on June 16, 2000
What a marvelous author Edith Wharton is! I like to copy passages from her books just to feel how beautifully she constructs her sentences and paragraphs. I've also read Ethan Frome, Summer, House of Mirth, and Age of Innocence; they are all terrific novels. But The Custom of the Country is her best. Could there be a worse mother, wife, or daughter than Undine? And yet, she is too pathetic to hate; she is so needy and dependent upon material things. She's perhaps the most unliberated woman in literature! Do read this novel; you will love it and learn from it.
on August 30, 2013
This is Edith Wharton's real masterpiece. Before reading this novel recently (I'd hardly heard of it before), I'd read her much more famous "Age of Innocence" and "House of Mirth." I thought they were okay -- beautiful descriptive passages, brilliant flashes of psychological and political insight, but with boring characters and lame story lines. "The Custom of the Country" has all the fine qualities you expect to find in a good Wharton novel, but with an absolutely amazing protagonist -- Undine. "The Custom of the Country" is "Vanity Fair," with its much paler Becky Sharp, squared. This is what Thackeray would have written if he'd had a much keener and colder eye -- and a blacker sense of humor. This is now in my novelistic top ten -- along with (if you want to know some other books I like before taking my advice and buying/reading this): "Moby-Dick," "The Man Without Qualities," "Blood Meridian," "Remembrance of Things Past," and Burroughs' last major novel "The Western Lands."
on December 22, 1998
I have just finished reading Edith Wharton's THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY and have never wanted to strangle a protaganist so much in my life! Ms. Wharton has created a character that could rival any modern day soap opera vixen. Undine Spragg is spoilt, selfish, vain and socially ambitious. When Ms. Wharton writes from her perspective, I found myself at times feeling sorry for her. When she writes from the perspective of the people Undine ruins, I despised her. In the end, there is nothing kind that I can say about Undine Spragg. About Ms. Wharton, however, I can say she has again reestablished herself as a literary genius. In the character of Undine, Ms. Wharton criticizes the emptiness of greed mixed with vanity in a shallow person who knows nothing else. However, Ms. Wharton also makes it clear that Undine is not soley to blame for her character. "It is the custom of the country" her second father-in-law explains of Undine's stupidity, insensitivity and unending selfishness. Women who are so totally pampered and kept ignorant of the real world remain spoilt brats until they are old enough to truly hurt so many lives. The two saddest victims of her ruthlessness are her second husband Ralph, a sensitive writer from an old-money family, and their son Paul. Though it is doubtful anyone will like Undine, you will at times pity her. However, the genius of Edith Wharton is that through Undine we see the destruction of society and families by the ridiculous treatment of women in society of early 1900's. Another note on this particular edition of this and all Everyman books is that they are so beautifully crafted, it is always a treasure to read any book printed by this company. Besides being beautifully designed, Everyman editions also have wonderful chronologies of the author and historical references and literary events. They are truly elegant additions to any library.
on July 26, 2000
To anyone who has read The Custom of the Country, the idea that Undine Spragg is the perfect personification of America would be something to think about. To those who haven't read it, my humble advice is that they read it and form an opinion on that subject. For now, I'll explain my reasoning: Undine is decidedly ambitious,and the levels of her ambition are often praised and lamented by other characters. She is a social climber, and she uses other people as the rungs in her ladder. So do many business moguls, however. So do normal people. We simply refer to it as 'doing what has to be done,' or 'having a way with people,' or even 'brown nosing.' Monopolies are built with these adverbs as their hammer and nails. Our way of life is founded on them. Yet we relish our dislike for Undine Spragg for attempting to build her life in this way, the only way she was taught. We do not notice that the essence of Undine is floating all around us. It built the house we live in and produced the computer we are using right now. It is the essence of Cold Ambition. It builds itself up with or without help, reaches its peak, sees a better peak, and climbs even higher. Success is never achieved, because to profess success is to say that we can do no better now. We are raised to believe that that idea is profane. We can always do better and go higher. Just read the last line of The Custom of the Country. It's a killer.
I think Undine was dangerous, personally. If I knew her, I would stay away from her as well as I could. But just look at the thoughts that this book brings out. Read it and join in the fun.
on April 29, 1998
Undine Spragg - a beautiful women with very little intelligence. Her petulant behaviour carries us through this novel as she uses her family to propel herself through the ranks of New York society. She marries to further her stature and soon discovers that moving in the right circles only takes her so far without the money to maintain the lifestyle she craves. Undine discards the people of her life as they fail to provide the monetary support she needs and looks to affairs and friendships to cover her shortcomings financially. It would be easy to hate her character except for the fact that she is not smart enough to realize the hurt she causes those around her, she never seems to hurt them intentionally they just get in the way of her greed and ambition. At times I even pitied her.
