The Science Of Conformity

The Science Of Conformity

A Close Reading of the The Coquette

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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To The Boy Who Will Love Me Next

If you can't understand these few things, leave before things get too involved

To the boy that will love me next, I need you to know and understand things about me and my past. The things I have been though not only have shaped the person I’ve become, but also sometimes controls my life. In the past I’ve been used, abused, and taken for granted, and I want something real this time. The guys before you were just boys; they didn’t know how to treat me until it was too late. They didn’t understand how to love me, until I broke my own heart. Before you truly decide to love me I want you to understand these things.

When I tell you something, please listen.

I’m my own person, I want to be loved a certain way. If I ask you to come over and watch movies with me please do it, if I ask for you to leave me alone for a few hours because it’s a girl’s night please do it. I don’t just say things to hear my own voice, I say things to you because it’s important to my life and the way I want to be loved. I’m not a needy person when it comes to being loved and cared for, but I do ask for you to do the small things that I am say.

Forgive my past.

My past is not a pretty brick road, it is a highway that has a bunch of potholes and cracks in it. I have a lot of baggage, and most of it you won’t understand. But don’t let my past decided whether you want to love me or not. My past has helped form who I am today, but it does not define who I am. My past experiences might try and make an appearance every once in a while, but I will not go back to that person I once was, I will not return to all that hurt I once went though. When I say those things, I’m telling the complete and honest truth. I relive my past every day, somethings haunt me and somethings are good reminds. But for you to love me, I need you to accept my past, present and future.

I’m just another bro to the other guys.

I have always hung out with boys, I don’t fit in with the girl groups. I have 10 close girlfriends, but the majority of my friends are guy, but don’t let this scare you. If I wanted to be with one of my guy friends I would already be with him, and if you haven’t noticed I don’t want them because I’m with you. I will not lose my friendships with all my guy friends to be able to stay with you. I will not cut off ties because you don’t like my guy friends. I have lost too many buddies because of my ex-boyfriends and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. If you don’t like how many guy friends I have you can leave now. Don’t bother trying to date me if you can accept the fact I’m just another bro.

I might be a badass, but I actually have a big heart.

To a lot of people I come off to be a very crazy and wild girl. I will agree I can be crazy and wild, but I’m more than that. I’m independent, caring, responsible, understanding, forgiving, and so such more type of woman. Many people think that I’m a badass because I don’t take any negatively from anyone. Just like we learned when we were younger, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” Most people can’t do that in today’s world, so I stick up for myself and my friends. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, or their option on how I live my life. The only thing I care about is being able to make myself happy. Even though I’m an independent woman, understand that I do have a big heart. Honesty when I truly care for someone I will do just about anything they ask, but don’t take advantage of this. Once you take advantage of this part of me, all respect will be lost for you.

I’m hard to love.

Sometimes I want to be cuddle and get attention, and sometimes I don’t want you to talk to me for a couple hours. Sometimes I want you to take me out for a nice meal, but sometimes I want a home cooked meal. Every day is different for me, sometimes I change my mind every hour. My mood swings are terrible on certain days, and on those days you should probably just ignore me. I’m not easy to love, so you’ll either be willing to find a way to love me, or you’ll walk out like so many others have.

I’m scared.

I’m scared to love someone again. I’ve been hurt, heartbroken, and beat to the ground in my past relationships. I want to believe you are different, I want to hope things will truly work out, but every relationship has always ended up the same way. I’m scared to trust someone, put my whole heart into them, just to be left and heartbroken again. I sick and tired of putting my whole body and soul into someone for them to just leave when it is convenient for them. If you want to love me, understand it won’t be easy for me to love you back.

When “I’m done.”

When I say “I’m done” I honestly don’t mean that I’m done. When I say that it means I need and want you to fight for me, show me why you want to be with me. I need you to prove that I’m worth it and there’s no one else but me. If I was truly done, I would just walk away, and not come back. So if I ever tell you, “I’m done,” tell me all the reasons why I’m truly not done.

For the boy who will love me next, the work is cut out for you, you just have to be willing to do it. I’m not like other girls, I am my own person, and I will need to be treated as such. For the boy that will love me next, don’t bother with me unless you really want to be with me. I don’t have time to waste on you if you aren’t going to try and make something out of us. To the boy who will love me next, the last thing I would like to say is good luck, I have faith in you.

Cover Image Credit: Danielle Balint

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Severus Snape Is The Worst, And Here's Why

Albus Severus, sweetie, I'm so sorry...


I grew up being absolutely obsessed with the Harry Potter franchise. I read the books for the first time in second and third grade, then again in middle school, and for the third time in my last year of high school. Recently, I had a somewhat heated argument with a fellow fan of the books about Severus Snape. As I've reread the Harry Potter books, I've noticed that, although J.K. Rowling tried to give him a redemption arc, he only got worse because of it. Here's why I still think Severus Snape is the absolute worst.

His love for Lily Potter was actually really creepy. When I was younger and reading the books, I always found the fact that he held fast in his love for Lily to be very endearing, even noble. However, rereading it after going through a couple of relationships myself, I've come to realize that the way he pined over her was super creepy. It was understandable during his time at Hogwarts; he was bullied, and she was the only one who "understood" him. However, she showed zero interest, and if that didn't clue him into realizing that he should back off, her involvement with James Potter should have. She was married. He was pining after a married, happy woman. If he truly loved her, he would have realized how happy she was and backed off. Instead, he took it out on her orphan son and wallowed in bitterness and self-pity, which is creepy and extremely uncool. When a girl is kind to a boy during high school (or in this case, wizard school), it's not an open invitation for him to pine for her for the literal rest of his life and romanticizes the absolute @#$% out of her. It's just her being a decent person. Move on, Severus.

He verbally abused teenagers. One of the most shocking examples of this is in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Snape literally told Neville Longbottom that he would kill his beloved toad, Trevor if he got his Shrinking Potion wrong, and then punished him when he managed to make the potion correctly. Furthermore, poor Neville's boggart was literally Snape. The amount of emotional torture Neville must have been enduring from Snape to create this type of debilitating fear must have been almost unbearable, and even if Snape was simply trying to be a "tough" professor, there is no excuse for creating an atmosphere of hostility and fear like he did in his potions class for vulnerable students like Neville. In addition, he ruthlessly tormented Harry (the last living piece of Lily Potter, his supposed "true love," btw), and made fun of Hermione Granger's appearance. Sure, he might have had a terrible life. However, it's simply a mark of poor character to take it out on others, especially when the people you take it out on are your vulnerable students who have no power to stand up to you. Grow up.

He willingly joined a terrorist group and helped them perform genocide and reign over the wizarding world with terror tactics for a couple of decades. No explanation needed as to why this is terrible.

Despite the constant romanticization of his character, I will always see the core of Severus Snape, and that core is a bitter, slimy, genocidal, manipulative trash being. J.K. Rowling's attempt to redeem him only threw obsessive and controlling traits into the mix. Snape is the absolute worst, and romanticizing him only removes criticism of an insane man who just so happened to be capable of love (just like the vast majority of the rest of us). Thank you, next.

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