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Kristin Farr October 5, 2004 The Tombstones of the Women in The Coquette and The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Coquette by Hannah W. Foster both present a beautiful woman who challenges society’s rules for her behavior dealing with courtship, marriage, and sexuality. In the end of each of the novels, this daring young woman lies cold in her grave, one dying surrounded by strangers and one dying in the very place of her sin and punishment, which she could have fled from but chose not to. The last thought the reader is left with is the inscription on the tombstones of each of these women. The conflict that the books impart, as to whether the women are shameful sinners or independent and brave heroines, is left all the more unsettled because of the ambiguous implications that is made by each of the inscriptions. The final images, and thus the final thoughts of the women, can be seen as yet another way to preach against mortal sin and its consequences, in the viewing of each as a cautionary tale, or it can be seen as a sign of change of the standards of women in society, in the viewing of each woman as a sympathetic character. In The Coquette, Eliza Wharton’s tombstone is inscribed with an endearing and praising dedication; it says she was tender, loving, and benevolent and that she had many friends weeping over her death. This could imply two different things. The first supports the idea that her death after giving birth to a product of sin is a great teacher of moral lessons. Eliza is seen as an immoral woman from the beginning; she feels pleasure at being able to be free from her mother and the man she desired Eliza to marry, and she wants to partake in youthful pleasures and charms of freedom without being “shackled” or tied down, as society’s standards would have her. She is an even worse sinner for choosing to have a relationship with Sanford, an “immoral, not to say profligate man” (16) who is well known for lacking virtue, because he is a “professed libertine; by having too successfully practiced the art of seduction; by triumphing in the destruction of innocence and the peace of families!” (20) Eliza falls prey to his deceptiveness, even after having been warned against him and told that he has intentions to marry some other woman for the purpose of mending his fortunes and advised to choose Boyer, a respected and praised man. Even after Sanford is married to someone else, she has an illicit sexual affair with him, becoming pregnant and dying during childbirth, after in her last days becoming a depressed shadow of her former self, wallowing in a deep and unshakable guilt. It is okay that she lived and sinned because the consequences of her sin, what her life became as a result of her sin, make her story one of caution, to warn other women the dangers of a sinful life. Her physical decay from living in and hiding such great sins resembles Dimmesdale’s, as her “health has fallen sacrifice to a disordered mind” (146), showing the tragic effects of her sin. She even dies surrounded by strangers, and this is emphasized strongly in the inscription; her sin turns her into a person of recluse who cannot find happiness and does not enjoy the things that once made her happy. Interestingly, she speaks of her own death as a tale of caution, when she says, “May my unhappy story serve as a beacon” (159). The inscription could also possibly be praiseworthy because she dies at such a young age, as premature death resulting from sin (as she died after giving birth to the very product of sin), can be seen as an additional reason why readers should choose not to live like her. The second implication made by the kindly inscription supports the viewing of Eliza as a sympathetic character and shows a possible change of the times. The fact still remains, regardless of how sinful her life was, that the inscription is quite compassionate, and it is very perplexing why she would be praised so if her story was just to tell a moral lesson. Foster creates this specific last impression of Eliza to create a sense of sympathy. Eliza is portrayed in the last several letters as being in a state of total brokenness; she is a woman who is humbling herself, admitting all of her wrongdoings and guilt, begging for forgiveness, and even speaking with religious undertones, seeming to anticipate God’s mercy. She has no desire to live, and nothing can make her happy or free of the burden of her sinful actions. This humbling of herself can almost be seen in a religious light; it can be paralleled to religious confession, repentance, and then forgiveness, followed by the rejection of anything sinful in the future. After admitting she is a foul sinner, Eliza is forgiven by those around her; “However great your transgressions, be assured of my forgiveness, my compassion, and my continued love,” her mother says, and Julia tells her, “Your penitential tears have obliterated your guilt and blotted out your errors” (149). She also then boldly repels sin, in the form of Sanford, in the end, accusing him in a series of passionate exclamations of severing the “tenderest ties of nature” and breaking the innocent heart of his wife, among other things. But she still forgives him, as it is necessary to forgive others that she herself can be forgiven. She also speaks of her own death several times right before it, in shockingly religious and faithful terms. The first time, she declares that she expects to find rest in the “mansion” (142), even though others do not seem to understand how someone so sinful can enter this mansion, and she begs for pity. Again later, she speaks of a “state of eternal rest, which vile as I am I hope to obtain through the infinite mercy of heaven” (146). In this way, through her story, the moral of confession and forgiveness and heavenly mercy can be found. The author seems to be making the implication that because she allowed herself to be broken, sought forgiveness, and forgave other people, she can also be forgiven by God and man and even praised. If God will allow her to be at rest, surely man should be sympathetic