10/11 Reaction to The Coquette (Option 2)

The Coquette is an epistolary novel based on the famous death of Elizabeth Whitman who was a socialite that died giving birth to a still-born illegitimate child at a Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts. The novel allows the reader to form their own opinions of Whitman from myriad points of view: she can be seen as both a victim and not. The book is representative of the state of the American media during the 1790s because it represents the freedom of expression enjoyed by publishers, newspapers, and authors at the time. The laws for publishing were lax and this allowed more diverse forms of expression: some considered offensive and scandalous. The mere fact that this novel was published is attributed to the lenient state of American media at the time. Provocative and radical ideals were now being circulated in print for society to debate. The Coquette “raised several controversial issues—female education, female employment, political and legal rights of women, and the double sexual standard.”[1]

Starr’s The Creation of the Media documented how “America’s high literacy rate and its rapidly growing population…led to markets for print that were…increasingly diverse.” Starr spoke of “the rise of publishing as a popular information and entertainment industry”[2] and “new forms of cultural expression frequently met with condemnation as vulgar, indecent, and dangerous.”[3] The author wrote publishing got off to a “slow start in colonial America,” but the “doors to publishing were wide open—a good thing for freedom of expression.”[4] Cathy N. Davidson stated that, with regards to Whitman’s ordeal, “within days the account was picked up and reprinted by the Massachusetts Centinel and then in dozens of other newspapers.”[5] The story went on to become “one of the most reprinted early American novels.”[6] Why do you think The Coquette became one of the most popular novels of the 18th century?

It is on the issue of freedom of expression The Coquette comes into play. The epistolary form of the novel uses multiple points of view of many characters to give a voice to the different members of society, each with roles determined by their places on the societal ladder. The characters are relatable on many levels because they are allowed to be viewed through different lenses. This assortment of opinions and values—whether agreed with or rejected by the reader—makes The Coquette exemplar of the freedom of speech and expression enjoyed by publishers during this era. The story of Whitman was distributed widely throughout colonial America. Given the subject matter it expresses, how might this novel be used by a clergyman?

The state of American media in the 1790s lurks just under the surface of the novel. America was adjusting to these new shocking forms of expression in print and was having difficulty balancing the moral with the amoral. The character of Eliza has a difficult time negotiating between a yearning for independence and the shackles of tradition forced on a woman living in colonial America. The state of American media during this era allowed subgroups—in this case women—to question societal norms in a much louder voice and The Coquette represents this by dramatizing those questions in the text.


[1] Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), ix.

[2] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 114.

[3] Ibid., 115.

[4] Ibid., 116.

[5] Foster, viii.

[6] Ibid., x.




4 thoughts on “10/11 Reaction to The Coquette (Option 2)

  1. This is a great blog post that really sums up the ideas of media in America at the time when the Coquette was published. I like how you connected Starr to this novel because he can give the reader more insight into why a novel like this was published in America at this time. Do you think that it is possible this novel was so popular was because women were gaining literacy and this novel’s main character is a woman? Is it possible that there is any correlation there, or do you feel that they ideas provoked in the novel, some not well-liked, created the big audience of readers?


    • Hey, Pat. Thank you for your thoughts and kind words. Your points are valid regarding why the novel was so popular, and I agree with them. Women were becoming more literate and the genre for novels with female leads were certainly a big attraction to them. I think another one of the reasons the novel was so popular is because of the motif it is written in. The epistolary format creates a lot of intimacy between the reader and the characters writing the letters. There is a certain decadence to that, added to the already juicy subject matter of a coquette courting two men and subsequently dying alone after childbirth, in a tavern no less. These things are simply not supposed to happen to women in the late 18th century (and this is in regards to the other half of your reply) and this I feel is the major reason why it had such a large audience of readers. All the reasons connect, but the tantalizing subject matter came along at just the right time, with the publishing doors wide open for such diverse, (whether moral or not) forms of expression. The conflict of individual, albeit limited, freedom versus societal norm requirements were sure to draw in a large female readership. Men, too, were intrigued and read just as much for curiosity as they did for the need to protect patriarchal society.


  2. DRoberts023,
    Firstly, I really enjoyed your post and found it really interesting and insightful that you managed to connect “The Coquette” with Starr in such a seamless way. I believe that your point concerning the novel being an “exemplar of the freedom of speech and expression” is extremely accurate and reminds me as well of some of Starr’s idea in his book concerning the relationship between American media and American political philosophy. In particular, I am reminded by Paul Starr’s ideas concerning path dependency in the evolution of American media and that the freedom enjoyed by printers and writers in America was a direct product of the innate ideas of freedom that our nation and constitution was originally founded upon. In response to your question about how American clergymen would utilize this novel, I believe a pastor would have likely used the novel as a cautionary tale against feminine promiscuity and the sanctity of abstinence before wedlock. Anyway, awesome post and I look forward to reading more of your writing in the future!


  3. Hey, Kieran, thanks for the reply. I was surprised I could connect so much of ‘The Coquette’ to Starr’s book. Your point about the evolution of American media and the freedom enjoyed by printers is well founded. Starr charts the development of media in America by using the path of the early growth of the country. The Stamp Tax on the colonies in 1765 created political upheaval not just because of the issue of taxation without representation, but also, as Dr. Adelman pointed out in our American Revolution class, because it threatened the American press. Colonial resistance to the Stamp Act helped create political support for independent newspapers. And your answer to my question regarding the clergy was right on the money! I think they would also use the novel as a deterrent for women reading these types of books in general. These novels awoke thoughts of independence and free-thinking in the minds of women that obviously threatened all men, not just those of the cloth. Thanks for the kind words!


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