I also got all riled up when Undine made it to Paris and started trying to get in with the Faubourg Saint Germain set, in the hopes that she'd bump into the main character from In Search of Lost Time. What a fatal, restless passion you have--not for men themselves--but for their admiration, and for the money and possessions they might bring you. I spent most of the book longing for her to get her comeuppance. I thought the description of the Chateau de Saint Desert was brilliant. I think that the reason why the protagonist — I should say the antagonist, really - can never be happy with her achievements is her lack of desire to share them. The flame of love that had played about his passion for his wife had died down to its embers; all the transfiguring hopes and illusions were gone, but they had left an unquenchable ache for her nearness, her smile, her touch.
I didn't want to enjoy the nasty manipulations, the thoroughly narcissistic preoccupation with self at the sacrifice of others, and the vanity of the beautiful Undine, but I did! In any case, this minor quibble about pacing aside, The Custom of the Country is one of the most satisfying novels I have read this year. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by disillusion. So we should thank her lame husband, because if he were any better, she might never have fixed Henry James. At her best her works are cautionary tales. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. There are many characters both fully drawn and rich in symbolism who come alive in the chapters of this book, complex, flawed and interesting and I found that I cared about them though I can't say I found many terribly likable.
Just as The Age of Innocence packs a wallop at that moment when Newland Archer finally wakes up to what has been going on, however, The Custom of the Country packs a wallop as a prophetic critique of what was about to happen to America. Wharton's unsubtle point that society Society? I think it's a remarkable piece of writing. At least I hope that is not the case because I do sincerely believe that I am on the side of the angels here. The only thing real with Undine Spragg are the pearls and other jewellery pieces that are gifted to her from her male suitors, and the many material things she acquires from others. That unfortunately didn't happen, but it is fun to think about, in a really dumb, nerdy, middle-school English class assignment kind of way.
And, I think, that the sympathy I felt towards her comes from me being a man, because, again, being a man I like, I respond to, beautiful but child-like women, just as the male characters in the novel do. . While never liking her, I still wanted to see what she would do next, what would happen because of it, and how she would rationalize it in her pretty, narcissistic little head. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. He is an iconic picture of the old guard that is being squashed in favor of the nouveau riche. Meaning, origin and history of the name Undine. He never did, he had not one iota of your drive and ambition, and I suspect that he lacked the talent.
I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. It's hard to believe he wants Undine in a physical sense no Edith Wharton male ever does that, unless he's a villain and a bounder from the lower depths and it's even harder to believe he'd drop dead of horror and shame if he found out she was less than pure. Even her 9-year-old son, Paul, is astute enough to see through her lies. He was a big fish in a small pond in Apex, in New York he barely knows how to fit into the society he seeks. In Undine Spragg, Wharton has created an anti-heroine absolutely in the same rank as Becky Sharp, Scarlett O'Hara, or Lizzie Eustace. Ralph does not have sufficient funds of his own, so he borrows money from friends and family and invests it in one of Elmer Moffatt's business deals. The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules.
The book was published in multiple languages including English language, consists of 370 pages and is available in Paperback format. We are imperfect by design. I wanted her to fall and miserably so in some tangible or measurable way; certainly, she failed in about every part of the moral human character and condition. Where does the real life of most American men lie? But no, the tapestries are so dusty and it's all such a bore! Even in the end, when he finally has a reaction, he takes down not her, but himself. They have one thing in common, all their values are defined by money and position. I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something.
I enjoyed this fine novel as a satire of the upper class society in New York City at the start of the 20th Century. When there is no equality, when there is no partnership, there are no winners. However, Undine is not quite as modern as she may seem at first glance. The quest for wealth and upward social mobility is a normal human ambition — an ancient drive that never grows old. Did you appreciate what they did for you? However, Wharton is too clever and too deft a writer to fall into the trap of writing a political tract. She is supremely unsympathetic, equally as fascinating as she is repellent.
It is Elmer Moffatt, my favourite character in the novel, who truly embodies the new age. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton's reputation as an important novelist. And who can really blame me for breaking my engagement? She has no sense of self. Wharton a fluent French speaker, unlike poor Undine lived in the heart of Saint-Germain for many years so understood its idiosyncrasies perfectly. Far from a dignified, morally superior character, the book's heroine, the beautiful but vulgar Undine Spragg, is a selfish monster who takes society or rather, several different societies head on, suffers a bit for her lack of subtlety but comes out filthy rich. Money is essential to Undine - essential to making sure the right people notice her, because being noticed by the right people is the purpose of Undine's life.