Subversive Coquetry: The Female Villain and National Morality in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette
Keywords:Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette, villain, virtue, national morality, epistolary novels
This paper analyzes how Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) contributes to the evolution of the female villain in literature, particularly in relation to two other popular late-eighteenth century epistolary novels: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Both of these European novels that predate The Coquette explore the development of female villains and how they complicate their respective societies’ ideas of virtue and morality. Richardson’s novel asserts that women who attempt to behave like men by indulging in sexual freedom deserve punishment, while Laclos illuminates the hypocrisy of the pre-Revolutionary aristocratic French society that masks its licentiousness behind a façade of respectability. On the surface, Foster’s American version of the fallen woman narrative does not seem to include an obviously evil female character like its European predecessors; upon closer examination, however, there is, in fact, a female villain in Foster’s novel: it is the protagonist Eliza herself, who is “both a victim of her circumstances and a transgressor against them” (Mulford xlvii).
In this paper, Richardson’s and Laclos’s female villains provide a backdrop to an exploration of the ways in which Eliza’s villainy is manifested in Foster’s novel. While Eliza is not a predatory female who seeks to destroy other women like the prostitutes in Clarissa or Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she does participate in self-destructive behavior that is also detrimental to emerging ideas of female agency in the young American republic. At the same time, Foster provides a poignant critique of American society’s treatment of its female citizenry based on antiquated patriarchal ideals.
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