The Custom of the Country features one of literature’s more memorable characters: Undine Spragg. Beautiful, vapid, self-centered, ambitious, money-grubbing … need I say more? She’s thoroughly despicable, but so well-drawn that I loved this book.
When the story opens, our heroine and her parents have just moved from Apex, Kansas to New York City, where Undine is to make her way in society while her father’s business ventures satisfy her every need. Undine asks her father to buy her a box at the opera. He grumbles about how expensive it is, but he buys it. We soon come to understand the long-standing pattern: what Undine wants, Undine gets. In fact, her insatiable desire for the finer things was the impetus for the family’s move to New York.
Undine watches her social circle like a hawk. She wants to stand out, and is well aware of the effect her looks have on others. Yet she also constantly monitors shifts in status and power, so she can ally herself with the most advantageous people:
Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. (p. 10)
Undine marries Ralph Marvell, who comes from old New York money and is trying to make his way in some sort of ambiguous business venture. Unfortunately, Ralph has difficulty keeping Undine in the style she demands. Where the men in this novel improve their status through business deals, Undine deals in relationships, climbing a social and economic ladder through her men. Each one brings new material rewards, but Undine’s appetite knows no bounds, and she will stop at nothing to reach the next rung on the ladder.
At each phase of Undine’s life, I hoped she would finally grow up and be sensible. I wanted her to learn enough about the world around her to be able to carry on meaningful conversation. I wanted her to be happy with her station in life, and make a personal investment in her relationships. I felt terrible for Ralph Marvell, and for their son Paul, growing up with a mother who was completely clueless about the needs of children.
In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton was largely satirizing the concept of the American dream, and the social climbing typical of New York’s “new money.” But Wharton also offers an important lesson that is still relevant today: there’s more to life than material possessions, and possessions alone cannot and will not make you happy.