According to the Wikipedia entry on The Custom of the Country, some have called Undine Spragg’s name “the worst character name [ever] conceived.” Of course, this is offered without citation. I’ve tried to scare up relevant commentary myself, by rustling a few cyber-bushes, but to no avail. Still, who am I to dispute Wikipedia? I won’t. It’s an ugly, dreadful name. But that doesn’t subtract from its consumate perfection. Undine’s parents, however, aren’t likely to agree with me.
Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born—” and then to explain, as he [Ralph Marvell] remained struck and silent: “It’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take. He was quite a scholar, and had the greatest knack for finding names.”
This is a stroke of genius by Wharton. The name Undine, then, stands as much for a product with a market value as it does the elegant curl or wave that a fasion-conscious social diva might impart to her hair. Not to mention a preoccupation for all things French. Now interestingly, Undine’s second husband, Ralph Marvell, a shy, reserved, and intelligent man with a deeply poetic cast of mind, sees something slightly different than the Spragg’s in Undine’s name. He and his wife are on their honeymoon in Italy, and the fact that they’re a terrific mismatch hasn’t occurred to
He spoke in the bantering tone which had become the habitual expression of his tenderness; but his eyes softened as they absorbed in a last glance the glimmering submarine light of the ancient grove, through which Undine’s figure wavered nereid-like above him.
“You never looked your name more than you do now,” he said, kneeling at her side and putting his arm about her. She smiled back a little vaguely, as if not seizing his allusion, and being content to let it drop into the store of unexplained references which had once stimulated her curiosity but now merely gave her leisure to think of other things.
In Greek legend, a nereid is a sea nymph, and even more pertinently in European mythology, an ondine (or undine) is a water spirit that becomes ensouled through marriage and child birth. So we have the wavering insubstantiality of a beautiful nereid who has so little depth that she’s not even shallow, as Nietzsche might say. And we have Undine’s quest to become something significant and worthwhile through serial monogamist marriages.
Undine Spragg may be an ugly guttural choke of a name. But it’s