Hannah Webster Foster

The Coquette

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  • Features 74 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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The Coquette Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 68-page guide for “The Coquette” by Hannah Webster Foster includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 74 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Virginity and Republican Womanhood, Wifehood, and Motherhood.

Plot Summary

Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, or, The History of Eliza Wharton, was first published, anonymously, in 1797. The book was not attributed to Foster until 1856, more than a decade and a half after her death. The Coquette is the story of the seduction of a young socialite woman, Eliza Wharton, by the devious Major Peter Sanford. The Coquette is an epistolary novel: it is comprised of dozens of letters written by its main characters. This format also gives a multifaceted perspective of the events that unfold. When something major occurs, it is often described and analyzed from up to three points of view.

Foster’s novel was a best-selling example of a seduction novel, a genre of sentimental literature that was very popular in post-revolution America. The vulnerability of women in such works is often thought to represent the dangers faced by the new nation. In addition, seduction novels are moralistic and instructive. Their tales are intended to guide young women by showing them the danger of straying from morality, virtue, and chastity. A key aspect of The Coquette is that Eliza allows herself to be seduced, despite the plethora of chaste, virtuous women in her life who serve as positive examples.

Eliza’s story is based on that of Elizabeth Whitman, an upper-class, apparently educated woman who died after giving birth in a tavern. Whitman’s tale captured the imagination of the country and provided the framework for Foster’s novel. Because little was known about Elizabeth Whitman, The Coquette serves to flesh out the details of her life, creating a viable backstory for her infamous death.

Eliza is young and beautiful, innocent and headstrong. At the beginning of the novel, she has just lost her fiancé, Mr. Haly, to illness. Though she respected him as a friend and a worthy man, their engagement was largely forced on her by her friends and family. Finding herself independent for the first time in her life, Eliza is in no hurry to marry. This poses a problem: Eliza is the neighborhood’s most eligible bachelorette.

While staying at her friend Mrs. Richman’s estate, Eliza is introduced to the two men who will indelibly alter the course of her life: Mr. John Boyer and Major Peter Sanford. Boyer is a young clergyman working to establish himself as a priest. Sanford is a self-described rake, a man of wealth, style, and loose morals. The two men begin courting her. Eliza has feelings for both, but she is reluctant to make a choice. She consistently seeks the advice of her friend, Lucy Freeman, and her mother, Mrs. Wharton. Her friends are of almost unanimous opinion: she should marry Boyer and avoid Sanford.

Despite her friends’ advice and warnings, Eliza remains undecided, allowing herself to be led on by Sanford while she leads Boyer on in turn. Boyer presents a safe but uninteresting option; his career excludes him from many of the social pleasures Eliza values. Sanford, on the other hand, takes her to parties, balls, and other social functions. Though he is a libertine, he remains highly appealing to Eliza.

Reverend Boyer becomes fed up with being strung along and declares an ultimatum: Eliza must renounce either Boyer or Sanford. Sanford, sensing that Eliza favors Boyer, picks the very day that Eliza was to tell Boyer her decision to meet her in the garden, in order to declare his devotion to her. Boyer suspiciously follows Eliza to the garden, where he finds her with the major. Mortified, Boyer ends his relationship with Eliza and renounces her company.

Major Sanford’s appearance of wealth is all show; he is actually in dire financial straits. He leaves to speculate and try to win his fortune back. Eliza falls into a deep depression when she realizes some time later that she was wrong in treating Boyer the way she did, and that she loves him. She writes to rekindle their relationship; however, Boyer is engaged and now forever out of reach.

Despite the best efforts of her mother, Lucy, and her friend, Julia Granby, Eliza’s condition continues to worsen. Guilt and a broken heart deepen her melancholy, and her health starts to decline. When Sanford returns, he has married Nancy Laurence, a young woman of fortune. However, he continues to pursue his passion for Eliza, taking advantage of her terrible mental state.

This affair culminates in Eliza becoming pregnant. Socially ruined, Eliza confesses her sins to Julia and her mother. Sanford helps hide her away. She upbraids him for taking advantage and ruining her. Eliza dies after giving birth in the company of strangers. Wracked with guilt and financially ruined, Sanford flees the country. Lucy and Julia attempt to comfort Mrs. Wharton and erect a tombstone honoring their friend. They hope Eliza’s tragedy will be a lesson that prevents other young women from going down the same path.

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Letters 1-3