Other readers thought she was content by the end of the book, but I don't think Undine will ever be content, there will always be greener pastures...
on May 6, 2007
In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton creates one of the most unlikable, even despicable, characters I know of in American fiction. Undine Spragg is not a murderer, sociopath, or monster, but an ambitious young woman determined to climb New York's social ladder to the very top. The ambitions in themselves are not inherently bad, and other characters clearly share them. It is Undine's utter lack of regard for anyone else, from her aging parents to her neglected son, that makes her contemptible. What makes her chilling is the odd combination of ingenuousness and its opposite; with rare exceptions she is oblivious to the rights, aspirations, and feelings of others if they do not pertain to her own objectives.
In Wharton's world, choosing the right man was as important to a society woman's future as selecting the right college, graduate school, or first job is today for a professional woman. For Undine and her friends, divorce carries no more significance than as a means to get out of the wrong job. As she tells her fiancé's shocked traditional New York family, "I guess Mabel'll get a divorce pretty soon . . . They like each other well enough. But he's been a disappointment to her . . . Mabel realizes she'll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him." This dinner conversation foreshadows the rest of the novel.
Wharton reveals Undine's competitive nature through her childhood rivalry with Indiana Frusk, and her unsatisfied, reaching one through her travels with her parents. Undine will never be happy because there will always be someone with something she doesn't have, whether it is greater wealth, fame, or a title or position.
By marrying Undine, Ralph hopes to save her from "Van Degenism," which helps to set up the irony after irony found throughout The Custom of the Country. Ralph doesn't know that Undine not only desires "Van Degenism," but she wants to define it. A would-be poet, Ralph cannot seem to separate surface beauty from inner ugliness. "When she shone on him like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?" Raymond de Chelles, who reminds Undine of Ralph, first sees her on an evening when, as even the cynical Charles Bowen thinks, " . . . she seemed to have been brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes."
More than greed, selfishness, or hedonism, Undine's defining characteristic, lack of empathy, shapes her actions. "It never occurred to her that other people's lives went on when they were our of her range of vision." What dooms her relationships with Ralph and Raymond is not money, attention, socializing, or any of Undine's numerous desires and complaints, nor is it simply the gulf between their values and her own. The failure lies in her inability to grasp that anything of importance exists outside her own system and their inability to see this in her until far too late. Because her parents cannot deny her anything, ". . . her sense of the rightfulness of her own cause had been measured by making people do as she pleased."
Undine wants everything, but especially that which she does not have. Her counterpart, Elmer Moffatt, exhibits this "new money" behavior through collecting objects. "To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence," while Moffatt says, "I mean to have the best, you know; not just to get ahead of the other fellows, but because I know it when I see it." Raymond's tapestries have no more deeper emotional value to Moffatt than last year's dresses do to Undine; all are markers of money and success.
Ironically, Undine is little more than an attractive object to the people around her. As Madame de Trézac tells her, " . . . they're delighted to bring you out at their big dinners, with the Sèvres and the plate." Later, when she visits dealers with Moffatt, she sees that "the actual touching of rare textures--bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of age--gave him a sensations like her own beauty had once roused in him." To Moffatt, who knows and understands her insatiable hungers, she may be at least in part an object for his collection. He tells her, "You're not the beauty you were . . . but you're a lot more fetching." The "oddly qualified phrase" could be used of Raymond's tapestries and many of the other old valuables that Moffatt has acquired.
For Wharton, Undine and Moffatt represent those aspects of contemporary American society that she most disliked. As Charles Bowen says, " . . . in this country, the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it . . ." Undine, like the Wall Street of Peter Van Degen and Elmer Moffatt, is voracious, self-centered, reaching, and without conscience or moral center (choosing to sell an ill-gotten string of pearls for the money rather than to return it). Unlike Mrs. Marvell, with her hospital committee activities, Undine does not contribute to society; she was born to take. Symbolic and symptomatic of the new America that Wharton left, Undine remains ignorant and without taste.
Wharton's last paragraph is brilliant, for it cleverly shows how even an Undine who has achieved wealth, position, fame, and power can still find something to desire--something that she has put out of her own reach through her actions. " . . . . she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for." Undine is a young woman; Wharton hints at the potential she still has to leave yet more misery in her wake as she yearns for yet more of what she believes she deserves. She is like a living Tantalus, but one whose every attempt to grasp destroys.
