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Classics Circuit Review: The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

It’s with great pleasure that I bring to you one of my favorite authors, Edith Wharton, for my turn on the Classics Circuit!

Undine Spragg manages to convince her parents to move from Apex to New York City, where she’s hoping to make a brilliant entrance into society with a rich husband.  Undine is a deadly combination of beautiful, selfish, and ignorant, capable of turning herself into what almost any man desires the most.  She is horribly spoiled and incapable of understanding the consequences of her actions, but they are all too clear to the reader as she storms through the lives of people who wish to believe better of her.

Undine is one nasty character.  I couldn’t believe how selfish she was.  And Wharton doesn’t pull her punches, she lets us feel the impact that Undine has by focusing on several other characters whose lives she irrevocably changes, damages, or destroys.  One of the most heartbreaking passages occurs at the end and I could really see how much damage she’d done, and how much more she wanted to do.

I thought it was interesting, though, that she can be seen as completely a product of her society.  Even though her father originally was poor and became rich when she was a child, she was never denied anything, and thus sees no reason to ever be denied anything.  Her first society husband is forced to work at a career he hates and is bad at to support her extravagances even though she also receives an allowance from her father, and she still complains that he isn’t getting enough.  But he never tells her about his hardships, just like her father never told her where the money came from, so she still doesn’t seem to understand.  At times, she reminded me of a beautiful, vapid child, incapable of truly understanding the world in which she lives.  She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s hurting people.  She focuses constantly on the injustice done to her and on the jealousy she feels towards other women who she sees as having more.  She has an education, but it seems to have taught her absolutely nothing.  I had to wonder if Wharton saw society women as children given that she chose to portray this woman so much like one.

And so Undine leaves male carnage in her wake as she moves on to the next husband and the next husband.  I despised her and felt bad for her husbands and child even as I was fascinated by what she’d do next.  As usual I loved the portrait of society through Undine, and all the people wasting their time with niceties and social frivolity and missing out on the big picture.  I especially felt for Undine’s first husband, Ralph, who sees her as something pure and different and malleable, only to realize that Undine wanted to mold herself after the people he found to be fakes.  He seemed to get to the core of the society in which he could not flourish because he recognized how superficial it all was.  He sees the cracks, and through him, Undine’s other husbands, and through despising Undine, I could see the cracks too.

While this isn’t toppling The Age of Innocence from its throne as my favorite Wharton (nor Ethan Frome from #2 slot and yes, I do have a hierarchy, is that odd?), I’m definitely glad I read it.  The Custom of the Country was such an interesting book and it made me think about relations between men and women, how they were, and how they’ve changed.

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