The Coquette

The Coquette Summary and Analysis of LXV-LXXIV


Sanford exults that he has finally possessed Eliza completely (i.e., he has slept with her). He says it was a long siege and he had to try every trick possible, but he has succeeded. However, “a miraculous accident, has taken place, which must soon expose our amour” (140); it seems she is pregnant. His own wife just bore a child but it was dead. He does not care, though, and wants to be with his friends or Eliza. Julia is coming back, and he tells Charles how attractive she is but that she accepts no flirtation from him.  

Julia writes to Lucy in tremendous distress because she knows Eliza’s secret. She saw a man leaving the house very late. She confronted Eliza and she admitted it. Julia criticized her harshly for abandoning her virtue. Eliza, frail and wan, says she will most likely not be around longer, and asks for pity. Julia wonders what her poor mother would say, and burst into tears. Eliza was very affected, and said she was guilty and expected no mercy, but hoped to reconcile with her mother.  

The next morning Julia had breakfast with Mrs. Wharton, who asked Julia if she knew why Eliza was suffering so much of late, but Julia kept her friend’s secret for the time. The girls went out riding, and Julia asked Eliza how she could have been entranced by such a libertine. Eliza replied that it was because she was coquettish and lost Mr. Boyer, and believed foolishly that the Major's marriage would keep her safe. She wanted to renounce him but felt it was too late. Now she is full of grief and has a disordered mind. She added, “the little innocent I bear, will quickly disclose its mother’s shame!” (146). She hoped it will not live because of the shame and lack of parents. She said she had a plan, and Julia worried it might be to take her own life. Eliza said she would not do so, but she wanted to write her mother and go forward from there.  

Julia writes to Lucy again, wailing that Eliza is gone. She is forsaken and gone from her home. She recounts the tale of Eliza’s vanishing. Eliza went into the garden to meet Major Sanford, then went back upstairs. She was weighed down with depression, and told Julia it was all done and would be known tomorrow. Julia was confused, but still did not tell Mrs. Wharton when the older woman confessed her worries about what might be upsetting her daughter. At dinner Eliza was overwhelmed and fell to her mother’s feet, crying that she was a wretch and forfeited her mother’s love. Her mother implored that that could never happen and she forgave her. Eliza rushed out.  

Later Julia met with Eliza, and Eliza gave her two letters: one for Eliza’s mother, one for herself. They were not to be opened until tomorrow. Julia told Eliza that she forgave her and did not hold her guilty anymore, as her repentant tears blotted the guilt out. Eliza thanked her and said her heart was lightened.  

Later, though, Julia heard the rattling of a carriage and saw Eliza taken away. Aghast, she ran to see Eliza’s empty room, then told Mrs. Wharton. The woman was overcome, especially after she read the letter. They wondered where she might have fled. After two days they wrote to Major Sanford after hearing he was at home. He assured them Eliza was comfortable and taken care of. The women were mildly mollified but still tried to find her whereabouts.  

Eliza’s letter to her mother is full of apologies and explanations of her despair and regret. She says she cannot bear her mother’s sighs or the company of her reproachful friends. She cannot call on her mother’s pity but hopes for her forgiveness, especially as her internal distress is acute. She must leave her paternal roof and be at rest, trusting in God.  

Eliza’s letter to Julia says she is going away forever. If she is restored to health, perhaps she will come back and lead a life in which she “expiate[s] my past offenses” (156). If she dies and her child lives, she hopes her mother will raise it in an affectionate and pious manner. She also asks Julia to put in a good word for her with Mrs. Richman and Lucy Sumner. She thanks her for her love and affection, and implores her to remember her before she was corrupted.  

Major Sanford writes to Charles that he has finally secured the removal of his darling Eliza. He was a bit confused at her romantic notions and her sadness at leaving her mother. He is also distressed that she is so depressed, and hopes she will not die. He even wonders if he might not marry her if his wife, who hates him and plans to return to her father, divorces him. He likes this idea but is not sure he wants to marry a girl who could be seduced. He wishes he could have had both his passion and her virtue.  

He tells Charles he might have to move because everyone in the neighborhood is against him. He speaks of how harshly Eliza chastised him and told him how she was destroyed, but how she was also to blame because his character was obvious. He hopes to visit her and find her more agreeable.  

Julia writes to Lucy that the tragedy has reached its apotheosis. She first heard that Major Sanford was bankrupt and had to give up his property. He told Julia he did not know how Eliza was doing. A Boston paper, though, revealed to Julia the horrid truth – Eliza bore a child, it died, and then she died too. Julia was horrified that she died alone.  

