The Custom of the Country

Undine’s tender imagination had been nurtured on the feats and gestures of Fifth Avenue. She knew all of New York’s golden aristocracy by name, and the lineaments of its most distinguished scions had been made familiar by passionate poring over the daily press.

So writes Edith Wharton of Undine Spragg, the heroine of her 1913 novel The Custom of the Country. Today, we welcome Edith Wharton to Shelf Love as part of the Classics Circuit. The Custom of the Country recounts the social career of Undine Spragg, a young woman who moves with her family to New York from the Midwestern town of Apex, determined to conquer high society, whatever the cost to those around her.

Over the course of the novel, Undine makes and abandons friends and husbands solely on the basis of whether they can provide her with the funds or the connections she needs to achieve her goals. With every step she climbs, she finds herself unsatisfied, but she remains unwilling to settle for anything less than perfect social success.

Teresa: I was interested in this book because I’ve enjoyed other Wharton novels, but I actually knew nothing about it going in. I certainly did not expect to find a character like Undine in its pages. I’ve read plenty of books about social-climbing, status-obsessed women—Sister Carrie, Armadale, even Gone with the Wind—but even as I disapproved of the particular ambitions of the women in those books, I had a grudging respect for their determination and resourcefulness. Undine, however, was a whole other matter. She’s absolutely loathsome! She’s so utterly selfish and unconcerned with how her actions affect others that I cannot find a single thing about her to like. But I loved reading about her. Wharton writes about her so well that I couldn’t ever look away. It’s a fascinating character study.

Jenny: Well, I might quibble with the idea that it’s a character study. Does Undine even have a character, other than wilfulness? For most of the book, she’s completely unformed: no tastes of her own, no preferences other than those impressed on her by society (or what she thinks society is, or should be), no ideas, and no desire for them. She isn’t educated, and never betters herself in that respect. It’s a truism that the protagonist of a novel should desire something. All Undine desires is… Undine, as far as I can tell. She wants to be adored, needed, whispered about, in the best society (that is, not as a demimondaine.) But other than that adamantine wish, she’s a shadow, don’t you think?

Teresa: Oh, I think you’re quite right about the nature of Undine’s character. Undine is interested in nothing but the attention of others—and not just any others but the most “distinguished” others. It’s her lack of anything we would consider character that defines her. Her character, such as it is, is formed entirely by her impression of what will help her climb the social ladder. And she refuses to accept any reality that doesn’t fit with her notion of the way things should be. When her father tells her there isn’t enough money for something she wants, she assumes that his “occassional resistances were merely due to an imperfect understanding of what constituted the necessities of life.” She allows herself and her understanding of the world to be shaped by this one constant desire. And Wharton doesn’t flinch in showing us how Undine’s attitude affects those close to her, even if Undine herself is oblivious.

But then I wonder, why give us such a character? What is Wharton getting at?

Jenny: You’re right that Wharton doesn’t flinch. Undine’s effect on the people around her, from her sagging and ageing parents to the various fates of her husbands to (worst of all, in my view) her pawn of a small son, is unfailingly awful. But your question is legitimate. Is Wharton merely trying to satirize “the custom of the country,” that makes men’s business just a way to lay money at the feet of frivolous women? There are no women in this book, neither those who are depicted as genuinely refined and educated, nor those who are shown as Bohemian and eccentric, who are interested in politics, social issues, or charitable causes. Undine may be the most extreme example of the “custom,” but all the women engage in it to whatever degree they can. Do you think that kind of scathing social commentary is most of what’s going on here?

Teresa: I do think she’s making some sort of social commentary. What I’m less certain about is whom she’s trying to critique. Is it frivolous women? I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to doubt it. Undine is almost too extreme an example for me to take her seriously as a target.

The edition that I read had a foreword that actually tried to make a case for sympathizing, at least a little, with Undine. The author of the foreword, Stephen Orgel, notes that Undine is trying to navigate a world where she’s an outsider and where the rules keep changing, so who can blame her for making mistakes? She’s doing the best she can with the cultural capital she has. Personally, I find it impossible to sympathize with Undine. Her mistakes go beyond mere social blunders; she’s completely blind to everyone else’s feelings. That’s not social awkwardness—that’s sociopathy.

But I do see some validity in Orgel’s point that the men Undine uses are just as willing to use Undine for their own ends. Ralph, for example, doesn’t actually fall in love with Undine for who she is but for who he imagines her to be. So maybe Wharton’s real target is the men who created a world where an Undine Spragg could operate, men who turned women into Undines or who gave women no alternative but to behave in this way if they were to have any control over their own lives.

