Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956
The Custom of the Country, one of Edith Wharton’s major achievements, was published midway through her productive period between 1905 and 1920, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. As in The House of Mirth (1905), Wharton examines with an anthropologist’s eye the old New York in which...
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The Custom of the Country, one of Edith Wharton’s major achievements, was published midway through her productive period between 1905 and 1920, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. As in The House of Mirth (1905), Wharton examines with an anthropologist’s eye the old New York in which she grew up. As in her masterpiece, The Age of Innocence (1920), she shrewdly examines the conventions of society and the men and women who try to break out of them. The Custom of the Country reflects not only her concern with American cultural inadequacies and her contempt for the values of the newly moneyed and growing middle class (in this concern she resembles her contemporary, Henry James) but also her interest in the issue of the role of women in society.
Wharton’s portrait of Undine is remarkable; nothing quite like it had been attempted in American literature, except perhaps in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Like Dreiser, Wharton shatters the conventions of the age, which sentimentalized women and consigned them to passive roles in melodramas or staid drawing room comedies and romances. The novel ends with Undine still unsatisfied. Her marriage to Moffatt, financially by far her most successful, is marred by her insatiable desire for more, particularly for anything that might enhance her position in society. From the time she leaves Apex and comes to New York to cut a figure in society, she thrives only when she is noticed and treasured and when her extravagance is indulged. She grows more sophisticated but her character does not change. It is unlikely that she will ever be content, which is why Wharton ends the novel with Undine’s longing to be an ambassador’s wife.
It would be simplistic merely to see Undine as a villainess—indeed, Wharton does not treat her as such. Rather, Undine represents her times, late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, when the number of business speculators such as Moffatt rose sharply and the old New York of Edith Wharton’s childhood gave way to a new class of entrepreneurs. Undine is a kind of robber baron, boosting her stock and conniving at investments in her human capital. She is every bit as ruthless as Moffatt, but since she is a woman she has far less latitude than he does and must depend on pleasing men and on insinuating herself in good society.
Undine is as much a victim as she is a villainess. Neither her father nor the other men in her life tell her the slightest thing about business. Her father has spoiled her with gifts even as he complains that her demands tax his resources. Because she always gets what she wants, she thinks that her father exaggerates his worries about money. To her, money is something men get to please their women, and the men do not disabuse her of that idea. Even Ralph’s sad, desperate effort to pay her off with one hundred thousand dollars merely confirms her judgment that men will get her what she wants. It is not surprising that she sees society as rapacious. In this competitive context, she is hardly alone in indulging her appetites.
What does set Undine apart from other self-serving, cold-blooded, and unsympathetic fictional women is her almost complete lack of feeling for her son. Moffatt is quite tender with the boy and behaves sensitively as a stepfather, but Undine ignores her son even after she has remarried Moffatt. As Moffatt says, Undine simply cannot help herself. She is so self-obsessed that even her own family will always be ancillary to her.
If Undine remains attractive to Moffatt and to some readers even after the worst is known about her, it is because of her incredible energy. As a woman she has so little room to maneuver or ability to decide on the kind of life she wants. Her life involves constant transitions, yet she never despairs. She is at her finest when she rebels against Raymond de Chelles, her third husband. It is true that she is horribly blind to what home and family mean to him—she proposes to sell the family heirlooms so that she can continue her brilliant seasons in Paris—but she also protests against the stifling double standard that allows Raymond to travel and live his life while she is supposed to sacrifice her wants. Undine refuses to be passive.
Wharton portrays her heroine without so much as a veneer of sentimentality. This has prompted some critics to suggest that she despises Undine, but this view seems untenable given the novel’s carefully controlled narrative voice. Undine is not blamed but viewed, rather, in anthropological terms as a product of her times—as are the other characters. Ralph, for example, elicits much sympathy for his efforts to please Undine and for his acceptance of Undine’s behavior. He even tolerates her neglect of their son. Yet Ralph is weak; he does not fight for what he loves, and his suicide is a wasteful, pathetic ending to a life that had some promise. Having begun as a critic of old New York society, he eventually capitulates to its dictates. That he should be so undone demonstrates how ill-prepared he was to contend with life.
Narrow and unimaginative as Undine’s parents are, they at least instill in their daughter a will not merely to live but to prevail. What she wants may be vulgar and worthless, yet without energy like hers, social change would be impossible. Without her kind of irreverence, women would be at the mercy of either the Ralphs or the Raymonds. In the context of the dynamic, rapidly changing early twentieth century society, Undine is an appropriate and brilliantly realized creation.