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.