Jenny: Yes, I’d buy that — Wharton’s target seems to be bigger than any individual in the story, and bigger (to my mind) than men or women. Her criticism doesn’t even seem to be aimed only at American society, since when Undine lives in French society she experiences many of the same conditions and problems. (I loved that section. Wharton obviously really knows the French — their simultaneous love of tradition and contempt for conventionality!) Instead, it seems to be aimed at Society itself (whatever that may mean, as it was greatly in transition at the time Wharton was writing), the “custom of the country” that created figureheads of men, useful only for making money, and scheming, manipulative women, grasping for a little control, just as you say. Everything in society contributed to this — the primacy of “respectability,” the marriage laws, the traditions. I think Wharton is saying that Undine is only the most extreme example of these customs.

Teresa: Yes, the most extreme example, or the natural outcome of allowing these customs to continue. And you make a good point that the difficulties seem to exist all over, in Apex, in New York, in France. Undine’s problem is that she doesn’t see through it all. She just accepts the system and tries to work within it. I don’t ever get the sense that she questions it, or at least not seriously.

The really devastating parts, for me, occurred among the people who could see the flaws in the society, usually only after making terrible mistakes. Ralph Marvel may have married Undine for the wrong reasons, but he does try to do right by her, even when he knows he’ll never have the happiness he wanted. (His story broke my heart!) And then there’s Clare Van Degen, who made an unfortunate but understandable choice early on and now has to wonder what might have been. Undine, of course, is the center of the novel, but the other characters’ dealings with Undine give the novel the dramatic tension that made me want to keep reading despite my loathing of Undine herself. This book is a really great example of how a writer can craft a compelling novel about a unlikable character.

Jenny: It is, of course, crucial to be able to read books about hateful people without falling out of love with the books themselves (see Wuthering Expectations’ fabulous Sympathetic Character Week for some really good thoughts on sympathetic [and un-] characters, and the devious plot devices they can be put to.) All the flaws, weaknesses, cruelties, basenesses, fatal frivolities, ignorance, and selfishness that went into the characters of The Custom of the Country made for a powerful reading experience — one that dragged me along in Undine’s wake, like poor Ralph and everyone else she met. Wharton’s a great writer at the top of her game here, using keen observation, humor, tenderness, and a bite I wasn’t aware she had. Amazing stuff. Thanks again to the Classics Circuit for bringing this our way.

For more on Edith Wharton, be sure to visit the other stops on the Classics Circuit. Watch the Classics Circuit site for information on upcoming tours and opportunities to suggest and vote on future featured authors and themes. The February tour will feature the Harlem Renaissance.

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35 Responses to The Custom of the Country

  1. Rachel says:

    Terrific and well thought through review, ladies! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I love Edith Wharton and want to read more of her. She’s a brilliant writer but quite underrated here in the UK unfortunately.

    • Why is Wharton so underrated in the UK? I’m curious, she’s one of my favorite American authors.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I’m with Karen in wondering why Wharton is underrated in the UK. I think she’s well regarded in the US, but mostly just among people who are interested in classic lit. Are US writers underrated in general in the UK?

      • Miss Moppet says:

        When I did English Literature GCSE (qualification you take exams for at age 16) both my set books were by US authors – To Kill a Mockingbird and View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. We were the only set in my year doing those books though, everyone else was studying Charlotte Bronte (I think) and Shakespeare. I certainly didn’t meet Edith Wharton at school and I’m trying hard now to think what was the first book of hers I read and why. I think it was The House of Mirth and I just picked it off the shelf because it looked interesting. Then wanted to go on and read the rest.

        There was a TV adaptation of her unfinished novel The Buccaneers (10 years ago?) which should have raised her profile a bit.

  2. Eva says:

    Loved reading y’all’s dialogue! I think Wharton is the queen of writing good books populated with unsympathetic characters. ;) I’m reading three of her novellas for the Circuit, and I can’t wait!

  3. I actually did begin to feel sorry for Undine at one point in this book — I think it’s the sign of a great writer when they can make you care about unsympathetic characters, or at least care about how the story ends up. I like to think of them as fascinating train wrecks — horrifying, yet I can’t look away. And I completely agree, I felt so sorry for her first husband, and for her child.

  4. Miss Moppet says:

    This was my favourite of all Edith Wharton’s books. It’s like a sex and shopping saga, only incredibly high class. I agree she is critiquing a society and a generation. I have to say in Undine’s favour that although she’s totally selfish, she knows what she wants and goes for it. Other Wharton heroines such as Lily Bart have tended to irritate me with their passivity. They’re not survivors – Undine is.

    • Teresa says:

      Miss Moppet: I agree that Undine is really focused on her goals, and I suppose she gets some credit for that, but as I was reading, I was comparing her in my mind to a lot of other strong, determined, not entirely likable characters, and she just doesn’t measure up.

      Take Scarlett O’Hara. I strongly dislike her, but at least when things are tough, she hunkers down and finds a way to make the best of it. She doesn’t have to dress that will help her catch her man, so she makes one out of curtains. Undine would have insisted that someone produce a dress out of thin air. If someone so much as suggested using the curtains, she would have pitched a fit because it’s improper.

