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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 315-344

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Bodies in Labor:
Sole Proprietorship and the Labor of Conduct in The Coquette

C. Leiren Mower

The human body came under increased scrutiny during the Enlightenment as natural scientists attempted to apply a "mathematical vision" to the complexities of human difference. 1 Implicit in this rationalizing vision was a faith in the veracity and authority of the discerning eye: the disembodied observer could, with sufficient examination of bodily surfaces, discern a systematic "order of differences existing between natural entities"—a "structure" that "reduces the whole area of the visible to a system" of "perfectly clear and always finite description." 2 At the same time, however, as Londa Schiebinger and others have persuasively argued, the scientific community's intensified scrutiny of bodies during the eighteenth century must be read in relation to emerging republican theories of natural rights, which asserted that all "men" are by "nature" equal. 3 Schiebinger points to the striking ways in which race, gender, and economic inequalities emerging within the framework of Enlightenment thought soon came to be justified medically through the mechanisms of science. While such rhetoric did not limit natural rights explicitly to white, middle-to-upper-class European (and European American) men, these limitations were tacitly understood. In other words, modern materialist theories of sexual and racial difference provided justification for the argument that, in practice, all bodies are not equal: bodies differ in "nature" according to sex, race, and age. Accordingly, the bodies of white women and of black men and women (as well as an array of other non-European bodies) became the contested ground for investigating the limits of natural rights doctrine. With this focus on the body, it is not surprising that Hannah Webster Foster's heroine in [End Page 315] The Coquette (1797) should turn to her own body as material evidence for what appears elusive and invisible: her self-ownership. Implicit in Eliza Wharton's focus on the body are two assumptions: first, that the body is possessable for her own pleasure and purposes and, hence, is a realizable object for her own scrutiny and regulation; and second, that notoriety—what I will refer to as Eliza's public performance of sole proprietorship—can materially enact the self-possession she imagines possible. 4

In exploring the relation between the body's ownership and its regulation, I will suggest that in The Coquette an assertion of the former is a prerequisite for the success of the latter. Eliza Wharton, I will argue, reworks Lockean theories of labor and ownership as a means of authorizing proprietary control over her body's commerce in the social marketplace. Instead of accepting her social and legal status as another's personal property, Eliza publicly performs her dissent as visible evidence of the legitimacy of her proprietary claims. Her notorious exercise of this interest appears to adopt the logic of the "female chorus," Julia Sterne's term for the feminized, coercive majority that perceives the female body as an object to be rationalized and regulated. 5 However, Eliza redirects this regulatory logic by coopting the chorus's management. In this respect, I confirm Sharon Harris's claim that The Coquette "denies the necessity of stasis," a reading that resists Cathy Davidson's assertion that The Coquette fails to "openly challenge the basic structure of patriarchal society." 6 Eliza's perfectly realized political imagination (rather than its failure, as Davidson suggests) culminates in her death and fetishization.

The progressive wasting of Eliza's body toward the end of The Coquette and her corresponding absence from public discourse can be seen as a logical extension of Eliza's claims of proprietorship. In other words, as Eliza finds herself increasingly less successful in managing the publicness of her body's performance, the theatrical social marketplace, as stage, gives way to the domestic seclusion of her family home until, finally, the privacy and dictates of her own body become the sole, hyperbolic "stage" for her exercise of self-possession. That Eliza's body enables both her crisis...


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pp. 315-344
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Archived 2005
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