Symbols, Society and the Individual

Discussion - Hannah Foster - The Coquette

Fain would he strew life's thorny way with flowers,
And open to your view Elysium bowers.
Catch the warm passions of tender youth,
And win the mind to sentiment and truth
- William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy
Trust not a man, they are by nature cruel,
false, deceitful, treacherous, and inconstant.
When a man talks of love, with caution hear him;
But if he swear, he'll certainly deceive you."
- Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (87)
I know the right, and I approve it too;
I know the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue!
- Hanna W. Foster, The Coquette (88)

William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791), and Hannah Foster's The Coquette, are all examples of American novels concerned with sentiment, seduction and sorrow. The Coquette is perhaps the most haunting because it draws its fiction from truth. The fictional correspondence, which Hannah Foster creates as the underpinning for the only loosely concealed truth of The Coquette, recalls Samuel Richardson's highly influential novel Pamela. However, unlike for Pamela, there is no reward but death for Eliza Wharton, the sadly ill-fated heroine of Foster's novel. Pamela is able to find voice and virtue through her writing, she is set free from the tyrannical domination of Mr. B. by her honest letters and journal entries. On the other hand Eliza is unable to find personal power in her letters. Her honest sentiments are frowned on by friends, and her speech seems to gain her little control over her suitors. Eliza states an honest desire to lead a life of exploration and experience, however, her free- minded ideals do not suit her social situation. Eliza wishes to please her mother and friends by following their advice, but she finds this task quite difficult. For example Eliza's response to Mrs. Wharton's handling of her visit form Major Sanford causes Eliza to waver as whether or not to always follow her mother's advice:

I knew the motive by which she was actuated, and was vexed at her evasions. I told her plainly, that she would never carry her point in this way; that I thought myself capable of conducting my own affairs; and wished her not to interfere, except by her advice, which I should always listen to, and comply with when I could possibly make it consistent with my inclination and interest (89).
Thus how can Eliza, who is forced into disagreeable social roles and situations, escape her unsatisfactory, socially constrictive life in any other way then death? Perhaps some feminist theories might help to enhance our examination of Foster's intentions for Eliza Wharton and her role of limited power in The Coquette.

French feminists of the 1970's and 1980's focused on the function of language. They determined language to be a patriarchal stricture, which presented men as having the qualities of light and knowledge, and woman as pale reflections of these male attributes. They used the psychoanalytic philosophies of Jacques Lacan to emphasis the fact that language inhabits the public realm, a sphere where women, especially of Foster's time, were not allowed. One of the psychological arguments is that children begin to understand language just as they begin to realize that they are a separate entity from their mother. And this language teaches these children to perceive their experiences from the view point of the masculine dominated culture. Mrs. RichmanÕs description of her time spent with her young baby girl, Harriot, describes perfectly the function of the mother, and her the superiority of her domestic, instead of public, importance: How natural, and how easy the transition from one stage of life to another! Not long since I was a gay, volatile girl; seeking satisfaction in fashionable circles and amusements; but now I am thoroughly domesticated. All my happiness is centered within the limits of my own walls; and I grudge every moment that calls me from the pleasing scenes of domestic life. Not that I am so selfish as to exclude my friends from affection or society. I feel interested in their concerns, and enjoy their company. I must own, however, that conjugal and parental love are the main springs of my life. ...There are many nameless attentions which nothing short of maternal tenderness, and solicitude can pay; and for which the enduring smiles, and progressive improvements of the lovely babe are an ample reward. (97) However, for Eliza these life "transition[s]" are neither "easy" nor "natural." She struggles to come to terms with the role of wife and mother, which to be considered a truly happy woman by her society, she must fulfill. Eliza desires to still be a part of the public sphere, while at the same time she wants the happiness her friend Lucy Sumner and her cousin Mrs. Richman have found in matrimony; if only the matrimonial state was not so restrictive she might have been able to find both. On discovering Eliza's age at the close of the novel the reader becomes even more aware of Eliza's struggle, and the reader's sympathy turns almost to pity. The reader pities Eliza because her wishes have been so misunderstood, and there appears to be no appropriate place for her within the confines of the society she desires to happily inhabit.

Hannah Foster appears not to be presenting her reader's with a conduct book intended to frighten young ladies into their corseted social role, but rather to encourage her readers to examine the limited possibilities which surround her heroine. Foster's use of the epistolary from, a form which inhabits the public realm, helps to emphasis Eliza's inability to fulfill her societal role. Near the close of the novel, as she is slowly slipping away from her society, she becomes unable to continue with prolific letter writing to friends. And her last public action she makes her society is to write two explanatory letters to her mother and Julia Grandby. Her death occurs after she has relinquished all connections with the society she to which she finally realizes she cannot conform. Only Eliza's memory is left for her friends and family. These friends wish to "Let Candor throw a veil over her frailties," and to remember her for her stoic qualities; she becomes almost a martyr instead of a imprudent coquette.

Questions which might help all of you and me to make sense out of what I have written above are:

1.) Why is the text written in epistolary from? Why not straight dialogue instead? How does the use of the letter help to emphasis the public sphere, and Eliza's inability to conform to the rules and regulations of this sphere? Perhaps looking at some specific letters might help to examine Eliza's writing style compared with that of her female friends, for example comparing Letter XLI to Letter XLIII.

2.) What light can feminist criticism shed on Foster and her society? This is not to say that I believe that Foster necessarily had "feminist" motives, especially not in the sense descried above in my explanation of French feminist theory of the '70's and early 80's. We might also branch out into the theories of the American and British feminine theorists of the same peroid. And considering further the historical situation of women through the Davidson article.

3.) I also believe it would be very interesting to consider the role which the "Humble Stone" plays at the close of the novel. Why does Foster feel it necessary to add such a strikingly morbid detail to an already gruesome and somber closure.

4.) This last question might not be very useful for discussion , but I am still curious and it would help me have a clearer personal understanding by hearing all of your explanations for why Eliza is finally seduced by Major Sanford. I realize this is probably not a very insightful question, but there was a point near the end of the novel where I could not help but wonder if she gave up her societal ties before or after her affair with Major Sanford. I mean to say, did she truly believe it possible that something happy and exceptable to all her friend and family might develop from her relations with this man?