Eliza and Mr. Selby went to the Richmans' house. He asked about her encounter and she explained that she had gone on a ride with Miss Laurence and the Major came to them. They made plans to go to the assembly that evening. Mr. Selby is still impressed with Eliza's wit, reading and knowledge, and manners. He will be at the assembly too, though he did not mention it to Eliza at the time.  

Eliza writes to the Reverend Boyer that she enjoys their letter writing, and does not think there is any reason for critics to satirize or censure it between the sexes. She prefers not to say anything about the specific subject he mentioned. She thanks him for talking about a poet, and says she enjoyed meeting Mr. Selby.  

Eliza then writes to Lucy, begging her for advice about Major Sanford. She explains how Major Sanford watched the transaction of Boyer's letter to her, and appeared pensive. She and Miss Laurence agreed to ride and the Major came to them unbidden. He showed her much attention, which frustrated Miss Laurence. He heard she was going to the assembly with Mr. Gordon and asked if he could go with her. The other girl left and he asked her if they could talk. He then confessed his jealousy and suspense. He hoped she would not listen to what her friends said about him, and asked if she truly planned to marry Boyer. He asked for her favor. This was when they encountered Mr. Selby.

Later, Mrs. Richman gave more advice to her about avoiding Major Sanford. She said she might not know about his present conduct but his past had sealed his reputation. Eliza wondered if he could be reformed but Mrs. Richman asked why a lady would stake her life on the slender possibility of reformation. She said to Lucy that she was confused and that "in regard to these men, my fancy and my judgment are in scales" (51), with one sometimes outweighing the others. She then recounted how it was time to attend the assembly, and that Mr. Selby was there. She found the Major very bold that night, insisting on finding out if she cared for Mr. Boyer. He asked if he could visit her often but she said no because he was not welcome, but he urged her not to think about what her friends thought. She ends her letter by ruminating on the Major's manner, temper, and fortune, and wonders if the old adage of "a reformed rake makes the best husband" might be true. She knows she is too wild for traditional domestic pleasures and does not want to enter those with Mr. Boyer even though he is agreeable. She wishes he and the Major were combined somehow, and then she would be happy.  

Mr. Selby writes to Mr. Boyer, opening his letter with the assertion that "Every woman is, at heart, a rake" (53). He rues how even the most virtuous can be dissipated and inappropriate. He is upset on his friend's account, for he observed Eliza at the assembly (which was his goal, in order to be a good friend), and saw how the whole room buzzed about them. He could not get a minute with her, as the lothario was attached to her at the hip. He wonders why if she is attached to Boyer she associates with that man. He hopes his friend will not be made a dupe of a coquette. Maybe Eliza does posses virtue and good sense, but her current behavior mystifies him.  

Major Sanford writes to his friend Charles Deighton, exclaiming how even though Eliza's friends speak ill of him, he is triumphing. He knows all women love the pleasures of flirtation, think themselves above delusion, and believe they can "[reclaim] the libertine" (55). He is attached to her though, and annoyed at his lack of clear-cut success. He plans to overcome this failure, and feels quite vengeful at the moment. He is not sure if he should try to seduce her, but assumes she would succumb. This would be her fault, he says, since she is aware of his character.  

Lucy writes to Eliza and warns her that the Major has never said one thing about marriage. Thinking a rake can reform is a dangerous idea. Furthermore, why would she want to align herself with this man? He will never respect her and will always be prone to jealousy. They may seem charming but they are hard-hearted and cruel. She warns Eliza that the Major's charms are misleading and superficial. She should not allow herself to be "wounded by the frothy and illiberal sallies of licentious wit" (58). She ends by saying she saw Eliza's mother, who wishes to see her, and that she – Lucy –is getting ready for her own nuptials.  

Eliza writes back to Lucy and says she has decided to be with Mr. Boyer. She spoke with Major Sanford and said that she appreciated his attention but that their connection should cease. He was full of protestation and despair, and eventually left. She admitted that she was attracted to his fortune because she never had much. She also tells Lucy how Miss Laurence called on her and asked her if she knew that the Major had left. Eliza did not. The other girl also told Eliza that he had bought property near her home – the Captain Pribble estate. She ends her letter by saying Mr. Boyer wrote her again and wants to kiss her hand, and that she admires General Richman for how devoted he is to his wife and how he does not like to go places without her. Finally, a Mr. Emmons asked to come see her, and she said yes, for if she must give up these amusements soon she might as well enjoy herself.  

Lucy writes to Eliza of Major Sanford, who has taken up residence in the neighborhood. She does not wish to spend any time with him – she finds his character disreputable and his manners loathsome. She writes warmly to take up this cause important to her sex. She mentions that she saw Eliza's mother while riding, and they spoke briefly of the Major, who had tried to reach out to Mrs. Wharton.  

Sanford writes to Charles of how Eliza has banished him, but he intends to befriend her friends. He hopes to keep up his appearance of affluence until he marries rich.  

