Book review: The Custom of the Country
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton with an introduction by Diane Johnson and notes by Benjamin Dreyer. Highly recommended.
In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton creates one of the most unlikable, even despicable, characters I know of in American fiction. Undine Spragg is not a murderer, sociopath, or monster, but an ambitious young woman determined to climb New York’s social ladder to the very top. The ambitions in themselves are not inherently bad, and other characters clearly share them. It is Undine’s utter lack of regard for anyone else, from her aging parents to her neglected son, that makes her contemptible. What makes her chilling is the odd combination of ingenuousness and its opposite; with rare exceptions she is oblivious to the rights, aspirations, and feelings of others if they do not pertain to her own objectives.
In Wharton’s world, choosing the right man was as important to a society woman’s future as selecting the right college, graduate school, or first job is today for a professional woman. For Undine and her friends, divorce carries no more significance than as a means to get out of the wrong job. As she tells her fiancé’s shocked traditional New York family, “I guess Mabel’ll get a divorce pretty soon . . . They like each other well enough. But he’s been a disappointment to her . . . Mabel realizes she’ll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him.” This dinner conversation foreshadows the rest of the novel.
Wharton reveals Undine’s competitive nature through her childhood rivalry with Indiana Frusk, and her unsatisfied, reaching one through her travels with her parents. Undine will never be happy because there will always be someone with something she doesn’t have, whether it is greater wealth, fame, or a title or position.
By marrying Undine, Ralph hopes to save her from “Van Degenism,” which helps to set up the irony after irony found throughout The Custom of the Country. Ralph doesn’t know that Undine not only desires “Van Degenism,” but she wants to define it. A would-be poet, Ralph cannot seem to separate surface beauty from inner ugliness. “When she shone on him like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?” Raymond de Chelles, who reminds Undine of Ralph, first sees her on an evening when, as even the cynical Charles Bowen thinks, ” . . . she seemed to have been brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes.”
More than greed, selfishness, or hedonism, Undine’s defining characteristic, lack of empathy, shapes her actions. “It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were our of her range of vision.” What dooms her relationships with Ralph and Raymond is not money, attention, socializing, or any of Undine’s numerous desires and complaints, nor is it simply the gulf between their values and her own. The failure lies in her inability to grasp that anything of importance exists outside her own system and their inability to see this in her until far too late. Because her parents cannot deny her anything, “. . . her sense of the rightfulness of her own cause had been measured by making people do as she pleased.”
Undine wants everything, but especially that which she does not have. Her counterpart, Elmer Moffatt, exhibits this “new money” behavior through collecting objects. “To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence,” while Moffatt says, “I mean to have the best, you know; not just to get ahead of the other fellows, but because I know it when I see it.” Raymond’s tapestries have no more deeper emotional value to Moffatt than last year’s dresses do to Undine; all are markers of money and success.
Ironically, Undine is little more than an attractive object to the people around her. As Madame de Trézac tells her, ” . . . they’re delighted to bring you out at their big dinners, with the Sèvres and the plate.” Later, when she visits dealers with Moffatt, she saw that “the actual touching of rare textures — bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of age — gave him a sensations like her own beauty had once roused in him.” To Moffatt, who knows and understands her insatiable hungers, she may be at least in part an object for his collection. He tells her, “You’re not the beauty you were . . . but you’re a lot more fetching.” The “oddly qualified phrase” could be used of Raymond’s tapestries and many of the other old valuables that Moffatt has acquired.
For Wharton, Undine and Moffatt represent those aspects of contemporary American society that she most disliked. As Charles Bowen says, ” . . . in this country, the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it . . .” Undine, like the Wall Street of Peter Van Degen and Elmer Moffatt, is voracious, self-centered, reaching, and without conscience or moral center (choosing to sell an ill-gotten string of pearls for the money rather than to return it). Unlike Mrs. Marvell, with her hospital committee activities, Undine does not contribute to society; she was born to take. Symbolic and symptomatic of the new America that Wharton left, Undine remains ignorant and without taste.
Wharton’s last paragraph is brilliant, for it cleverly shows how even an Undine who has achieved wealth, position, fame, and power can still find something to desire — something that she has put out of her own reach through her actions. ” . . . . she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.” Undine is a young woman; Wharton hints at the potential she still has to leave yet more misery in her wake as she yearns for yet more of what she believes she deserves. She is like a living Tantalus, but one whose every attempt to grasp destroys.
6 May 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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