One is that the deplorable quality of class divisions and the judgmental nature of society. Another reason is Lily's struggle to express her freedom and her unwillingness to be controlled by others. (An overt reaction to male domination)
Another novel written during the Late eighteenth century also explicitly focuses on feminism and the freedom of women and how women viewed marriage during that time. The whole novel is a series of letters each describing the character of Eliza Wharton. This novel was in fact based on a true story of a woman called Elizabeth Whitman and it has echoes of moral ethos. The character of Eliza Wharton closely resembles that of Lily in the "The House of Mirth." Like Lily, Eliza is also indecisive in choosing between her lovers. Just like Lily her quest for an independent living prevents her from entering wedlock and this ultimately proves to be her downfall. In both these novels we see that the feminist concept strives to manifest itself and refuses to be subjugated in anyway. (As it happens in a marriage). While in Lily's case it was money and status which prevented her from entering a marriage in Eliza's case it is the inherent urge to resist domination and be in charge of herself that makes her refrain from marriage. (She perceives marriage as a loss of freedom)
It is indeed sad that in both the cases this procrastination (in entering marriage) ultimately wrecks their life and both Lily and Eliza face a tragic death. Eliza loves two men and is confused in choosing between them. Her subconscious quest to live a life of freedom prevents her from settling with either one of them. But finally when she decides to get married it becomes too late as both the men are already married. The vilely Stanford pursues Eliza even after his marriage and impregnates her. Eliza runs away from her house, as she could no longer cover up the physical signs of pregnancy. "too obvious to be longer concealed" (p. 154). She is more worried about her inability to cover up the evidence "to elude the invidious eye of curiosity" (154) of her relationship with Stanford.
The character of Eliza is again a clear example of the dangers lurking in the society dominated by male chauvinism and moral bankruptcy. Unmarried women fall an easy prey to the whims and fancies of the obnoxious elements in the society. Eliza represents a case of sheer exploitation and she soon perceives herself as an outcast. Eliza runs away from the society as she is the "The Fallen Woman." (9) Suddenly one day she is reported as dead giving birth to a baby. The very fact that the novel is a recounting of a real life incident makes it pretty clear that the society during the eighteenth century was unsafe for an unmarried woman.
Eliza's character explicates the ease with which a single woman can be seduced and wronged in the society's eyes. It also depicts the distinction shown in treating a woman and a man. Though both Eliza and Stanford are corrupt ultimately it is only the woman who is looked upon as an outcast by the society. Stanford (man) is virtually exempted from all moral consideration and we see in the novel that Stanford escapes with impunity. Society does not bind men as it does a woman. Ultimately we get to question the correctness of Eliza's judgement that marriage is a submission of women and an acknowledgement of dependence. But it was the prevalent practice in the nineteenth century where men were deemed superior to women. Eliza's revolutionary attempt to overcome this hackneyed practice (marriage) in favor of a free and self-controlled life has only backfired on her as she was easily seduced and debased by the evil forces that were rampant in the society.
In the final meting with Stanford Eliza accepts her own fallen status and seen to be in a repenting state of mind. She even tries to correct Stanford "I wish not to be your accuser, but your reformer. On several accounts, I view my own crime in a more aggravated light than yours; but my conscience is awakened to a conviction of my guilt. Yours, 1 fear is not." (p. 160) The novel clearly highlights the author's warning as to what the blind pursuit of freedom can result in. By projecting this story of an innocent girl being ruined by the society Foster wants to imprint the inherent dangers of attaching to false values in the hearts of all the young American ladies. This thought is clearly expressed in the novel, "beacon to warn the American fair" (p. 159). This was a revolutionary attempt during that time and is considered as a direct attack on male chauvinism and gender bias that marked the late nineteenth century. More than anything this novel presents a delicate subject of female freedom and the dangers of courtship that wreck havoc in the life of the unmarried women.
Both the 'The House of the Mirth' and 'The Coquette' have the underlying theme of feminism in them. There is the undertone of the quest for freedom and social status in these novels. In fact these two qualities are the driving forces for the protagonists of the novels but unfortunately a blind pursuit leads to their downfall. In both the novels we see that marriage is viewed as a necessity more than a culmination of love. Again in both the cases delaying the wedlock was deemed as a means of protracting the freedom. This raises the question as to the limits to which freedom can be safely pursued in a society corrupted with divisions, discrimination and declining moral habits. In conclusion we can say that unmarried women are more exposed to the dangers in a morally deprived society and freedom can be better pursued within the confined limits of a marriage of hearts in love.
Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (Oxford University Press,…