Eliza Wharton has sinned. She has also seduced, deceived, loved, and been had. With The Coquette Hannah Webster Foster uses Eliza as an allegory, the archetype of a woman gone wrong. To a twentieth century reader Eliza's fate seems over-dramatized, pathetic, perhaps even silly. She loved a man but circumstance dissuaded their marriage and forced them to establish a guilt-laden, whirlwind of a tryst that destroyed both of their lives. A twentieth century reader may have championed Sanford's divorce, she may have championed the affair, she may have championed Eliza's acceptance of Boyer's proposal. She may have thrown the book angrily at the floor, disgraced by the picture of ineffectual, trapped, female characters.
We might see similar reactions when placing Foster's novel in an eighteenth century context. But would they be the reactions that Foster anticipated? Were eighteenth century female readers to see The Coquette as an instructional text, or were they supposed to enjoy it without applying it to their own lives? Did she aim to teach her female audience about proper conduct, and to warn about the dangers of the licentious seducer? The book was a best seller; why would this type of text have been so popular?
Writing a journal from the perspective of a fictional eighteenth century reader, a mother whose daughter is the age of Eliza's friends, will allow me to employ reader-response criticism to help answer these questions and to decipher the possible social influences and/or meanings of the novel. Though reader-response criticism varies from critic to critic, it relies largely on the idea that the reader herself is a valid critic, that her critique is influenced by time and place,...
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3. Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
4. Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
5. Moi, Toril. Sexual Textual Politics. London: Routledge, 1985.
6. Murfin, Ross C. "What is Reader-Response Criticism?" in The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Bedford, 1991.
7. Rabinowitz, Peter J. "Johns Hopkins Guide to LIterary Theory" [http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/entries/reader-esponse_theory_and_criticism.html]. 1997.
8. Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Penguin, 1992.
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