Edith Wharton is likely the best chronicler of life in the upper startum of early New York, and the CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY joins her other classics in this realm, such as the HOUSE OF MIRTH and the AGE OF INNOCENCE. From the beginning, you can see where the book is headed, but the skill with which it's written keeps it from being a predictable read. The herione (?) is Undine Spragg, a social climber on the order of Lily Bart. Undine is a rather unlikeable protagonist, which leaves one's sympathies with the supporting characters, such as her first husband, Ralph Marvell. Fortunately, the book is filled with wonderful supporting characters, and the book's point-of-view often shifts between these characters. The ending is bittersweet, but gives one a great deal of insight into the emptiness of attaining everthying you want. Another terrific novel from Edith Wharton!
on January 14, 2014
Everyone who comes into contact with Undine Spragg ends up regretting it. She pulls them in with her beauty and appearance of innocence, but this girl knows what she is doing - if only she could figure out what she wants. Constantly striving for whatever it is she doesn't have, Undine has a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. If her parents can't provide it, then she must need a husband. If he is incapable, well, she'll find a lover who can meet her bills. She seems to feel no remorse for those she tramples in her quest to get . . . . well, she's not completely sure where.
I know that this novel is Wharton's big hit, but I honestly enjoyed others more, especially Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome. This novel is conspicuously missing the big surprise ending that haunts the reader long after finishing her other works. While not my favorite, this is still a very worthwhile read as anything by Wharton is beautifully written and thought provoking.
on December 7, 2014
This was my first Edith Wharton book, and the lady certainly could write. This is somewhat of a saga and follows the social climbing exploits of an excessively spoiled young woman, Undine Spragg, who, for reasons unexplained, believes everyone owes her everything and anything she wants. She begins by making constant demands on her mother and father, eventually nearly ruining them financially. She marries and destroys the life of a naïve but accommodating young man with social standing she desires. She marries again and again in her quest for great wealth and position, disappointed in some way each time. Nothing is ever enough for Undie. She leaves upheaval and destruction in her wake throughout the book.
Wharton's writing is elegant perfection, but I was happy to have read this on my Kindle - where I was frequently checking vocabulary definitions. Otherwise I might have needed a dictionary on my lap as well as the book. I felt some of this was overdone to an extreme, but an author can't alter their 'voice'. If she wants to use obscure words, she certainly may. Perhaps I retained a few in my more normal brain.
Although an ambitious work and beautifully written, none of the characters were likeable. Undie's first husband, Ralph, was appealing, but, when negotiating their divorce and custody of their son, he does something beyond stupid just when he has information which could destroy her.
I've been told all of Edith Wharton's novels involve the social strata of turn-of-the-century New York City. While I love the era, I think it will be a while before I endeavor to pick up my second one. However, if you enjoy gorgeous writing, you should read this one.
on July 23, 2014
In The Custom of the Country Edith Wharton uses biting satire to create one of the most callous self indolent characters ever construed onto paper. But it is the subtle brilliance of Ms. Wharton's writing that captures the epitome of the aristocratic hierarchy of the early 20th century and follows its main attraction that is Ms. Undine Spragg as she aims to climb the social ladder of monetary pursuits by any means and will not stop as long as her mirror reflects her commented beauty and youth, that is what makes this a rediscovered gem of a classic. Told in a watcher in the window style the reader is given a full length view of character's inner most thoughts and desires. Although on the surface The Custom of the Country may seem a dated work that centers on a selfish young woman who destroys lives of everyone she comes in contact with, the patient reader may discover multifaceted passages in this title. Not only does Ms. Wharton capture and effectively fashion rancor toward her monetary endowed characters but she also seizes complicated behaviors and "customs" of marriage, other social classes and nationalities that may lead to some entertaining debates for any interested book discussion group to pass the time with.
A little patience is asked of the reader who decides to explore this sometimes overlooked classic, Ms. Wharton writes in the flourishing descriptive style and the contemporary reader may find too much is asked of them and stop reading within a few chapters but please don't. Stay with this one, you may end up really loving The Custom of the Country like I did. I find these kinds of titles pull me in if I let them and just enjoy the experience, although I enjoyed The House of Mirth a little more than The Custom of the Country I would still recommend this title for those who would like to find a forgotten classic about the magnetic aristocratic world of the early 20th century.