Monday, 13 December 2010

Literary Characters - The Coquette and The Prude

Somewhat like the rake and the fop, and the country gentleman and the cit the Coquette and the Prude seem to be opposed but turn out to share a number of qualities. The coquette is a flirt, playing on the expectations of men and her own femininity while the prude is the seeming opposite, excessively occupied with her virtue and excluding her heart and potential admirers.

The characters share one crucial common trait; both resist marriage and are thus increasingly frowned upon as marriage and motherhood become the percieved natural state of women. Although the coquette faces a downward slide into vulgarity and the prude a similar one into spinsterhood or a transformation into an old maid, their similarities become increasingly apparent throughout the 18th century. Samuel Richardson's prudish Pamela was easily satirised in Henry Fielding's coquette Shamela as resistance to male advances just as easily can be interpreted as schemes to attract these men. Pamela might be both a prude and a coquette. Although it seems Richarson finds prudery impossible (as it is based in modesty which is so attractive), her flaunting of her virtue in most social settings signifies mixed characteristics.

Pamela - prude or coquette?

Addison and Steele were very preoccupied with these characters and saw them in a mercantilistic light. Both, they argued, tried to increase their stock by manipulating the market. This meant being unnatural, which in the expanding capitalism was seen as just as dangerous as in social life.

Later, this was seen as uncomfortable evidence of the superficiality of gender roles and the effect of this. Assumed characters not only opposed the "natural state of woman" but they also presumed to threaten the balance of power relations. Colley Cibber suggests in The Provok'd Husband that the coquette and the prude assumes these characters to preserve their techincal chastity, allowing them to take social liberties elsewhere. In this sense, far from increasing their attractions, they become repulsive because they are not "proper" women.

In spite of this, the coquette was an oft represented character. Likened to the fop, she was lively and social. Her agenda was also understood as a mere postponement of married life, to which end she would avoid too close a relationship to one single suitor. On the other hand, there were also a number of tragic coquettes. Richardson's Clarissa could for instance be seen as a coquette paying for her failure with her life. Whether successful or not, the coquette always ranked above the prude. Both characters were seen as threats to the feminine ideal, but the prude was thought to enbody all the coquette's vices but none of  her virtues and she, unlike the coquette, rejected married life altogether.

Source: Elaine M. McGirr, Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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