continued discussion of the character Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country
Are we intelligent about how we want to affect men?
Edith Wharton is truly intelligent as she gives form to her critical seeing of feminine unintelligence and selfishness. For instance, there is this description of Undine, who is keenly aware of her striking beauty, and knows it can have a big effect on men:
She…watched herself approvingly, admiring the light on her hair, the flash of teeth between her smiling lips, the pure shadows of her throat and shoulders as she passed from one attitude to another.
Many women strategically use their bodies to have power over men, and I did. “Do you think you’d like to affect a man in such a way that you can have contempt for him?,” my consultants once asked me. I had, and they asked, “Is it your greatest triumph and greatest defeat all at once?” This described what I felt—and I believe it also describes what went on in Undine Marvell. Though she has many outward victories, we also learn of her inner defeats. She can’t really care for anyone; she’s perpetually dissatisfied, and later, she suffers a breakdown, which I see as coming from the feeling that she couldn’t bear herself for her purposes with people.
Yet she plows ahead. Soon after returning to the States, she gives birth to a son, Paul. But she feels motherhood is an interference, leaves her son’s care to Ralph and his family, and goes about her business. When we next see her three years later, she’s so busy posing for a society portrait, she forgets Paul’s birthday. “Intelligence,” explains Mr. Siegel, “is unfailingly a search for true value; and true value is always an illustration of proportion.” Undine’s disproportionate valuing of her own glory has her minimize the meaning of other people.
This includes Ralph whom she sees, as she sees her father, as existing to supply money for her expenses. She neither notices nor cares that Ralph, who’s now working long hours in a law firm, feels life is draining out of him. Resenting his inability to make a fortune, she pursues the wealthy Peter Van Degen, a married man who had lavished gifts on her—wheedling money out of her father so she can meet Peter in Paris. Now ecstatic in a social whirlwind, she thinks she’s very smart as she calculates her effect on men: “A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the intensity of those she provoked.”
The desire to regulate my sensations, not be too stirred, has been big in me. Early in my knowing of Alan Shapiro, I saw I had a fear of feeling too much for him. Ellen Reiss asked me in a class:
If you’re afraid of large feeling, do you think you see it as accurate? I think you can be afraid you won’t be proud of it because it’s not exact….You can also be afraid of having large emotion because it is exact, and it would get you.
I said I felt I wouldn’t be in control if I were stirred, and Ms. Reiss asked, “Do you think being in control, as you put it, is the ideal of beauty?” It’s not! I’ve seen that the people I respect most show that the world has affected them, stirred them in big ways, and that’s how I want to be! Having big feelings about reality, my husband and other people, is smart and stands for me!
In the novel, Undine is sure that Van Degen will leave his wife to marry her; she files for divorce, expecting him to meet her—but he doesn’t. She later learns why: he found out that when she received an urgent telegram saying Ralph was very ill and pleading with her to return, she ignored it. She’s stunned that a man she thought she’d fooled had the intelligence to object to her coldness.
Undine makes more selfish, stupid choices in this novel than I can discuss here, and they hurt many people—including Ralph, who is so distraught at her relentless manipulation, his life ends tragically. They also make her feel perpetually dissatisfied, driven to feel that she’s not getting what she needs. Yet, as Wharton describes what she’s going after with elegant, satirical style, we see Undine as representing humanity—and, through Aesthetic Realism, we can learn from her mistakes.
“Intelligence,” said Mr. Siegel, “is a kind of justice.” That justice, I’m so happy to tell this audience, is a beautiful, practical, learnable thing. It is what the study of Aesthetic Realism can bring to every person’s life!