An Undine by Any Other Name?

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
Ralph yet.

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
perfectly conceived.

5 Responses to An Undine by Any Other Name?

  1. Fred says:

    That was my reaction also. I read it several years ago, and it is still the ugliest character name I’ve ever encountered.

    I’m not sure why Wharton decided to give her that name, but it certainly influences my view of the character.

  2. Fiona Bell says:

    I love terrible names! I once met a child in the bookstore I worked in called Jet Ride and another little boy called Tyde Rabbit. Only on the weekend I heard a mother in a public toilet call out to her daughter “Sherifa, where is Nimrod?” Parents can be cruel! I’ve also met a Harley Davison and a Dannii-Elle McPherson. And at my partners graduation ceremony the auidence couldn’t hide its pleasure when Wang Wang’s name was called to accept his degree. I wonder what other literary horrors of names are out there?

  3. Do the water sprite references occur throughout the novel? The undine itself is, or should be, beautiful. Although – that father’s explanation, a complete, bizarre, botch. Misdirection? Hilarious and clever, regardless.

    • @Fred — thanks for swinging by. Ugly character, to boot.

      @Fiona — creative names! The only one that turned up a hit in Google was Tyde Rabbit, an adorable punk-ass critter.

      @AR — Undine is very beautiful. Her dad knows it, her mom knows, and she knows it, too. She’s hot, gorgeous, and physically desirable in the extreme — you get the picture. But she doesn’t know the first thing about books or theater or paintings, or anything that would nudge her beyond self-preening. A very unsympathetic character. When bad things finally do happen to her, if only for a spell, it’s difficult not to find some satisfaction in it, or breathe a sigh of relief, as though the world’s karmic balance has been partially restored. Undine makes Ethan’s wife Zeena look like a moral exemplar.

  4. Richard says:

    I can’t really say I’m a Wharton fan, Kevin, but that may be due to lack of exposure more than anything else. However, I love your close-up on the power of a name here: such a simple idea really and yet so well-developed in the post. Interesting way to get at the heart of the novel in an unexpected way!

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