Recently I found myself finishing my last book. With no more library books waiting for me, I browsed through the free Kindle books I’d found on Amazon months ago. Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) stuck out. I’ve always been incredibly impressed by Edith Wharton’s writing, and I almost immediately started reading. I’m kind of ashamed by how long I let this classic languish on my Kindle while I’ve been distracted by the new and the shiny.
To be honest, when I began I was a little turned off by the heroine’s unusual first name, the many words I had to keep looking up in the dictionary–many of which weren’t even in the dictionary, and the formatting mistakes that apparently sometimes come with free Kindle books. However, even as my library books came in, I couldn’t stop reading The Custom of the Country. Wharton sucked me in with her memorable and terrible characters, and I couldn’t get into any other book until I finished.
The Custom of the Country is the story of Undine Spragg, a beautiful young woman of Apex, a fictional town in the Midwest, who recently moved to New York City, looking for fashionable society and a fantastic husband. We are immediately immersed in the customs of New York City in the early 20th Century, with old money and new money at odds and a clueless Undine in the middle. But Undine has some qualities that help her: she has unending ambition and an almost psychopathic lack of empathy.
Undine quickly finds herself a respectable husband, Ralph Marvell, a man of no business and old money–of which there is not much left. She is almost immediately dissatisfied with her quiet, poetry-loving husband who has to be supported by her father. “They were fellow victims in the noyade of marriage, but if they ceased to struggle, perhaps the drowning would be easier for both.” (104)
Undine continues her life, and just when you think she might be satisfied, or that she might begin to have some compassion for anyone besides herself, things just get worse. I cannot remember the last time I read a book with so much dread and so much hatred of the characters’ actions. I was shocked in the beginning at how Undine treated her parents and how they bowed to her. My distaste only continued as I read.
***SPOILERS (for a book written over one hundred years ago, but I just read it, so there must be others out there)*** Undine forgets her sons birthday party and won’t own up to it. She leaves New York to spend the summer in Paris, leaving her son with relatives and her husband working his ass off to pay for her vacation. She stops writing to Frank and spends her time trying to catch a new husband. It’s the day she gets a telegram from Frank’s sister telling her that Frank’s deathly ill with pneumonia that she begins her affair. Poor Frank wakes up from his sick bed to find that his wife not only never came to him, but that she’s leaving him. What’s even worse is what she did with her son, Paul, who she blatantly ignores as soon as she is divorced. Frank is happy to care for him, but when she needs money to get her marriage annulled she threatens to take her son away. Frank, desperate to raise the funds to keep his son with him fails, and he kills himself. Undine ends up with exactly what she wanted: no need for an annulment and the money that comes with her son. This little summation does not even come close to the heartbreaking tragedy and injustice of it all.
Wharton is a wizard in the way she makes her protagonist so wholly unlikable and understandable at the same time. I hated Undine Spragg and by the end I wanted her to face some kind of comeuppance. I so badly wanted Undine to understand how horrible her actions have been, how much she’s hurt others, and to repent. But at the same time, I still sometimes felt sorry for her. She is obviously a deranged form of what society demands of women, and she is often as lost as a child as she navigates the various societies that are all just as immoral as she is.
-“Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in them.” (96)
-“All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that that’s what really constitutes life!” (96)
-“[S]he hated the thought of it as one more instance of the perverseness with which things she was entitled to always came to her as if they had been stolen.” (225)
-“He simply left it to her to infer that, important as she might be to him in certain ways, there were others in which she did not weigh a feather.” (233)
-“Thus Undine beheld her future laid out for her, not directly and in blunt words, but obliquely and affably, in the allusions, the assumptions, the insinuations of the amiable women among whom her days were spent.” (236)
-“But her ironies were as ineffectual as her arguments, and his imperviousness was the more exasperating because she divined that some of the things she said would have hurt him if any one else had said them: it was the fact of their coming from her that made them innocuous.” (244)
-“Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” (274)
This jumble of quotes were some of the words that helped me understand and empathize with Undine, even when I wanted to scream at her. This book was sometimes difficult to read–but fascinating. Wharton wrote a dreadful human being in Undine: money-grasping, power-hungry, and without conscience. Yet, her book sometimes feels feminist in tone and it has a deep understanding and sympathy for all of its characters. The parts of the book in Ralph’s and Paul’s viewpoints are fantastic. I would recommend anything by Edith Wharton.
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