I began to read The Best of Everything, but then I lost interest. And then I thought I’d revisit The Custom of the Country. I felt like I needed a little Undine Spragg in my life. And I wanted to write about The Custom of the Country again, because I feel as though I can express my love for this book better than when I first started my humble little blog.
I’m not sure that I even wrote what The Custom of the Country was about in my first post. Well, here goes: The novel is set, at the beginning, in post-Civil War New York. Young and beautiful (and extremely ambitious) Undine Spragg persuaded her parents to move there from Apex, Kansas, in order for her, Undine, to achieve social success. However, it’s not easy to break into the insular world of New York society. But Undine is nothing if not determined, and after some shrewd moves, she marries Ralph Marvell, a member of one of the old New York families. And that’s where things get interesting. Undine Spragg is the kind of person who has unrepentant ambition, and uses marriage as a substitute of business success that, because she is female, is off limits to her at the time. If Undine Spragg were around today, and actually able to use her mind in a public arena, she’d probably be like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg.
I like to think of The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth as Wharton’s trifecta of perfect fiction. I mentioned before that Undine Spragg was a foil for Lily Bart from The House of Mirth. It’s true. Whereas Lily Bart was passive, Undine Spragg was very active. Undine Spragg didn’t let setbacks stand in the way of reaching her goals (and, without being too telling, this is why I needed a little Undine Spragg in my life). I think Lily Bart should have fought back against those who were out to get her. If only Lily Bart had Undine’s spunk…but then again, I must remember that these are fictional characters!
While rereading this book, I realized how the novel really ties together a lot of what I’ve read and seen since I started this blog. Eve Harrington from All About Eve is reminiscent of Undine Spragg. Eve elbows her way into the theater world in the same way that Undine Spragg fights her way into New York society. Both women are shrewd and calculating, although Eve is portrayed as more of a villain than Undine Spragg. I also mentioned in my original TCOTC post that Undine is a bit like Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Both are ruthless when it comes to getting what they want. There’s a line from The Godfather Part II, said to Michael by his wife, that I think also applies to Undine: “I suppose I always knew you were too smart to let any of them ever beat you.” Undine Spragg is also like Cleo Judson from The Living Is Easy. Both women are cunning and, though they are mothers, they are not very maternal. And they like to get shit done and don’t mind stepping on a few feelings to do it.
Also, I love how The Custom of the Country is pretty funny. I think it’s great how Edith Wharton, who was such a classy writer and a paragon of American literature, could be humorous. I believe that the subjects and themes Edith Wharton wrote about are universal, despite being set in a rarefied world. That is why I love her so much. And because she wrote a sentence like this: “Where had she seen before this grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes?” Love it.
Great passage: Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her marriage but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for her; but it was plain that the “more” would never be much, and that he would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man’s natural tribute to woman’s merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to be the critic of her conduct.
Up next: The Book Thief