The Custom of the Country is a gigantic novel, both in physical size, weighing in at 400 pages, and in the grandeur of the dimensions realized in the story. Although the protagonist, Undine Spragg, a gorgeous vain Narcissus with a voracious appetite for upward social mobility, first makes her appearance in New York, readers are treated to flashbacks in the midwest and fictionally present settings in France (Paris, St. Désert, and Monte Carlo), Italy (Nice, Siena, and Naples), and St. Moritz in Switzerland. In addition to these sumptuous settings, the novel is packed with a staggering number of situations and incidents, from unexpected encounters at the opera, to shady dealings behind closed doors on Wall Street, to the unforgettable and heart-breaking suicide in a bedroom at home in Washington Square.
Fourth time is a charm
The Custom of the Country follows the spectacular rise and fall and rise again of Undine’s social career over 10-plus year period. A shallow, peevish, and fiercely individualistic young woman, Undine stumbles from one disillusionment to the next. In large part, this is due to her mistaken belief that social reality, i.e., its surface chit-chat and rapidly changing tastes and fashions, is something solid and permanent. She mistakes fashion for a “true republic of spirit,” to quote Wharton from The House of Mirth.
Undine marries four different times, using her prior marriage as a rung to improve her social position. But what good is a ladder if you can’t climb higher? She first marries Elmer Moffat, an “unpleasant-looking” but highly motivated man who has a “grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes.” Then Undine marries Ralph Marvell, a self-described “lyric idiot” and a member of New York’s golden aristocracy, whose worldview is ground to dust under the churning wheels of his wife’s ambition. Next, she marries a handsome French aristocrat named Raymond de Chelles whose business is honoring his family, its rich history, customs, and traditions. But a highly individualistic woman like Undine will chafe under this social organization. And lastly, in her fourth marriage, she re-marries her first husband Elmer Moffat, who is still ugly as a dinosaur but is now a billionaire railroad king who can buy the richly gilded tapestries that once hung on the walls at Undine’s previous home with Raymond de Chelles in St. Désert.
Apparently, fourth time is a charm — or not.
Futility as aesthetic effect
Like all masterly novels, it’s next to impossible to convey the full measure of its worth. But certainly one of Wharton’s greatest achievements in The Custom of the Country is that she simultaneously diagnoses the dangers of pure, unbridled egoism while elevating the reader out of the hamster’s wheel that is Undine’s life. That’s quite an accomplishment. The novel produces this effect because it describes a circle without progression. Undine ends at last where she started, married to Elmer Moffat, her mid-western sweetheart turned American billionaire and collector. She has everything she wants, she has her son, she has a magnificent home with expensive and beautiful objects in it, and she has unlimited access to all social circles. Yet she bears a worm of dissatisfaction. Because of her history of divorce, Elmer Moffat cannot become an ambassador to England, because it’s contrary to their custom. This vexes Undine terribly. Bedecked and bejewelled, she looks at herself in the mirror:
Under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an ambassador’s wife; and … she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.
By the novel’s end, Undine may not be exasperated by the futility and emptiness of her life, but the reader is.