Saturday, February 19, 2011

Foster, The Coquette, Day #1

--This is an epistolary novel, a novel in letters, which was a popular form for the early novel. How does it present the 'reality' of its characters' experiences? What does it emphasize and what is left out? How does this affect the way you experience the novel and your attitude toward the characters?

--Look up the word "coquette" and consider to what extent Eliza's behavior does or does not fit it. What is your attitude toward her more generally?

--Eliza corresponds extensively with her friend Lucy Freeman, who seems to embody more conventional and acceptable social attitudes; what do you make of Lucy and her friendship with Eliza?

--At the end of last class, I mentioned the doubleness of the term virtue--meaning both an idealized republican civic behavior and female chastity. Look for where virtue is used in the novel. How is it used by different characters and what does it mean to them?


  1. Similar to an autobiography, the epistolary novel focuses mostly on the author. The reader is dependent on the writer to present the story and characters with a general amount of unconditional trust. As a result of this, its very easy for the reader to side with the author and it is rare for the author to take any role besides the central protagonist.

    The epistolary novel does however have a more intimate tone than most genres. The letters are usually intended for a specific person and have a more confidential appeal. On one hand, the writer can be diverging private information, yet the reader must always keep in mind that the author may not be telling the truth.

    -Tim Fischer

  2. According to a coquette is a woman who flirts, or any hummingbird of the genus Lophornis. Both work somewhat, I think, for Eliza. The suitors in the story seem sensitive, like flowers. Major Sanford is called a “rake” more than once. Today we would call a rake a “dandy,” or a pretty boy.

    However, Eliza does not seek any of these flowers out. They come to her, sure she could refuse them, but she’s young and on her own. It’s hard to blame her. But, friendly women are always considered flirts for some reason, so she takes on that label—even calls herself by it. Maybe she’s brainwashed.

    Hannah Webster Foster seems to be showing the difference in society’s treatment of men in women. Eliza is watched and judged (often negatively) at every second by the people (especially the men) around her. While Sanford is looked at as just a man being a man (don’t hate the player). It’s an old and unfair attitude that persists today.

  3. According to a coquette is "a woman who flirts lightheartedly with men to win their admiration or affection". In some ways, Eliza Wharton lives up to this definition since she is juggling her love life between two men in order to keep from marriage. However, I find her view on marriage much more interesting, and it seems that the reason behind her coquette-ish manner is the fact that she won't have to marry if she continues to act as such. At one point she refers to the "pangs of marriage" or "shackles" and she also speaks of marriage as the "hymenial chain" (813).

    Eliza also seems to enjoy the life of 'freedom' that comes with not having to be domestic. She refers to marriage as the "tomb of friendship" and goes on to ask her friend, Lucy, "Why do people, in general, as soon as they are married, center all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families? Former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten" (819). It is clear that Eliza is still trying to figure out if she wants to be married because she seems to be happy with her life as of now, but the social constraints of women at the time are forcing her to decide sooner rather than later if she'll become a domestic woman.

  4. The definition that provides for the word "coquette" is: a woman who flirts lightheartedly with men to win their admiration and affection; flirt.

    I think some parts of the definition fit Eliza, but not all of them. She is definitely a flirt, but she does not pursue the men and try to win their affection, they flock to her, willingly. I think she is flirting with the men somewhat lightheartedly, but I also think she is intending some of her flirting to be seen as more serious. She knows she is the object of their affection, and if she did not want to lead them on, she would tell them how she feels. "I am so pestered with these admirers; not that I am so very handsome neither; but I don't know how it is, I am certainly very much the taste of the other sex." (811) This statement clearly shows that she knows how these men feel, and she isn't doing anything to set them straight about how she feels about them.

    Overall, I am not really a fan of Eliza. If she was to live in today's world and society, she might be considered a "slut" or some other derogatory term. Even though she has not actually had sexual relations with either of the men, she is still being a HUGE flirt and a lot of people, especially women, don't take to that very well. The people in the story don't seem to like that she flirts so much either. They would rather her pick one and stick with it, and surprisingly, I agree with the male characters in the story.

  5. A coquette is defined as, "A woman who flirts lightheartedly with men to win their admiration and affection." In this sense Eliza's behavior does indicate a bit of coquettishness. During the reading, Rev. Boyer and Major Sanford both compete for her affections. Both men repeatedly ask her if she shares the same feelings they do, and each time, she brushes off their advances by giving the polite, politically correct answer. It's clear that she is leading both men on and at the end of Letter XXX we find out that she has her hooks in a third man, a Mr. Emmons.

    Eliza's behavior isn't overly flirtatious from the scenes we're presented with, but most of what we know about her behavior, we know from her letters to her cousin Lucy. I don't think that she is lying to Lucy about the goings on in New Haven, but I don't think she is being entirely honest either. Men bore easily, and having your advances continually brushed away would get tiresome quickly. However, Boyer and Sanford don't seem to be getting tired of Eliza's game at all. This leads me to believe that she is doing something to keep these men's attention that she isn't telling Lucy about.

  6. To me, it seems that Eliza and Lucy are exact opposites. In this first section of The Coquette that we’ve read Eliza has written to Lucy a number of times, however, Lucy has only responded three times. From what Lucy has written, I think she finds Eliza kind of childish. In her first letter back to Eliza one of the first things she says is, “ This is playing a little too much with my patience” (820). From this she seems kind of annoyed that Eliza is even asking for her opinion because she already knows that Eliza isn’t going to follow what she tells her to do. This is seen letter in the letter as well when she says, “You mean only to exhibit a few more girlish airs, before you turn matron” (820). From what we’ve seen of Lucy, she also always throws in a hint to Eliza that once she gets rid of her “coquettish” ways she will be much happier. She is always trying to convince Eliza that there is a life of happiness that doesn’t involve acting as a coquette. I would say that Lucy is Eliza’s voice of reason. Also, it seems that every time Eliza and Lucy correspond, their discussion is always about Eliza, it is never so much about Lucy. From this I think that Lucy doesn’t necessarily need Eliza as a friend, but Eliza really needs Lucy to be there to listen and attempt to keep her on the straight and narrow. Because of this, I wonder what Lucy really gains from their friendship.

  7. It seems as though Eliza's definition of "virtue" differs from the other characters in the novel. For Eliza, maintaining a sense of virtue means to abstain from the unnecessary complications and responsibilities of relationships. In her eyes, anything beyond friendship (especially marriage) is impedes on her "freedom" and is simply a restrictive social bond upon her individuality. Thus, she chooses to have many friendly relationships with men she knows, sending mixed signals. What she sees as friendly and amiable behavior towards members of the opposite sex, the rest of society views as flirtatious.

    The antithesis of Eliza's sense of virtue is summarized in Lucy. Throughout her letters to Eliza, she chastises her for what she sees as inappropriate and juvenile behavior. She seems less worried about Eliza's personal life and happiness in choosing a spouse, and more focused on her social image. In regards to Eliza's hesitance in securing a relationship with Mr. Boyer she states "You are indeed very tenacious of your freedom, as you call it; but that is a play about words. A man of Mr. Boyer's honor and good sense will never abridge any privileges which virtue can claim." This seems to suggest that Eliza would do well with Boyer not because he is a good match for her but because he has an honorable reputation that would supplement her "virtue".

  8. It was very interesting to read an epistolary-style novel for a change. It was certainly a different style than we have been reading and therefore affected me in different ways.

    The "reality" of the characters' experiences are all very subjective. Since the novel is told through letters, the experiences are also told from various characters' points of view. The "reality" of a situation was different depending on which character was narrating at the time. For example, at the beginning when Eliza did not know Sanford very well, she thought he meant well and was a good person. However, when Sanford writes his letter, we see that he does not have good intentions at all, "Were I disposed to marry, I am persuaded she would make an excellent wife; but that you know is no part of my plan, so long as I can keep out of the noose" (818). Because the novel is told through letters, the "reality" is skewed because it depends highly upon whoever is narrating at the time.

    At times, I felt like there were some details left out, especially when Eliza wrote to Lucy. in fact, several times she specifically notes she left something out, "You, my friend, were witness to the concluding scene; and therefore, I need not describe it" (808). There are a couple other times where she says something similar to this. It leaves the readers somewhat confused because she skips over details of those situations.

    The epistolary novel affects my attitude towards the characters because through the letters, it allows the reader to get a much more personal sense of each character and lets them see into the characters' mind and insight. In turn, this affected the way I felt about the characters. When I read Sanford's letters, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with him because he was insensitive towards women and rude. The epistolary style reveals much more about the characters and their internal thoughts and desires.

  9. I feel like the whole point of Lucy and Eliza’s relationship is there to emphasize the differences in social attitudes between Lucy and Eliza and the dangers that these differences could result in. Lucy is very aware of the effect Eliza’s relationships have in relation to society and views these “friendships” that Eliza has with Rev. Boyer and Major Sanford as very flirtatious and inappropriate behavior. Eliza on the other hand views these relationships as perfectly acceptable because they do not stretch beyond the realm of “friendship” in her eyes. Eliza doesn’t really take into account the affect these relationships have in relation to society and what others think. That is Lucy’s job. Eliza’s only concern is for her own felicity and to hold onto her freedom. Lucy chastises Eliza and brings up points concerning image and how these friendships can affect society’s image of Eliza’s virtue. The focus of Eliza is kind of selfish because she has no concerns for her suitors, Lucy, or the Richmans, only for her own personal happiness and frivolity. This in itself blinds Eliza to the affect these friendships have on her own social image, and the possible ill intentions of her suitors. Lucy on the other hand is aware of all these things that Eliza chooses to dismiss. I really don’t see why they are friends because of how different they are.

  10. The Coquette presents a fascinating thematic evolution of the concept of virtue within the respective personal spheres of morality of the major characters. As a reader, I like to visualize a theme that an author injects into a narrative as a malleable entity, dough that the author, as baker in this metaphor, can assemble from pre-made ingredients and mold into a fairly distinct shape, but ultimately not completely form to perfection. Hence she will “do work” with an idea rather than originate it, and through an application of skill and talent, shape it into something readable but not necessarily fully realized. The theme of virtue that Hannah Webster Foster “does work” within her narrative exemplifies these attributes. At the novel’s beginning, the concept of virtue stands raised on a pedestal of monolithic conviction: the female resident of late 18th century aristocratic, Anglo-American culture must retain her chastity or face ostracization in some form from “decent” society. Foster takes this oppressive standard, under the auspices of which she herself certainly lived, and challenges it in ways subtle and direct through the protagonist Eliza.

    Central to the character’s composition, Eliza’s proclivity for socializing motivates her apprehensions regarding matrimony; Foster urges the reader early on to surmise this. Passages in the text illuminate how she uses the former to excuse the latter, such as when she refers to marriage as the “tomb of friendship,” asserting that “the tenderest ties between friends are weakened or dissolved; and benevolence itself moves in a very limited sphere” (819). Here we see a valid objection to wedlock; Foster may have held this conviction herself, or wished merely to provoke the reader into critical thought, but we find no obvious counterpoint to it in the narrative. Yet we should note that this argument does not dismiss marriage outright. Contextually, Eliza in this instance reasons that marriage is not conducive for her desires and lifestyle in the present. This begs the question of whether or not Eliza, through her open society with unmarried men, has stepped down the path of abandonment of virtue because she only desires to prolong the actualization of virtue’s natural resolution: the consummation of marriage. Her friends, speaking as advocates of the status quo view on the subject, imply repeatedly that Eliza’s vacillation, if not arrant repudiation, concerning the bequests of her suitors, compel her to choices incongruous with the expectations and mores of the high-minded members of the community.

    The aforementioned example reveals the tension between Eliza’s self-interested permutations of the standards of virtue and the incorrigible, monochromatic scruples of her friends. The former creates a phlegmatic animal out of it; parties of the latter do not permit much deviation. And in contrast to both is the character portrait of Major Sanford, to whom an external measure of virtue is a nonentity. I do not need elaborate on his character to explain how Foster illustrates that the pressures exuded from both extremes serves to annihilate the force—Eliza—in the middle.