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The Proverbs Daughter–Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette

Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840)In a 2006 article that strikes me as just plain good sense and reading, Laura Korobkin questions the many recent interpretations of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. The critics with whom Korobkin differs attempt to assimilate Foster’s work to their own worldview, essentially turning the very conservative outlook of the novel toward a feminist and individualist interpretation. She argues that

critics locate Foster’s meaning in what they identify as subversive challenges to the text’s monitory moral surface and marginalize the plentiful evidence Foster provides that Eliza’s rebellion is neither a political protest nor a strike for freedom as we would understand that term, but an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to achieve a specific goal: marriage to a man with wealth and position sufficient to guarantee a life of idle luxury and endless socializing.

In short, Korobkin rightly identifies Eliza Wharton not as a heroic rebel fighting against patriarchy and stale convention but rather as a self-indulgent brat who willfully ignores the plentiful good advice flowing her direction through the letters of several friends and family.

One need only read Letter XLI to recognize that Miss Wharton is not the hero. Her only ideology seems to be one of pleasure and leisure.

The dull, old fashioned sobriety which formerly prevailed, is nearly banished; and cheerfulness, vivacity, and enjoyment are substituted in its stead. Pleasure is now diffused through all ranks of the people, especially the rich; and surely it ought to be cultivated, since the wisest of men informs us, that “a merry heart doth good like a medicine.” As human life has many diseases, which require medicines, are we not right in selecting the most agreeable and palatable?

Who is Eliza Wharton if not this proto-feminist and champion of individual liberty? I would suggest that she is the daughter who ought to be spoken to in the Biblical Proverbs. The entire book of Proverbs–or at least the bulk of it–is addressed to a son. In Proverbs 1:8-9, we read

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck.

While the Proverb writer does not directly address a daughter, the advice seems suitable. Eliza Wharton demonstrates her awareness of the Proverbs, even dreadfully misapplying 17:22 in the quotation above as she speaks of “a merry heart.”

Eliza stands as a poster child of the “don’t” admonitions in the Proverbs, culminating in her disasterous liaison with Major Sanford. The Bible’s instructions warn of the seducer:

With her many persuasions she entices him;
With her flattering lips she seduces him.
Suddenly he follows her
As an ox goes to the slaughter,
Or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool,
Until an arrow pierces through his liver;
As a bird hastens to the snare,
So he does not know that it will cost him his life.

Eliza has apparently heard these warnings and she receives them from several different friends, but she doesn’t heed the words. Perhaps less ominously, she does not adhere to the adomitions to industry or patience.

In the end, Eliza Wharton is like James’ hearer of the Word:

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. (James 1:22-24)

Unfortunately, by the time she realizes the folly of her way, it is too late for both her and her infant.

Posted in American Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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