Some critics claim that early American literature focuses on men, overlooking or devaluating the role of women and women’s perspective. The response to this claim will presuppose profound analysis of some literary work of that time period. We will thus concentrate on Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, which has become one of the brightest representations of the then literature.
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Based upon the discussed reading, it is definitely impossible to state that literature of the analyzed period was devaluating women, though such claim has the objective right to exist among scholars. It would probably be more correct to assume that devaluation of women, which the authors of early American literature were depicting in their works, was caused by the real life conditions in which they lived. Thus, devaluating women was not the initial purpose of the early American writing; in pursuing realism and the truth, the writers were undeservingly labeled. However, this misinterpretation cannot be totally false. Through the prism of literary criticism, the character of the protagonist Eliza Wharton is certainly described in rather mournful colors. What is usual for us seems absolutely unacceptable in the world in which Eliza found herself. Thus, it would be more objective to analyze Foster’s novel not from the viewpoint of devaluating women, but from the viewpoint of the then society devaluating and not accepting their freedom, as was reflected in The Coquette.
Reading The Coquette, we come to the question, whether Foster was depicting a true womanhood, and how a woman of her status could feel in the society and people by whom she was surrounded. It is difficult to deny that Eliza Wharton was initially overlooked as a personality by her companions, friends, and was truly judged for her actions and manners. Of course, what we see in Eliza does not surprise us, but her behavior could not be called traditional through the prism of the then manners. The true woman of that time had to possess several integral features, out of which virtue and domesticity were the most meaningful. Moreover, in case a woman did not possess those features, or was not willing to follow the principles of the society, she risk being abandoned, being stigmatized, and being called the enemy of all polite people.
Through the entire reading of The Coquette I was accompanied by the thought that it would be improper to state, that Foster was devaluating women. I think that the author had devoted the whole story to the inner perplexities of the female character. The writer has exercised an extremely visible and wise tool for creating and objective (and simultaneously, subjective) picture of the reality. We see the development of Wharton’s affair with Major Stanford, and simultaneously we have an access to the inner world and inner conflicts of each of the characters in the novel. Devaluating women is more seen not in the way Foster depicted Eliza, but in the way Eliza would be treated in the society of her time. Simultaneously, Major Stanford is considered to be rejected by a “virtuous society” for having seduced women and being known for his bad reputation. It is even more surprising that Stanford’s behavior is not equal to devaluating women; but the reaction of the society to Wharton’s behavior is.
Objectively, Foster was focusing on how men perceived the reality, and how they perceived women around them. Through the correspondence between several men in the novel we are capable of making an insight into their souls. However, in the context of the reality which Foster described in her work, focusing on men was a literary necessity, and limiting my research by this work of writing is not sufficient to conclude that the claims of critics towards devaluating women in literature are at least relevant.
Eliza in Foster’s world has become the embodiment of violating the norms of the society in which she lived. She was the proof that the society was constantly devaluating women. She has become the bright revelation of the then female world. She has a difficult marriage, through which she did not experience any warm feelings to her ceased husband, but whom she had to marry upon her parents’ request.
“Mr. Haly was a man of worth, a man of real and substantial merit. He is therefore deeply, and justly regretted by his friends; he was chosen to be a future guardian, and companion for me, and was, therefore, beloved by mine. As their choice as a good man, and a faithful friend, I esteemed him. But no one acquainted with the disparity of our tempers and dispositions, our views and designs, can suppose my heart much engaged in the alliance.” (Foster 807)
Being similar to Major Stanford in her temptations, even he had to admit the conflict of her inner identity with the society:
“Her sagacious friends have undoubtedly given her a detail of my vices. If therefore, my past conduct has been repugnant to her notions of propriety, why does she act consistently, and refuse at once to associate with a man whose character she cannot esteem?” (Foster 863).
In her grief for losing husband, she was not looking for consolation, but was realizing the fact of her ultimately being free of those connections. Moreover, she was seeking consolation not among her friends, but in the fact of being free to choose; in this she was completely different from her female friends, and was constantly judged and warned against Major Stanford. Of course, she was seduced by him, and he never realized the seriousness of his claims on Eliza. She in her turn did not understand that she was misled, and had to abandon her traditional pathway of virtue (so valued in the then society) to be with that man. It was not that Foster was devaluing Eliza, but she was trying to remain within the limits of the traditional society; she could not allow herself openly declaring the fact of Eliza being correct in her moves. This is why the author had to use implicit tools and literary devices for us to understand the true meaning of her writing. The visible devaluation of Eliza was actually the expression of her strength against the widely accepted (and often absurd) norms.
In one of her letters, Eliza was writing: “Should it ever be my fate to wear the hymenical chain, may I be thus united! The purest and most ardent affection, the greatest consonance of taste and disposition, and the most congenial virtue and wishes distinguish this lovely couple” (Foster 813). These were Eliza’s ideas about her happy union with some man. And while come critics might claim that the image of a woman in early American literature was at least neglected, it can be easily argued. What Foster was aiming was to display the societal constraints in which the woman of her time had to exist. For Eliza this hardly looked like existence, being similar to “surviving”. Her mind was disconcerted with the emotional agitations, and she could not find moral satisfaction in any of the two men with whom she communicated. it is understandable why Foster depicted both Boyer and Major Stanford in so many details: we needed to have a detailed understanding, why the woman could not have any affection towards any of them, especially of Boyer. Boyer’s character consisted of traditional virtues praised by society: he was striving for domestic and loving wife, who would not allow going out or having friendship with men. He could not also understand her patience and indecisiveness towards his personality. The meaning of the name “The Coquette” was brilliantly expressed in Eliza’s interactions with Boyer and Major Stanford. The name of the novel has become the sign of the false appearance we attribute to people whom we don’t really know, or do not want to understand through the existing social norms. She was far from being a coquette; she was looking for the person who could comply with her social demands and who could not restrain her social strivings, but she found none, being dishonored and finally led to death.
Devaluation of a woman was shown by Foster as punishable even within the described societal constraints. Both Boyer and Major Stanford were virtually punished for misunderstanding the true identity of Eliza Warton. Hannah Foster has created a perfect image of all three characters, letting us into the hidden world of concealed emotions and cherished emotions. Surely, she had displayed the situation of a woman when being dishonored and obviously devaluated by those who surrounded her, but the writer herself did not devaluate Eliza. On the contrary, she seemed to having achieved the aim of her writing: she was sincerely mourning the death of her protagonist.
Foster succeeded in depicting the possible tragic consequences of the societal norms’ impact on people’s lives. No one could predict that Eliza’s striving to be social would lead her to being called “the Coquette”, but the society did not leave any other choice, and Eliza would have to live with that stigma. Moreover, Boyer did not also leave Eliza any options except for writing her a farewell letter and expressing his extreme dissatisfaction and anger with her behavior; however, and in the context of the contemporary society, we should think what right he had to intrude into Eliza’s life. Thus, the devaluation of the women’s perspective is not viewed in the early American writing itself, but in the real situation of women in the then society, which the writers had to evaluate and judge.
Critics have the right to claim the position of a woman in the early American literature is devaluated. However, it was more real than neglected. The example of Foster’s The Coquette we come to understanding the inner force of the woman in trying to break the societal norms and failing to do so. Hannah Foster has succeeded in creating an image of a woman new to her traditional society, being devaluated by it, but not by the realism of Foster’s writing.
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