Step aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O’Hara…make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.
“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”
Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg’s ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are.
Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone’s life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people).
By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York’s upper crust.
As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic.
Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart’s monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart’s charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy.
“It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.”
As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine’s conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents’ leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well.
Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won’t be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances.
Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband’s ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people’s misery.
There was something oddly compelling about Undine’s determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others.
While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine’s vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her.
“Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.”
And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing.
Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women’s sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs.
In spite of Undine’s many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that’s for the best given that Undine is no heroine.
While I certainly didn’t find this novel to be as moving as Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, and Undine’s misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily’s ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton’s percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York’s high class.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars