Document Type

Graduate Research

Publication Date

Spring 4-8-2015




The research for this paper began last semester within Introduction to Writing about Literature. While in the class, we studied the novel The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster whose main character Eliza Wharton challenges the social conventions at that time. This novel is a retelling of the tragic, true story of Elizabeth Whitman, who died in childbirth after being involved in a scandal concerning a pregnancy out of wedlock.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the ideas centered around marriage that are presented implicitly within The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster. While the social mores of the time required that women get married and that marriage itself will lead to happiness, the character of Eliza Wharton refutes that stance. She stubbornly opposes that which her society said was necessary.

Each of the marriages presented within The Coquette show that marriage does not equate to happiness. While Sanford’s is the epitome of an unhappy marriage and denotes a clear reason why marriage does not equal happiness, even the marriage of General and Mrs. Richman that has all that is necessary for a perfectly happy marriage does not protect them from the loss of their baby, Harriet. In between the marriages of Sanford and the Richmans are those of Boyer and Lucy. Neither one ends up as happy as they’d like to be, but both recognize the necessity placed upon the institution the institution of marriage.

The social constraints placed on the characters in the novel are due to the time period in which they were living. The idea that marriage was the foundation for the new republic was prevalent in America at that time. This was a direct influence on the views of the characters and on Webster Foster when writing this novel. It was necessary for women, the moral center of society, to marry men so that the men could be influenced by the women’s virtue and therefore lead society in the right direction.

Altogether, the ideals of the time insisted that it was marriage that allowed the men to run the country correctly and that also allowed women to participate in society. This perpetuated the situation of women during the revolutionary era and did not allow them the freedom that the newly formed country purported during that time.