A Woman’s Worth

“I hope to be the last wretched female, sacrificed by you to the arts of falsehood and seduction! May my unhappy story serve as a beacon to warn the American fair of the dangerous tendency and destructive consequences of associating with men of your [Sanford] character, of destroying their time, and risking their reputation by the practice of coquetry and its attendant follies!” (pg. 233)

In this excerpt, Wharton refers to herself as a wretched female. In the late 18th century, the word wretched was used to mean unhappy or unfortunate which perfectly describes Eliza in the middle to end of the epistolary. By using the word beacon, Eliza got the point off that she wanted her state of unhappiness to be a warning and a lesson to other men like Sanford. It is important to recognize of what she means by stating “men of your character.” She goes on to say that men like him are those who purposely flirt with people with bad intentions. She alludes to this by using the words coquetry and follies-coquetry meaning flirtatious and follies meaning foolish practice.

I found it ironic how after her unhappy experiences, she began to see the fault with coquetry. I find this ironic because to society, she was seen as a coquette, a women who would flirt a lot. However, the act of coquetry also connects to a central idea in the epistolary-virtue. From the very beginning of all of the letters, the idea of being virtuous important. I analyzed that the word virtue and coquetry had illuminated different connotations from the beginning of the novel to the end.

In the beginning, finding a husband was pushed on Eliza because 18th century New England, women were important only in regards to accompanying the husband and doing house chores while raising their children to be virtuous and moral members of society. The duty of a woman which was molded by society led to Eliza constantly searching for her independence because her views were not cohesive with society’s views. It was looked down upon to be without a husband because the females gained their worth based on their husband. However, because Eliza was so confident and comfortable with being on her own, it made me question how life was without essentially having worth in society. Even when a women had a husband, she was often scrutinized because society wanted her to act a certain way. By being without a husband, Eliza was probably trying to escaping from being trapped in her judging society where she was expected to act a certain way.

People in New England during the eighteenth century could easily argue that Eliza was not virtuous because of her flirtatious acts and her aversion to finding a husband. However, looking at the situation from a contemporary perspective, I think Eliza exemplified a perfectly virtuous person because she understood that to be a woman of worth, she didn’t need to be associated with a man but rather she needed a sense of independence. Especially because, as she noted in the end of the novel, all men are not virtuous themselves. Even in today’s society, culture has been shaped in such a way where women are often held to a double standard. If women are flirtatious, it is common for her to be called a derogatory name. However, when men exercise the same right, they are not looked down upon as often. As exemplified in Eliza’s words above, it is not okay for a man to treat a woman the way Sanford treated her- with deceit and bad intentions. Just because he is a man, should not mean that women only have the option to be submissive to them. This novel illuminated to readers, whether they be from the 18th century or the 21st century, that women do have a choice in society, men are not in control of their fate and do not have to determine their worth.