Adam Jabbur, Anthony Trollope, books, Cecilia Macheski, Edith Wharton, Edith Wharton in Context, Elmer Moffatt, George Packer, greed, Laura Rattray, Linda Costanzo Cahir, literary context, literature, money, New York, Ralph Waldo Emerson, self-reliance, The Custom of the Country, The Custom of the Country 100th anniversary, The Way We Live Now, Undine Spragg
Part Eight in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.
Today’s the day! The first edition of The Custom of the Country was published 100 years ago today, on October 18, 1913. Happy anniversary to the book Edith Wharton called her “Big Novel,” her “magnum opus.”
George Packer wrote earlier this year about the experience of reading Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now and finding New York society reflected in Trollope’s London: “Greed is eternal, but when the money flows as plentifully upward as in London circa 1873 or New York circa 2013, and is as unequally distributed, it becomes a moral toxin, saturates the world of culture, makes relationships more competitive, turns desire into the pursuit of status, replaces solid things with mirages.” The same toxic effect appears in the New York circa 1913 world of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, as money motivates both the beautiful Undine Spragg and the self-made businessman Elmer Moffatt to climb higher and higher in pursuit of the things they want, with little regard for the effect of their actions on other people.
In a wonderful new collection of essays on Wharton’s life and works, Edith Wharton in Context, editor Laura Rattray highlights the “breathtakingly contemporary relevance” of The Custom of the Country “in the burning embers of the economic meltdown post 2008.” Wharton’s criticism of materialism, cultural ignorance, and the dangers of extreme versions of Emersonian self-reliance is more relevant than ever.
Undine Spragg understands competition, and knows that beauty helps her win, but she doesn’t understand the culture she seeks to enter and dominate. She makes no effort to understand people, tradition, art, or architecture. She hurts her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, when she has her jewellery, including her sapphire and diamond engagement ring, reset. With no thought of the meaning of these “family relics, kept unchanged through several generations,” Undine changes them to suit herself, utterly “unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels” (Chapter 15). Later, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, is shocked to find that she thinks he should sell the family estate so they have more money to spend. As Cecilia Macheski points out in her essay on “Architecture,” Undine consistently “misreads the architecture that she inhabits.”
This collection of thirty-three essays, on topics ranging from publication history, contemporary reviews, obituaries, biographies, and stage and screen adaptations, to gender, race, imperialism, naturalism, World War I, and the Great Depression, plus a chronology that places Wharton in her cultural and historical context, is a fascinating guide to the life and writings of a prolific, learned, energetic, and enigmatic woman who wrote some of the most enduring fiction in American literature.
It’s in The Custom of the Country that Rattray finds an apt metaphor for the importance of reading Wharton in context: in this novel, as elsewhere in Wharton’s writing, Rattray says in her essay on “Contextual Revisions,” “to deny context is to deny meaning,” just as Undine “violates context” when she has the Marvell jewels reset and arranges for the sale of the de Chelles family tapestries. (Her power does have its limits—she can’t quite pull off the sale of the entire chateau.) Context, writes Rattray, “is the Goliath glue that binds together the writer’s social, economic, literary, aesthetic, historical whole.”
In an essay on “Social Traditions,” Adam Jabbur makes the excellent point that while Wharton’s novels are often “Satirical and biting,” “they retain at least the shadow of possibility—an image, however unclear, of a future that has not lost everything of the past.” I can’t agree, however, with his subsequent argument that Undine is not Wharton’s “primary object of condemnation.” While Wharton has a complex understanding of her heroine’s character and motivation, and is even at times sympathetic to her, she is also very clear about the devastating effects of Undine’s ambitions on other people, especially Ralph. (I’ve written about Undine’s response to Ralph’s suicide in an essay for Persuasions On-Line.) The Marvell family and other members of the New York elite may be susceptible to attacks from ambitious outsiders and “doomed to extinction,” as Ralph prophesies early on (Chapter 5), but Undine is ultimately to blame for the callous way she manipulates her family, her friends, and her husbands.
Through her portrait of Undine, as Linda Costanzo Cahir argues in “Wharton and the American Romantics,” Wharton raises questions about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance: “Fully unconstrained by traditional standards of conduct and devoid of any homage to custom, she, arguably, carries Emerson’s creed to its dangerously logical conclusion, and, consequently, dramatizes what Wharton understands to be the inherent flaw in Emerson’s doctrine. At its extreme, Emersonian self-reliance can not only mortally harm others, but also carry its practitioner to a world fully void of humanity, decency, and, ironically, divinity.”
Undine Spragg of Apex (U.S. of A.) vows to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. She tells Ralph early in their courtship that what she wants and expects is “everything!” (Chapter 7), yet in the end, she feels “there were other things she might want if she knew about them” (Chapter 46). As I’ve suggested in my introduction to the Broadview edition of the novel, “she does not want enough. Undine may want all the things that signify social success, but her ‘everything’ does not include love, and this is the reason why her search is doomed to fail.” Edith Wharton in Context helps us understand the way Wharton lived then, which helps us understand what her writing tells us about life both then and now.
My other posts on The Custom of the Country:
That moment when you’re revising obsessively and it feels like “an attack of scrupulosis”…: On revising The Custom of the Country
Happy 100th Anniversary to Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country! The first installment of the novel was published in Scribner’s Magazine in January 1913.
Writing with “dogged obstinacy”: In the summer of 1911, Edith Wharton was “digging away” at her “Big Novel,” The Custom of the Country, wondering if “dogged obstinacy” could “replace freedom & inspiration.”
“The books were too valuable to be taken down”: On Undine Spragg’s treatment of her son Paul in the last chapter of The Custom of the Country, and Paul’s experience of nightmarish library in which the books can never be read, and no one ever writes.
French Fact and American Fiction: Wharton’s use of place names in The Custom of the Country.