Thursday, February 14, 2008

Books: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

Not only is Edith Wharton the first female author I haven't loathed in quite some time, she is also the first author of a certain genre and period (circa Henry James) I haven't loathed either.

Perhaps it's because she recognizes the obscene frivolity of her protagonist (and her protagonist's entire "set"), and yet refrains from outright criticism, instead playing our expectations for the genre (the marriage novel) against turn-of-the-century cultural realities (like the rise of socially-accepted divorce and quick remarriage) and, perhaps more importantly, the existential crisis particular to women prior to their eligibility for employment.

Undine Spragg is a vivacious beauty with not much in her head other than blind ambition. I call it blind because she doesn't quite know what she wants, only that she wants something other (or should I say better) than what she has. This applies to her as a teenager in middle-of-nowhere Apex (an American town on the rise, where her father has just landed quite a bit of wealth (though Wharton has plenty to say about the nouveau riche, she's not on the side of old money, either)), when she elopes with the dashing Elmer Moffatt, only to be divorced two weeks later, and as a young hopeful once she's moved her family into a fashionable hotel in Manhattan, where she insists on hiring a box at the opera, and thereby finally lands the "established" Ralph Marvell as a husband (whom she drives, after forcing him to get a job in business, bearing him a son that she ignores, and gallivanting around town with other, more wealthy men, to suicide), as a Parisian Countess cramped into the lower-floor apartment of the family palace, filled with priceless antiques that put no money into her pocket and married to a man who injects no children into her womb, and as an at-last filthy rich woman, divorced yet again and married, yet again, to now-railroad-robber-baron Elmer Moffatt. It's at the end of the novel when she realizes that, despite all the time she spent chasing wealth, she's still not satisfied, for she would have liked best to be an ambassador's wife (men who married divorcees would never be named ambassadors).

Observing Undine's solipsism, conflicting judgments tugged at me; her treatment of Ralph Marvell (and little son Paul) is obscene (particularly since her father warned her weeks before her wedding that he didn't have the money she thought, and that she had better break off the engagement); I would never do the things she does, and yet I can't quite blame her for doing them. In the moments when she realizes that her conversation bores her husband and his friends, and that her new families don't respect her, her humanity—her weakness—and her distaste for that weakness, and her raging against her confines, in whatever way she can, remind me of me.

No comments: