The Coquette Summary

Hannah Webster Foster

The Coquette

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The Coquette Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster.

On July 25th, 1788 an apparently single, pregnant woman died shortly after giving birth at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts. An article detailing the particulars of the event appeared in the Salem Mercury just four days later, purportedly written by the landlord, Captain Goodhue. Thirty-seven-year-old Elizabeth Whitman had arrived at the Bell Tavern alone, claiming to be waiting for her husband, but such a man never appeared, and Goodhue questioned his very existence. The sensational article was republished throughout New England and eventually gained national attention as the “Elizabeth Whitman mystery.” It was apparent that she was educated, well-mannered, and had come from a respectable family, and yet she died alone and abandoned by all of her connections, in a tavern, without a husband to account for her situation. Although there were high rates of both maternal mortality and children born outside of wedlock in the late eighteenth century, the story of Elizabeth Whitman captured the public imagination. Moralists used versions of the “fall” of Whitman as guidance for young women in how to maintain their good “character”—which is to say, their virginity—until marriage. Hannah Webster Foster based her novel The Coquette (1797) on the tale.

The full title, The Coquette; or, the History of Eliza Wharton; a Novel; Founded on Fact, is not only an assertion of the truth of the subject matter, which was a common trope in eighteenth century novels, but also contributes a sense of immediacy and danger to the reader. It is an epistolary novel, meaning it is made up of a series of letters written in the voices of the main characters, which was the conventional style at the time, as the first-person perspective was generally understood to contribute a sense of intimacy and accuracy. The novel is comprised of seventy-four letters, the majority of which are written by protagonist Eliza Wharton to her friend Lucy Sumner (née Freeman), or to her suitors.

The novel begins just as Eliza has come to stay with her cousins, General and Mrs. Richman, following the death of her intended husband, Mr Haly. Eliza admits candidly that Haly was chosen for her by her parents, and though she esteemed him and cared for him as a friend, she did not love him. However, she was spared the marriage by Haly’s death, following an illness during which Eliza nursed him until the end of his life. Without wanting to appear improper, Eliza confides to Lucy that she is relieved by his death and excited to re-enter society, and looks forward to taking pleasure in her freedom. While Eliza is able to recognize the marital felicity enjoyed by the Richmans, she views this as the exception rather than the rule, and takes no pleasure in the idea of committing herself to a domestic life again in the foreseeable future.

However, while socializing with the Richmans she attracts the attentions of two potential suitors: the first is Reverend John Boyer, who perceives in Eliza intelligence and earnestness; the second is Major Peter Sanford, who is drawn to Eliza by her vivacity and charm. In letters to his friend Thomas Selby, Boyer describes his impressions of Eliza, paying particular attention to their conversation on serious matters, and dismissing her enjoyment of less serious aims as simple gaiety. He tells Selby that he intends to court and marry Eliza. Conversely, Sanford admires and encourages Eliza’s lively humour over propriety and sobriety. He is a known rake, and confides to his friend Charles Deighton that he knows Eliza to be a coquette, and that he plans to avenge his sex by leading her on, though he insists that he esteems her too much to go so far as to ruin her reputation.

As the novel progresses, both Boyer and Sanford develop deeper feeling for Eliza; she develops feelings for neither, claiming to value her freedom and independence above all else. Her friends all encourage her to attach herself to Mr Boyer, who is a respectable man, but Eliza insists she will find no joy in the duties of a minister’s wife. When Boyer expresses his feelings toward her, she neither accepts nor rejects them outright, but suggests she may come to love him in time, and that until then they would be nothing more than friends. Convinced that she will eventually marry him, Boyer begins visiting frequently and corresponds with her. Boyer’s attentions arouse jealousy in Sanford, who admits (in letters to Deighton) that he has no intention of marrying Eliza, because of her lack of fortune. He does, however, believe himself to be in love with Eliza, and begs her to declare that she will not marry Boyer. Again, Eliza does not definitely answer, keeping Sanford’s hopes and flirtation alive.

Although she appears to prefer the attentions lavished on her by Sanford, Eliza eventually succumbs to the good advice of friends and accepts Boyer’s proposal. This is short-lived, though, for when Boyer discovers Eliza and Sanford having a private discussion in the garden, he breaks the engagement and admonishes Eliza for her coquetry and lack of virtue. Although Sanford continues his attentions toward Eliza, he makes her no offer of marriage once Boyer has left her. With no other offers, Eliza begins to regret her behaviour toward Boyer and writes him a letter, asking his to reconsider their marriage. Boyer responds that he has already married Mr Selby’s sister, and Eliza returns back to her mother’s home. She soon finds out that Major Sanford has also married someone else, a woman named Nancy with a large fortune. They live together in Eliza’s neighbourhood, and though Eliza has no desire to see him, eventually Sanford and his new wife visit. Sanford confesses that he wants to win back Eliza’s affection despite his marriage, and though she is warned to guard her virtue by her friends, Eliza and Sanford begin an affair. To escape the condemnation of her family and friends, the now pregnant Eliza flees to an unknown location, apparently under the protection of Major Sanford. He refuses to reveal where she has gone, but assures her family that she has his support. Both Eliza and her child die in a tavern near Boston, much to the sorrow of her friends and Major Sanford.

Unlike many other “fallen woman” novels, the end of The Coquette lays the majority of the blame for Eliza’s death on her seducer, and reminds the reader of Eliza’s other virtues in the final lines. In a 1986 introduction to the novel, American professor Cathy N. Davidson argues that Foster is aware that in early America, the choices presented to women were really no choice at all. She argues that independence was not truly available to a single woman at the time, and that the only choice available would be to marry someone. Davidson argues that neither Boyer nor Sanford was suitable for Eliza, as both men conflicted with elements of her natural disposition, but in that refusing to make the choice between them she was consigned to the only available fate to women that did not reach spinsterhood: death.