to her and should offer her this pity and forgiveness as well by throwing “a veil over her frailties” (169). The least man can do is to grant her dying wish, “to bury my crimes in the grave with me and to preserve the remembrances of my former virtues which engaged your love and confidence” (186). Also, Eliza can be praised because her virtuous revival, even in her death, made changes in other characters as well. In addition to her acknowledgment of her youthful follies, she also says that she is praying for Sanford, and she encourages him to go back to his wife and become virtuous. Perhaps because of her humility in the end, he finally understands what a terrible sinful person he has been in the end when his wife leaves him, and he is left with nothing. He is, like Eliza, in a totally broken state, having to humble himself just as she did. Hester in The Scarlet Letter, like Eliza, has a sinful extramarital relationship (with an ironic twist, since in this story, it is the reverend who partakes in the sin with her.) The scarlet letter, which she is forced to wear as punishment for adultery, becomes the symbol of her, it even in a sense becomes her as she is not even recognized by her own daughter without it, and this letter is even put on her grave. However, because the scarlet letter itself comes to be more than an outward marking of sin, the fact that it is what she is remembered by in death has duplicate implications as well. The Scarlet Letter can be seen as a cautionary tale, and in this reading, the letter on the grave serves as a reminder of Hester’s story and the consequences of her sins as well as the idea that sin lingers even in death. The A is initially “the Black Man’s mark,” and implications are made outright throughout the novel about the letter itself, and thus the book of the same name, being an object to warn against sin. She will be “a living sermon against sin, until the ignominous letter be engraved upon her tombstone.” The narrator also says she will “become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion” (71). The letter, and the sin that forces her to wear the letter, makes Hester miserable and ashamed. Even when she starts sewing for townsmen, she never feels like she belongs; she still feels banished, alone, and shameful. When the scarlet letter becomes seen differently and is no looked upon with so much scorn and disrespect, it is still the object that seems to prevent her from being a beautiful woman. When she takes it off, she lets down the beautiful hair that was praised so highly in the beginning, and she becomes a beautiful woman, free of guilt. “As if there were a withering spell in the sad letter,” Hawthorne writes when she puts the letter on, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine” (184). But Hester will not take it off because she says that man cannot simply free her of the burden of her sin that easily. Regardless of what changes are made in her life, she is never able to find peace because of the letter. Thus the fact that the letter followed her even unto her grave seems to warn readers about the consequences of mortal sexual sin like that which Hester committed. The letter on her grave will continue to remind people of her tale, of her actions which destroyed several of the parties involved, for years to come. Once a sin of such great proportion and with such tragic results is committed, it cannot be gotten rid of, even in cold death. However, by the end of the novel, the letter also has shifted greatly in meaning. Several times, Hawthorne writes about it losing the terrible shameful meaning that previously accompanied it, and one time, he even says that it came to be read as “able.” At first the gossiping women watching Hester serve her three hours on the scaffold, belittled her and looked far, far down upon her, saying it would more fittingly be made of old ugly flannel, but then it becomes much different. From the time of her sin, she tries to live a life of “blameless purity” (140). She became a devoted townswoman, giving to the poor “even though the bitter-hearted pauper threw back a jibe,” yet still refusing “to share in the world’s privileges” because she still felt the need to isolate herself in some way. In fact, the letter itself comes to be seen as a token of good deeds, “with comfort in its unearthly ray” (140). In this reading, the letter on the tombstone carries with it the idea of Hester as a sympathetic character, who tried desperately to change her former ways, and in large part succeeding, although still feeling unworthy of praise and shameful to the point that she will not even look people in the face in daylight. The fact that the letter removes her from humanity into her own sphere could also possibly be seen as a positive thing. She was very different from other women, and she was able to show this, to challenge society’s impositions and to show the spirit she “embibes.” The letter she wore, which is how she was remembered on her grave, showed her sin, but it also shows her attempt at freedom and the fact that she rebelled. When she goes back home, although it had said early in the novel that the letter would be on her tombstone, if she had not made the decision to go back home and wear it, it may not have been on her grave. When she puts it on the last time, she does so by her own free will. The Coquette and The Scarlet Letter can be read as cautionary tales, with the female character serving a moral example of the horror of sin, or as stories of sympathy and changes in values or perspectives. The final image each author conjures up of the main female character does not clarify the purpose of the novel, the lesson it is supposed to convey; instead, the message at the graves of each of the women is yet another element of ambiguity, carrying two opposing implications. In the final thoughts of each woman, the reader is left to decide if Hester and Eliza are women whose stories can be used to preach against mortal sins, or if they are women who should be sympathized with, forgiven, and then bestowed with a new, less shameful identity.
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