  5. Aarti says:

    I LOVE joint reviews! It’s so interesting to see people discuss, especially when the books raise such interesting points.

  6. JaneGS says:

    I just love your dialogue format–interesting discussion. Having just finished Vanity Fair, it sounds like Undine Spragg (what a name!) is cut from the Becky Sharp cloth and the society that Wharton is criticizing seems very similar to that of Thackeray’s/Bunyan’s “Vanity Fair.” I seem to be obsessed with what influences authors these days, but I’m wondering how familiar Wharton was with Vanity Fair.

  7. Maire says:

    I love these joint reviews. I tend to like novels with unsympathetic characters. I’ll have to give this one a try. I don’t remember House of Mirth or Age of Innocence terribly well, but I do for some reason recall feeling terrible for the plight of the main women in those books.

    • Teresa says:

      Maire: I enjoy often enjoy books about unsympathetic characters, but they have to be interesting. My memories of House of Mirth and Age of Innocence are fairly vague, but I do thing the main characters in those books are a bit more sympathetic, even if they aren’t likable.

  8. Teresa says:

    Miss Moppett: Thanks for the info on your GSCE. It is something I’ve wondered about. Here in the US, the study of British literature is expected, but it’s part of our literary heritage.

    In fact, when I got my English degree, I was required to take 3 courses in British literature but only one in American. For Bristish lit, we took one course focused on pre-1800, one after 1800, and one major author–Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. It suited me fine, and it made some sense in that there wasn’t much US literature to study pre-1800 and older texts in English are important to study. Still, I thought it was odd that there weren’t some major author options from the US.

    As for Wharton, I never studied her in school either. I first encountered her through Scorcese’s film version of The Age of Innocence.

  9. Nicola says:

    I enjoyed your review very much. The Custom of the Country is being dramatised on Radio 4 in the UK at the moment so that may go some way to promote the novels of Edith Wharton. The extract I heard on the radio and your review make me want to read this novel very much. Undine sounds a far less sympathetic character than Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.

    • Teresa says:

      Nicola: I could see this book being an excellent one for dramatization, whether on radio or film. And yes, Undine is not nearly as sympathetic as Lily Bart.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    Are you two just destined to read books with wicked women for the Circuit? If I recall, Armadale’s woman was a bit of a villaness too!

    Not that you are saying she’s a villaness — this sounds very interesting and great direction to go next in my Wharton reading. Thanks for joining the Circuit!!

  11. Laura says:

    Really nice review. Loved the dialogue and the in-depth analysis. I just ordered this book recently in a Virago Modern Classics edition and I’m really looking forward to reading it now. Thanks!

  12. Care says:

    I have yet to read any Wharton – might have to put some on my 2010 must-read list…
    AND, I can’t help noticing that the name Undine sounds too close to un-doing, if you play with it (sorry, I’ve been reading Alphabet Juice which explores words, how they sound, etc…)

    • Teresa says:

      Care: Undine is a great name. And I like that “undoing” suggestion! Supposedly her parents named her after a hair waving instrument her father used to sell, so that fits the emphasis on commerce. The name to me also suggests undulation, which fits in with how Undine let herself be blown about by what’s popular by the most desirable people.

  13. Valerie says:

    To me, Undine is one of the more memorable characters of the Wharton works I’ve read. I remember how each time she married, each husband became less classy. It certainly seems like a lot of Wharton’s characters are obsessed with money/social climbing, especially the women.

    • Teresa says:

      Valerie: That’s a good observation. I thought most of her husbands were decent enough–products of the negative culture perhaps but not horrible people. But Ralph was by far the best choice she made.

  14. Dorothy W. says:

    Both of you really make me want to read this book! I love Wharton, but this is one I haven’t yet gotten to. I’ll have to get to it soon! Thanks so much for the review and dialogue.

  15. This is in my top three Wharton books. This book actually brought me to tears when I read one of the last chapters about Undine and Ralph’s young son. He was so alone . . . Undine only cared about moving herself up in the world and it was all at the expense of her child.

    Great review and interesting discussion on when people learned about Edith Wharton. We read some of her short stories in my American Literature Class in high school and in college, but none of her novels. I read them all on my own. I kind of get annoyed that woman American Lit authors, and particularly Edith Wharton seem to be forgotten and not taught as much as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.

    • Teresa says:

      Laura: You know, I don’t think I ever read Wharton in school. In fact, the only female American authors I remember reading in school were Phyllis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, and Harper Lee, and those were all in high school.

  16. I totally agree with you on the men created the world where a Undine can exist. She is a monster of their own creation.

    I enjoyed this Wharton novel the most of all I’ve read so far.

  17. Pingback: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (1913) | Unbridled Enthusiasm

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