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Kristin Farr


									                                                                                  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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