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  • "Can Your Volatile Daughter Ever Acquire Your Wisdom?"Luxury and False Ideals in The Coquette
  • Laura H. Korobkin (bio)

In a chorus of recent readings of The Coquette (1797), literary critics have situated Hannah Foster's novel within public political discourse of the late 1790s, reading Eliza Wharton, its doomed heroine, as a proto-feminist rebel, a figure who links concerns about gender to the new nation's interest in formulating what would become characteristically American political and personal values. Though disagreeing about which side of the conflict between republicans and federalists, communitarians and individualists, the novel ultimately supports, commentators have been remarkably unified in insisting that Eliza's resistance to the constraining forces of bourgeois marriage and the conformist advice of her social cohort mark her as a powerful champion of personal freedom and political autonomy.1 To privilege Eliza's attractive resistance, 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. Delighted with Eliza's spirited refusal to accede to her community's demands that she assume the obligations of a dutiful middle-class minister's wife, and eager to support her very modern (indeed, postmodern) sense of entitlement to pursue her own pleasure, modern readers tend to gloss over how consistently Foster shows us Eliza's less heroic side: her luxury-loving materialism, her desire to live as a wealthy aristocrat, served and admired by inferiors, her preference for round after round of social "hilarity," and her hostility toward anything that interrupts her fun or smacks even minimally of middle-class adult responsibility.2 [End Page 79]

At bottom, the yearnings that increasingly animate Foster's Eliza are not for political freedom and independence (though she is made to appropriate that very potent political vocabulary), but for the social dissipation, luxuries, and class-based idleness long associated with the worst of British aristocratic culture. In Foster's text, Eliza is destroyed by her devotion to exactly the values adverted to relentlessly in pre-Revolutionary discourse to help motivate and justify the rebellion against Britain and sermonized against in the 1790s to show that the nation was still deeply infected with the taint of British corruption.3 Recent critics argue that Eliza's deployment of terms like "liberty" and "freedom" signifies her willingness to value her own desires above the community's interests and is therefore evidence of Foster's early support for doctrines of liberal possessive individualism and gender equality.4 I want to suggest that we attend as carefully to what Eliza wants as to what she resists. As she freely acknowledges, her "disposition" draws her toward what appear to her to be the infinite pleasures of "mirth and hilarity," the dancing, singing, and gaiety of luxury-filled social interactions. She comes to believe (with Major Sanford's insinuating encouragement) that only a life constituted by such upper-class pleasures can make her happy and that only marriage to a wealthy pleasure-loving mate can provide that life. While Eliza's commitment to fulfilling her personal desires evokes protoliberal individualism, Foster's nuanced attention to the substance of Eliza's yearnings suggests that the "freedom" she seeks is not self-sufficiency or even self-realization but self-indulgence and luxury, the banes of the old world rather than the potentials of the new. By carefully mapping Eliza's progress through an ambiguous terrain in which admirable qualities take gradual and unfortunate detours, the novel critiques the tendency of undisciplined individualism to become self-absorbed materialism, and offers a subtle analysis of the ways that politically powerful watchwords can cloak and seem to justify morally equivocal behavior. Significantly, Foster's target is not Eliza's interest in leisure and pleasure per se; as Elizabeth Dillon has recently shown, the novel presents creative social interaction as a positive realm. Rather, the focus...


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pp. 79-107
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