The Coquette

Interpretation and criticism

The Coquette received a revival of critical attention during the late twentieth century. It is often praised for its intelligent portrayal of the contrast between individualism vs. social conformity and passion vs. reason. It has also been studied for its relationship to political ideologies of the early American republic and its portrayal of the emerging middle class.

Foster's tale has been read on the one hand as a “novel for providing a subversive message about the ways in which the lives of women even of the elite are subject to narrow cultural constraints” and, on the other hand, as an instructive novel that “comes down on the side of the ideology of Republican motherhood and the women’s sphere, a sphere that celebrated those women who with appropriate sentiment and rationality accepted their “place” in the world.[6] Foster’s epistolary narrative allows for the development of multiple points of view and for a variety of readings. Rather than being presented as a one-sided coquette, the development of Eliza’s character through her letter writing allows for a reading of Eliza as both “victim” and “transgressor” of society’s norms.[1]

Cathy N. Davidson argues that The Coquette is not merely a novel about the evils of sin and seduction, but rather “a remarkably detailed assessment of the marital possibilities facing late-eighteenth-century women of the middle or upper-middle classes.”[7] Davidson notes the centrality of Foster’s novel in “countering received ideas on women’s circumscribed power and authority,” positioning The Coquette as “an important voice in the debate on women’s role in the Republic.”[8] In her exploration of the early American novel, Davidson uses the contradictions between Foster’s novel and the moral accounts of Elizabeth Whitman’s death to explore the emergence of the early American sentimental novel:

Eliza Wharton sins and dies. Her death can convey the conservative moral that many critics of the time demanded. Yet the circumstances of that death seem designed to tease the reader into thought. It is in precisely these interstices—the distjunctions between the conventional and the radical readings of the plot – that the early American sentimental novel flourishes. It is in the irresolution of Eliza Wharton’s dilemma that the novel, as a genre, differentiates itself from the tract stories of Elizabeth Whitman in which the novel is grounded and which it ultimately transcends.[9]

In Redefining the Political Novel, Sharon M. Harris responds to Cathy Davidson's work by arguing that The Coquette can be understood as a political novel; she writes, “By recognizing and satirizing, first, the political systems that create women’s social realisms and, second, the language used to convey those systems to the broader culture, Foster exposes the sexist bases of the new nation’s political ideologies.”[10]

Countering Davidson and Harris, Thomas Joudrey has argued that the novel fortifies obedience to a patriarchal conception of marriage. In its sustained denigration of fancy and passion, The Coquette "deprives the imagined readers not merely of actualized resistance but also of the very mental capacities that perceive injury and formulate alternatives to their oppression."[11]

One aspect of The Coquette that has garnered significant critical attention is the role of female friendship within the text. In Perfecting Friendship: Politics and Affiliation in Early American Literature, Ivy Schweitzer discusses the “affective failures” of Eliza Wharton’s female friends[12] and argues that while Eliza can be understood as “the champion of an inclusive, even feminist ‘civic republicanism,’” her friends belong to “the female ‘chorus’ [that] presages the more rigid separation of the sexes and women’s exile from the social to the domestic sphere ushered in by liberalism.”[13] Claire C. Pettengill reads female friendship within The Coquette in terms of sisterhood, which she argues “[involved] a kind of support network that helped a woman establish her identity in opposition to both social and parental authority in an era where both were increasingly challenged.”[14] At the same time, Pettengill insists that the “emotional-disciplinary circuit that reinforces sisterhood is not operating at full (theoretical) capacity.”[15] That is, even though Eliza discusses her life with her friends, they do not fully reciprocate; instead, they respond primarily by criticizing her actions and warning her against further wrongdoing.[15] Pettengill ultimately arrives at the conclusion that “The novel’s bifurcated view of sisterhood, then, reveals some of the ways in which the new nation’s uneasiness over changing economic and social relations, in particular the tension between individual and group interests, spelled itself out in terms of the function of women.”[16]

Other critical studies of The Coquette include Dorothy Z. Baker’s work, which argues that “Eliza’s struggle to control her life begins with the struggle to control language, the language of society that dictates her identity and conscribes her life.”[17] Additionally, C. Leiren Mower makes the case that Eliza “reworks Lockean theories of labor and ownership as a means of authorizing proprietary control over her body’s commerce in the social marketplace. Instead of accepting her social and legal status as another’s personal property, Eliza publicly performs her dissent as visible evidence of the legitimacy of her proprietary claims.”[18]

In 1798, Foster published her second novel, The Boarding School, which was never reprinted and not nearly as popular as The Coquette.

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