The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton: portrait of an avid and dangerously beautiful woman

“Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but still she felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton.

Here are described Undine Spragg’s insatiable desires, extending their claws of avidity towards things she cannot imagine. This young lady,  fascinating heroine of Edith Wharton’s acclaimed novel The Custom of the Country, is governed by two elements as vital to her as air is to a normal being: money and social triumph. Coldly ambitious, devastatingly beautiful, she makes her way up to the highest elite circles of New York, thanks to the only business her narrow mind is able to understand: marriages. And that is how she ensnares Ralph Marvell, rich heir of an old and traditional family, who, misled by her glorious beauty, makes it his mission in life to protect Undine from the very things she has vowed to get. This grave misunderstanding is only one of the many elements that will allow for a progressive unveiling, throughout the novel, of Undine’s selfish and sickly manipulative personality.

For Undine adores power. More exactly, she adores the kind of power that comes from money. In her worldview, everything, everything, from marriage contracts to old and cherished paintings to children’s custody, is narrowed down to its financial value. Utterly innocent of the business world, to whom the men around her belong, she quickly gets the knack of converting love into money. Not her love, of course, because Undine doesn’t love anyone but herself. But the love that men, mesmerized by her stunning beauty, vow to her, along with all their belongings, which is the only thing that Undine expects.

The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton, Bantam Classic

The virtuosity with which Wharton handles inner focalisation, moving smoothly from one character to another, elaborates grim contrasts between Undine’s cunning mind and those of others, ignorant, or powerless victims, of her machinations. Wharton’s incisive prose sheds lights on the darkest areas of her characters’ minds which she exposes without scruples. The Custom of the Country is a scathing critique of New York’s aristocracy at the beginning of the XX° century, of its complex as much as superficial social rules, of its perverse effects; of this unending materialist quest that can only lead to frustration and anger. For during the whole novel, Undine evolves in the most glorious social circles, attired in the most beautiful dresses, dwelling in the most comfortable hotels; but she is never satisfied. Because she has staked her life on possessions and the senseless accumulation of wealth, she is propelled into a course of action that leads her to make the most scandalous decisions, which her beauty, somehow, always manages to atone. Never sincere except when she expresses her wishes, cravings and whims, she is devilishly intelligent when it comes to extracting promises from men, or to convince herself that the disasters in her life are none of her doings. Undine Spragg is a heroine like no other. With her, Edith Wharton invites us in the depth of a mind that knows no other interest than its own. If we can, from time to time, recognize the seductive tricks we might have used once or twice to extract a promise from a loved one, the extent to which Undine does this is unparalleled and bathes us into a hypnotic terror. Unapologetic, Undine never blemishes, never doubts that she’s in the right, never regrets anything. Yet, what Undine’s materialist quests reveal, in the end, is the prodigious and paradoxical solitude of a woman who, though surrounded by the most brilliant people, cannot share anything with them, because inside, she’s as shallow as the surface of the mirrors in which she loves to admire herself.

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