The Coquette

The Coquette Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What does the novel say about gender roles in the 18th century?

    Gender roles are very fixed in the 18th century. Both genders are supposed to act a certain way, think a certain way, and make certain choices. While this situation can be limiting for both, women obviously suffer more. They are heavily circumscribed, risking the censure of their whole community if they deviate. They have to walk insanely fine lines when it comes to being attractive to men and not being coquettish. They are limited to worth based only on their looks and their manners, and they are to see their fate as a wife and mother.

  2. 2

    Is Eliza solely to blame for her downfall?

    Eliza certainly bears some of the blame for her downfall. She is a bit frivolous and lacks self-awareness, and does indeed lead Mr. Boyer on to an extent. She also is somewhat of a social climber, which is perhaps not inherently bad but fraught with peril and near-certain failure. However, Eliza is also a victim of Major Sanford's lies and traps as well as the constraints of her own society. Sanford misleads her on purpose, and thus Eliza does not have all the information she needs to make her choices. Society itself is also uninterested in allowing young women too much freedom or autonomy, and Eliza's initial unwillingness to accept this leads her into unfortunate situations.

  3. 3

    Is Eliza actually a coquette?

    As much as she is referred to as coquette by people in her social circle, Eliza does not exactly fit the definition of one. To be sure, she enjoys the social amusements of her day, and likes being admired and courted. She does appear to keep two men besotted with her, holding off on marriage to the respectable one because she of her entrancement with the more charming and lecherous one. However, Eliza is really trying to make a wise decision about the man with whom she will spend the rest of her days. This is not coquettishness as much as pragmatism.

  4. 4

    How does the novel reflect and deviate from the true story of Elizabeth Whitman?

    The story of Elizabeth Whitman as detailed in the newspapers of the time focused on how she was a charming and beautiful woman from a good family who ended up seduced and alone in a tavern. As the story became more popular, she in turn became the archetypal Fallen Woman, whose character/virtue was irrevocably lost. People spoke of how she was a voracious novel-reader, which corrupted her morals, and painted her as pathetic and pitiful. Foster takes this story and gives her Elizabeth – Eliza – more nuance. Eliza is smart enough to assess her suitors as well as her thoughts on marriage. She might get bogged down in uncertainty, but it is understandable. Foster also seeks to show how Major Sanford lied to her. In her introduction to the novel, Cathy Davidson writes, “Foster transforms this reductionist account of Elizabeth's anti-clericism and social climbing and looks at Eliza's determination to make her marriage an egalitarian match based on mutual affection.”

  5. 5

    What does the novel say about motherhood?

    For a novel about women's issues in 18th-century America, the story does not explicitly convey much about motherhood. Of course, the novel assumes that a young woman's sole role in life is to marry and then bear children, but there are few instances of actual motherhood in the text. Per her station in life, Mrs. Richman bears a child, but sadly her role as mother is short-lived. The other conspicuous mother in the text is Mrs. Wharton, and with her Foster conveys one of the few messages about motherhood: mothers should not allow their daughters too much freedom, or refrain from offering them stern advice, because young women may become like Eliza. Mrs. Wharton is too concerned with her own affairs and too anxious and oblivious to offer Eliza any real counsel. Perhaps if she had been more involved, Eliza would have better conducted herself.

  6. 6

    What does the novel say about 18th-century America?

    Although Foster does not specifically mention historical or political events, they lurk under the surface. If the characters represent America in its immediate post-revolutionary phase, they indicate that the new country is having a difficult time mediating between freedom and tradition. There are concerns about the desire to move between social classes and the appropriateness of trying to live a comfortable, luxurious life. Finally, the new nation appears very concerned with gender roles as the basis of stability. Critic Sharon M. Harris 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.”

  7. 7

    Does Sanford actually love Eliza?

    One critic calls Sanford "schizophrenic" in his letters ranging from criticizing women to pining after them to gleefully acknowledging a lack of conscience. However by Sanford's last letter, it becomes clear that in his own way he truly did love Eliza. He always maintained he was attracted to her, but such attraction seemed like a game until she actually perished. Then the tenor of his letter changed. He writes that he is "undone" (164), that "I must feel the disgraceful, and torturing effects of my guilt in seducing her" (165), and "I recoil from horror from the black catalogue of vices, which have stained my past life" (166). Sanford finally feels the weight of his past sins and the loss of Eliza, and it seems clear that somewhere deep down, he did indeed love her.