Eliza’s brother went to the place – a small tavern – and found it comfortable and the people kind. Some of Eliza’s last scraps of writing were there, which revealed a calm mood. Julia also heard the Major was frantic. He had lost his property and his wife and was now impoverished. Julia railed against men like him, especially the one who took away her friend.  

Major Sanford writes to Charles that he is traumatized by Eliza’s death. He must flee the area but does not know how he can ever find happiness again. He feels his tremendous guilt and recoils at his past behavior.  

Lucy writes to Julia, sharing in her grief and hoping Mrs. Wharton finds consolation. She proclaims that only virtue alone has meaning. Julia writes to Mrs. Wharton of going to see where Eliza passed, and of the humble gravestone paid for by Mrs. Sumner by which to remember their friend.  


Eliza's sorry tale is over – she is completely lost, her terrible fate irreversible. There are many possible messages to take away from the end of the work. In its own day, it was read as a morality tale: Eliza more or less deserved her fate because she allowed her virtue to be corrupted. Now, however, we see it as an example of the limitations faced by young women in a patriarchal society. Foster's own intentions seem to fall somewhere in the middle. She was a product of her time, and no doubt saw some fault in Eliza's behavior, but she also had great sympathy for the woman upon which her tale was based (Elisabeth Whitman). She strove to flesh out the story and her characters, moving away from stereotypes and endeavoring to show that Eliza was not simply a silly, stupid coquette. Instead, she portrayed Eliza as a young woman who genuinely desired to make her own choices but was limited by society and beset upon by a complicated man (to say the least).  

Critic Heidi Johnson notes this complexity in the characters. "Wharton is virtuous but indecisive, Boyer is moderate but proud, and Sanford is calculating yet strangely sincere." She also notes, "the female voice comes through most clearly. The novel offers a rare chance for the fallen woman to explain herself... [Eliza] is sincere and intelligent, she knows her weaknesses and her strengths; she is human and stumbles only after her options have disappeared." The tomb erected for her at the end of the novel, as Claire C. Pettengill writes, "does rescue her from eternal infamy" and is a "witness to her virtues and her friends' enduring love, demonstrating that there is more than one way of seeing (and using) even the most conventional moral tale."  

One of the main reasons that Eliza has issues with her marriage options is social class, which many critics have identified as a main theme of the novel. Eliza is caught, as critic Kristie Hamilton writes, between the "competing appeals of the republican expectation of marrying within one's own socioeconomic class... and the opportunities for upward mobility in the late eighteenth-century, urban America." This was a difficult time period in which to be a middle-class woman searching for stability, as the country tried to mediate between order and freedom. Eliza is stuck, wondering if she should settle for Mr. Boyer or look upward to Major Sanford. Other issues complicate the situation further (e.g., how she feels about marriage, and how she feels about their personalities). Hamilton writes, "with the fluidity of class identification came the vulnerability of young men and women to a whole new spectrum of confidence games." This is why it is so problematic that Eliza is labeled a coquette, as the coquette was usually seen as despicable and depraved.  

Coquettes were associated with urban America, which was full of fashion, entertainment, and leisure. Hamilton argues that "a major achievement of Foster's novel is, therefore, that it dramatizes in all its complexity the conflict in the mind of her protagonist between republican virtue and the appeal of materialism in an urban context." Eliza is chastised for her behavior at the same time as she is encouraged in it. At different points both Lucy and Mrs. Richman tell her to go out and enjoy herself. However, the message from all of her confidantes and advisers is that she should be content with the station she was given. Eliza knows she should choose Boyer – and halfheartedly does – because he is at her level, but remains entranced by the possibilities of a union with Sanford. The marriages that succeed in the novel – the Sumners and the Richmans – are those in which the participants are from the same class. Eliza cannot help escaping the lures of the city and of possible affluence, which takes away some of the blame for her eventual demise. Hamilton ends her analysis by saying that the main question the novel poses is if American society can "find a way of resolving the conflict between necessity and desire, between ideology and experience, that will provide clearly defined and workable roles for women as well as men in a rapidly developing urban environment."  

One final thing to look at is the character of Sanford, who also suffers greatly. A question throughout the text is whether or not he loved Eliza, and by the end of the novel it seems clear that, in his own way, he did. He too is "punished" for his bad behavior, losing his wife, Eliza, money, and reputation. He is forced out of the neighborhood and left alone with his grief and guilt. It is possible that he could move on quickly to some other young woman in a far-off town, but for the time being, he seems truly affected by what happened to Eliza.