with a discussion of the character Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country
Feminine unintelligence in a novel of 1913
In The Custom of the Country, the important writer Edith Wharton satirizes an idea of intelligence many people have: being able to calculate one’s way to money and high society. The protagonist is Undine Spragg, a beautiful young woman whose newly wealthy family moves to New York from the Midwest. Her parents agree that she should find a rich husband who can introduce her into society and buy her what she wants—and she wants a lot! Mrs. Wharton’s keen depiction of Undine, with her machinations, illustrates vividly how a woman, thinking she’s very smart, may really be woefully unintelligent.
Undine eagerly accepts a dinner invitation from the sister of a man she met, Ralph Marvell, whose family, she’s assured, is “stylish.” Undine hungers for the new, but not to have it become deeply part of herself. Rather, she wants to grab it, and superficially takes on qualities she thinks will help her to wow and conquer people. Wharton writes:
She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion…thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses.
In her desire to be fashionable, Undine sees no value in the traditional ways of the Marvells. She’s astonished that their home displays no modern inventions such as “a gas-log, or a polished grate with electric bulbs behind ruby glass,” but had instead “an old-fashioned wood-fire,” and though she expected “pretty-colored entrees in ruffled papers,” they served “plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize.” “When a person is after novelty excessively,” said Mr. Siegel, “it’s because the old has not been adequately seen….Intelligence…sees surprise in the customary.” Undine doesn’t; it has her value the wrong things, and as we’ll see, it makes her cruel.
At this first meeting, she wants to impress Ralph and his family, and thinks her beauty is enough. Then, they begin talking about books, the theatre and art exhibits they’ve seen. In a lecture, Mr. Siegel said “Edith Wharton uses expansive metaphors quite carefully,” and we can see it in this description of the conversation, which shows the kindness of the hostess, Mrs. Fairford:
[It] seemed to be a concert and not a solo. She kept drawing in the others, giving each a turn, beating time for them with her smile, and somehow harmonizing and linking together what they said. She took particular pains to give Undine her due part in the performance.
But because she’s been uninterested in knowledge, Undine is at a loss and she’s miffed.
Ralph Marvell is highly educated, and has visited “the great centers of art and ideas.” Yet he knows little of the everyday world, including how to make a living, though he studied law. And he’s unintelligent about women. He convinces himself on very little evidence that Undine, who’s different from the prim society girls he’s expected to marry, is the one for him. Meanwhile, Ralph is a deep character. There was, Wharton writes,
the world of wonders within him….What he most wanted…was to learn and do—to know what the great people had thought, think about their thinking, and then launch his own boat: write some good verse if possible…
Undine isn’t interested in the “world of wonders” in Ralph: it’s simply not her purpose. As a new bride, she’s like a woman today reading advice columns on how to get her husband to adore her. Because this advice has a woman see a man only in relation to herself, and not to see the world of experience and thought in him, it really encourages a woman to be stupid about men.
I had this unintelligent way of seeing when my husband returned from a trip and I was hurt that he hadn’t brought me a special gift. I mentioned this in an Aesthetic Realism class and said I wasn’t proud of my response. Ellen Reiss explained something very important, saying, “Women have judged men on what they gave them, when, how much, for a long time. This is a classic subject women have hurt their lives about.” And she showed that the reason I felt bad wasn’t essentially about gifts but rather about what I want from another person. She asked: “Do you think on the one hand you see Alan Shapiro as a person, and on the other, as someone who should honor you?” Yes, I did. I saw that what I wanted was a tribute to me. While not denying the possible value of a gift, which can have meaning and stand for gratitude, Ms. Reiss said, “The greatest gift Mr. Shapiro can give you is to want to know you.” This kind discussion had me value so much more Alan’s deep, good-natured desire to know who I am and how I see the world, and has me want more than ever to do the same for him.
On their honeymoon, one gift Ralph wants to give to Undine is to show her the glories of the Italian landscape. We can see, in Wharton’s description, that what Ralph is amazed by is the oneness of opposites: the “beauty, changeful, inexhaustible, weaving itself about him in shapes and softness and strength.” But this isn’t what Undine came to Europe to see; she came for fashionable society parties—and to her dismay, she learns they’ve gone in the off-season. She feels stifled, and wants to go to Paris. Ralph realizes “with the sharpness of a knife-thrust” that she’s tired of being alone with him; he’s seeing that “[her] mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie schoolhouse in which she had been educated.”
Undine continues on her ambitious, acquisitive path, and feels cheated when she learns that the Marvells aren’t as wealthy as she’d thought. A worried Ralph anxiously awaits her father’s monthly check to pay her enormous bills. Like many young women, Undine cleverly manipulates her father into giving her what she wants, and has contempt for him when he does. Wharton writes: “She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles: the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold—and he did not know which he dreaded most.”
This attitude toward her father as existing to serve her continues with Ralph. One afternoon, he finds her crying over a letter from her mother. Thinking someone is ill, he tries to soothe her, but she says petulantly, “Oh, they’re well enough—but father’s lost a lot of money…and he can’t send us anything for at least three months.” Ralph shows concern for Mr. Spragg, but she cries, “It’s hard for us”—and asks if his family could send money. “I must have some clothes to go home in.” Wharton describes his reaction:
His heart contracted as he looked at her….Her eyes were like the eyes of an enemy….The necessity [of asking for money] was bitter to him, and Undine’s unconsciousness of the fact hurt him more than her indifference to her father’s misfortune.
“The highest kind of intelligence,” writes Mr. Siegel, “is to understand another’s intelligence.” Because Undine is not interested in this, the marriage is a hollow one.