One of the main themes that emerge in Hannah Foster’s book The Coquette is the freedom of a woman in the post-independent American society. The common woman in the late 18th century was different from the modern women in the United States. At the time, women played the roles of mothers and wives at home. Nevertheless, the few women who strived to achieve freedom in the masculine society were considered rogue, evil, or immoral. In The Coquette, Eliza Wharton represents the few women who strived to live a free life against the expectations of the society. Arguably, the society sees Wharton as a purposely seductive (a coquette) and an obstinate woman when she is actually an independent and progressive woman who strives to break the unnecessary chains of the social order.
Eliza Wharton, the main character in the book, stands on public trial against the society. It is worth noting, however, that she is not a criminal in the eyes of the law. In fact, there was no law or statute that denied women the right to a free life. However, women who sought to break the norm were criminals in the eyes of the society. Eliza Wharton’s expectations of herself fail to match up with those of her society, which puts her in an awkward and problematic situation (Piggush 46). In presenting the issue of the freedom of women in a masculine society, Foster uses the concept of a tragic flaw in the story. Because of her excessive desire for freedom, Wharton becomes sexually submissive and adopts a coquettish behavior (Piggush 48). She does not mind entertaining the advances of more than one man as she openly expresses her dislike for romantic relationships. This behavior has a tragic flaw as it leads to Wharton’s irresponsible pregnancy and death.
Wharton expresses her desire for freedom in her first marriage. In the first letter, she mourns Mr. Haly, her first partner, but also confesses that she did not love him as he would have expected. Wharton states, “I believe I did not felt the passion of love for him” (Foster 819). Rather, Wharton was pleased to be in a free relationship with men as she enjoyed conversing with Mr. Haly instead of acting as a wife.
Moreover, women in Wharton’s society do not have the freedom to choose their partners. Rather, it is the responsibility of the society, through parents, to choose the partners for their children. In this case, Eliza did not choose to be in the relationship with Haly. It appears that her parents pre-arranged her marriage to Mr. Haly, leaving her with no choice rather than remain confined to the expectations of the society (Cassuto 399). Wharton remains unhappy in the relationship because she desires to have freedom. For example, Wharton tells Lucy that she would strive to avoid that kind of life. She states, “I will never again resume that life, even if you think it is coquettish” (Foster 820). This demonstrates that the society at the time denied women their right to happiness, given that a free relationship gives people happiness in their lives.
After Mr. Haly’s death, Eliza Wharton continues to seek a free life regardless of the society’s expectations. After meeting Mr. Boyer, they become friends and later acquaintances. But Wharton avoids falling in love with Boyer, only choosing to live a free, single life. Wharton says, “I do not want to encourage him at the present” (Foster 823). It appears that she wants her freedom more than relationships with men despite the fact that the society expects her to remarry after the death of Haly. Even though the society thinks that this behavior is immoral, Wharton does not think that she is presenting herself as a coquette.
Unlike her society, Wharton does not believe that having multiple suitors is a social problem. Instead, she believes that she has the right to befriend any man as she wishes. After meeting Major Sanford, Eliza goes to a ball with him where they find Mr. Boyer. While Mr. Boyer is surprised to see Wharton with another man, she does not think it is a problem. She says, “The entertainment I was going to was a virtue that I cannot disprove” (Foster 827). Quite clearly, Wharton believes that having multiple suitors is not a problem for a woman who does not desire to have a romantic relationship.
Nevertheless, in her quest for a free life, Eliza Wharton ends up in a flaw tragedy. As she befriends both men, she becomes very close to Sanford and loses Mr. Boyer. The society is cruel to Wharton as it thinks she is becoming a coquette (Piggush 48). Eventually, as she still seeks for close friendship with Sanford, Eliza enters into a trap. Sanford says, “I am finally in full possession of Wharton” (Foster 897). Although they are engaged in a sexual relationship, Eliza does not want to act as Sanford’s wife. She eventually becomes pregnant and in fear of the society’s negative attitudes, she runs away and dies while giving birth (Foster 911). Evidently, the society was cruel to women who pursued the desire for freedom.
In conclusion, Hannah Foster’s book The Coquette demonstrates that the freedom of women was a social issue in America, especially before the 20th century. Indeed, women were confined to their homes as mothers and wives and had little freedom to choose their fiancés. As Wharton’s character demonstrates, independent women who sought a free life were considered immoral or coquettes in the society, yet there was no law that denied them their right to freedom.
Cassuto, Leonard. The Seduction of American Religious Discourse in Foster’s The Coquette. De Gruyter, 2020.
Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. BoD, 2020.
Piggush, Yvette R. ““A Very Dangerous Talent”: Wit for Women in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Boarding School.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 1, 2019, pp. 46-74.