Eliza writes Lucy that she has been spending time with Mr. Boyer, who is ardent about getting married. She does not wish to discuss it as much, but has allowed him to escort her to see her mother and Lucy. Eliza writes Mrs. Richman that she has arrived home, and saw her brother and his wife as well as her mother and Lucy. The next day she saw people in her neighborhood, including the Major. The two men were coolly polite to each other. Eliza is assured she will stay steady because she has decided on Boyer. She laughingly muses that her mother might be a better fit for him if she were not a little older.  

General Richman writes to Eliza that his wife has delivered a daughter and he could not be more affectionate towards the child.  

Eliza writes to Mrs. Richman of how happy she is about the child. She also says Lucy married Mr. George Sumner yesterday. She calls them a charming couple but is melancholy because she knows their friendship will be affected. Mr. Boyer tried to speak to her on the same subject but she did not want to hear it then. A ball was held, and she happened to draw the Major as a partner and had a lot of fun with him. Mr. Boyer seemed upset though. She plans to accompany Lucy and her husband to Boston to stay for a month or two.  


Eliza spends the bulk of this section of letters vacillating between the two men. She compares the situation to weighing them on a scale, explaining in one of her letters that when one seemed to rise in her esteem the other would fall. It is Mr. Boyer, though that she remains the most ambivalent about. She writes that he is not disagreeable himself, but "his situation in life! I dare not enter it!" (39). She sees that "the idea of relinquishing those delightful amusements and flattering attentions, which wealth and equipage bestow, is painful" (53). There is little that excites her about marrying him, even when that is what she finally decides to do. As for Major Sanford, although she pretends to be offended by his impertinent advances, she is completely enamored: "This man, to an agreeable person has superadded, graceful manners, an amiable temper, and a fortune sufficient to ensure the enjoyments of all the pleading varieties of social life" (53).  

These reasons for favoring Major Sanford are very important. As critic Laura Korobkin has noted, most critics tend to celebrate Eliza for being a paragon of independence and individuality in her desire not to become ensnared in a marriage she does not want, but Korobkin seeks to offer more insight into the character of Eliza that places her in a slightly more negative light. Korobkin notes that the freedom Eliza seeks "is not self-sufficiency or even self-realization but self-indulgence and luxury, the banes of the old world rather than the potentials of the new." Indeed, the "social dissipation, luxuries, and class-based idleness" evinced or desired by Eliza are affiliated with Britain and used to justify the Revolution. Foster is suggesting that "if the new nation is to succeed... it must do a better job of weaning its most promising daughters away from corrupt aristocratic values."  

Eliza, described as volatile by multiple people, including herself, lacks the ability to analyze her motivations and her desires. She is "living for the moment of present pleasure; drawn towards superficial social activities and dispersing her energies in them; unwilling to keep a steady emotional focus on important issues long enough to make significant decisions or think her way toward real maturity." She lives for amusements and frivolous activities, and hopes marriage will be a continuation of them. This means she needs to marry someone of wealth, which is why she primarily gravitates to Major Sanford. She talks often of his ability to make her comfortable. As Sanford knows that "her desire for luxury is her dominant erotic motivator," he pretends to be rich. Foster is sympathetic to Eliza's desires up to a point, but seems to suggest that she has pushed them too far and cannot accept an adult life.  

In terms of the men Eliza finds herself caught between, their personalities develop in these chapters. Mr. Boyer comes across as rather bland and sanctimonious. In the next section of letters he becomes annoyed with Eliza for being so lively and enjoying herself in social activities. Then, of course, his letter breaking off their erstwhile engagement reeks of affectation and pseudo-holiness (more in the next section analysis). Major Sanford reveals a great deal of his character (or lack thereof) in his letters to Mr. Charles Deighton. He condemns women for being frivolous and flirtatious, and mocks them for thinking they can reform a libertine. He is prideful, annoyed that he cannot succeed with Eliza as he thinks he ought to. He states outright that he does not intend to marry her, but does not want her to marry Mr. Boyer either. He tells Charles he wants to sleep with her, and that if he succeeds it will be her fault for not understanding that if she "[plays] with a lion let her beware of his paw" (56). He plans to buy a house in her neighborhood and ingratiate himself with her friends, all the while searching for a rich woman to fool into marrying him.  

Clearly Foster intends to reverse the entrenched assumptions regarding the real woman Eliza Wharton is based off – Elizabeth Whitman – by showing that the man she was involved with was one of trickery, manipulation, and baseness. Scholar Cathy Davidson notes in her introduction to the novel, "the twelve letters that Sanford sends his friend, Charles Deighton... effectively [voice] the self-justifying evasions, the hypocrisy, and the overt misogyny of the seducer – all of which he skillfully conceals in his conversations with Eliza." Gender norms of the era unfortunately allowed for a man like Major Sanford, and justified his actions as a rake. Critic Kristie Hamilton notes, "Built into this masculine code is an automatic displacement of responsibility for one's actions that allows a man to practice deception without forethought or reflection." Readers should engage with the question of how much blame for Eliza's downfall should be placed on Eliza herself, Major Sanford, and the era in which she lived with its straitened-yet-in-flux gender roles and definitions of freedom.