The Science Of Conformity

Previously written for an English course on American Literary Traditions.

In Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel, The Coquette (1797), Foster criticizes the republican social conventions governing marital relations and gender roles in Revolutionary America. The novel’s protagonist, Eliza rejects social norms and her friends’ warnings to pursue a love affair which ultimately leads to her demise. In Letter XLIX, Eliza’s friend, Lucy, the voice of the patriarchy, tells Eliza that women are expected to “fall in love” based on logical calculations rather than their individual desires. In the letter Lucy attempts to comfort and advise a heartbroken Eliza using the language of a surgeon treating a patient. Foster employs the terminology of science and reason in this letter to show how Lucy, a conformist to republican conventions, attempts to transform Eliza’s feelings into a physical condition that can be fixed by the scientific reason of society.

In Letter XLIX, Foster uses alliteration to juxtapose Lucy’s republican, rational thoughts with Eliza’s emotional and individualistic actions. Lucy endeavors to help Eliza, writing “But I must act the part of a skillful surgeon, and probe the wound, which I undertake to heal,” (Foster 878). In this quote, Lucy describes herself as “skillful surgeon”, implying that she has the knowledge and ability to help Eliza overcome her heartbreak. Lucy creates a pattern with the “s” alliteration, peppering her next paragraph with words such as “sense, sentiment, strength, and superior” which describe Eliza before she succumbed to the whims of her desires. The repeated “s” sound connects Lucy’s technical behavior as a “surgeon”, with the adjectives used to describe what a well-mannered woman should be. The “s” sound lends an easy, flowing cadence to the passage, suggesting that Lucy’s scientific values are inherent to women. In contrast, Eliza’s actions are described as “fanciful follies.” The “f” sound which is associated with Eliza’s search for freedom and the ability to follow her heart, is choppy, jarring, and inorganic. Lucy’s use of alliteration makes it seem unnatural that Eliza would abandon trusted community values for her fluctuating individual feelings.

Foster continues to show reason’s precedence over emotions in Revolutionary America through scientific analogies to refer to Eliza’s heartbreak. The comparisons begin with Lucy describing Eliza’s condition as “A bleeding heart” (878). In doing so Lucy converts Eliza’s emotional struggle into a physical ailment. This transforms Eliza’s feelings into a condition that is tangible and treatable, allowing Lucy to fix this specific part of Eliza. Proceeding with technical terms, Lucy describes Eliza’s unrequited love as a “misapplication of them [Eliza’s accomplishment]” (878). In doing so, Lucy removes all emotion from Eliza’s ordeal, turning the situation into a rational pursuit. Lucy goes on to describe Mr. Boyer’s falling out of love with Eliza as him “transfer[ing] his affections to another object” (878). This asserts her belief that love is not an emotion but rather a calculated decision that can be changed at will. Through such scientific descriptors, Foster continues the surgical metaphor and also introduces a parallel between Eliza and the nation as a whole. Describing Eliza’s emotions as physical conditions mimics the republican obsession with the national body. Just as Americans were expected to put the needs of the community before their individual desires, Eliza’s “body” should prioritize universal reason over her personal feelings. As a member of the republican community, Lucy tries to fix Eliza’s nonconformity, benefiting Eliza as a whole individual while maintaining reason and rationale. This shows readers that sensibility was valued so highly by 18th century Americans, that love was forced to leave the realm of the emotions, for the more easily understood and conformable realm of reason.

Lucy employs diction revolving around sense and science to help cure Eliza’s heartache. The word reason appears many times throughout the letter in phrases such as “rejoice at the returning empire of reason” (878) and “Let reason and religion erect their throne in your breast” (878). In both instances, Lucy is begging Eliza to exchange her own, personal feelings for universal reason. Lucy asks Eliza to forfeit her individuality, which has gotten her into trouble, for community values which will lead her down the acceptable, if mundane path of a well-behaved woman. Foster connects the emotional word “rejoice” with reason, suggesting that Eliza redirect her indiscreet passions toward a love of reason. Lucy’s use of the word “religion” perpetuates Eliza’s connection with the national body. Just as members of the church are referred to as the “body of Christ,” Eliza is a member of the American body. Therefore, her actions should represent a dedication to the rational over the emotional. Similarly, religion was a uniting force in Revolutionary America. While it may seem out of place with Lucy’s focus on science, religion carries a similar meaning in the passage. Both science and religion are universals to Revolutionary Americans; both are inarguable concepts that serve to unite the community and diminish the individual. Lucy also connects religion and reason with Eliza’s “breast”: a symbol of emotion in the body. Again Lucy suggests that Eliza purge her heart of individual desires and cultivates a love for community values. Foster chooses her words carefully, so that they purport the ideals of a rational community over Eliza’s individual feelings.

Letter XLIX, of Foster’s Coquette uses blatant scientific language to show how the republican community attempted to alter Eliza’s individual passions and emotions to conform with science and reason. This is a theme seen throughout the novel as a whole. Her search for nonconformity leads Eliza to exile and ultimately death. This tragic ending recalls Lucy’s claim that she is a surgeon, capable of fixing Eliza’s, apparently physical, broken heart. Eliza’s suffering and death brought Lucy’s metaphor to life, but her condition was incurable by reason and science. The republican community tried to suppress Eliza’s individuality, driving her to extreme measures to satisfy her passions. Republican America’s inculcated obsession with reason left society unprepared to help a nonconformist, leading to the death of the individual.

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