EN3392W, Dr. Pressman
Custom of the Country Revision
Undine: Getting What She Wants
In The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton presents the protagonist, Undine Spragg, as an assertive and ambitious young woman whose only aspiration in life is to live in a world of luxury amid elite New York society. The young Undine learns to manipulate her parents, Abner and Leota Spragg, by either throwing tantrums or making them feel guilty. She plays the victim, eliciting pity, thus getting what she wants. Undine continues to sharpen her skills at maneuvering others to accept her every whim, particularly her husband—Ralph.
Edith Wharton not only exposes Undine’s exploitive ways, but also reveals a high level of tolerance for her recalcitrant behavior. The opening sentence of the novel, “Undine Spragg—how can you (447)?” exemplifies this. Wharton is describing Mrs. Spragg’s indulgence of Undine’s opening a note just delivered by the bell-boy. This particular note was addressed to Mrs. Spragg and sent by Laura Fairford, the sister of a certain Ralph Marvell, recently introduced to Undine at a friend’s dinner party. Even though opening someone else’s correspondence is considered improper, Undine’s conduct is met with little reproach from her mother. Wharton describes Mrs. Spragg’s “defence” of her own note as being “as feeble as her protest” (447). “Here—you can have it after all,’ [Undine] said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother’s lap” (448). Undine’s mini-tantrum hints of more notable tantrums yet to come.
The reader sees Undine laying the first guilt-trip on her father when she is told that there is no money to spend on a new gown for the Fairford dinner party. “Oh, well—if you want me to look like a scarecrow, and not get asked again, I’ve got a dress that’ll do perfectly,’ Undine threatened, in a tone between banter and vexation” (465). Burdened with guilt, Mr. Spragg replied, “‘Well, that kind of dress might come in mighty handy on some occasions; so I guess you’d better hold on to it for future use, and go select another for this Fairford dinner,’ he said; and before he could finish he was in her arms again, and she was smothering his last word in little cries and kisses’” (465). One cannot think of Undine as a “daddy’s girl” because his offer was not tendered voluntarily; rather it was coaxed out of him.
Another time Mr. Spragg buys Undine a parterre box at the opera, even though he cannot afford it. But he has little choice in the matter when Undine throws a tantrum, or “turn” (464) as he calls it, and refuses to speak to him until he gives in to her demand.
Having honed her ability to win-over her father by using subtle inference, Undine uses similar tactics to get what she wants from Ralph Marvell, now her husband. But with Ralph, Undine asserts herself more. “She was already beginning to resent in Ralph the slightest sign of resistance to her pleasure; and her resentment took the form...of turning on him...a deliberately averted shoulder” (512).
The reader again sees Undine’s manipulative techniques displayed when she realizes her father can no longer send her any allowance. “She sat brooding for a moment and then suddenly took Ralph’s hand.” One can almost hear her cooing as she asks,
“‘Couldn’t your people do something—help us out just this once, I mean?’” Appalled at the idea of borrowing money from one of his own family members, Ralph sits down without answering. Undine continues, “Couldn’t you ask your sister, then? I must have some clothes to go home in” (554).
The thought of borrowing money just to satisfy Undine’s trivial, material exigency is repugnant to Ralph. With Undine’s knowing that he needs a quick attitude adjustment in order to agree to her request, Undine uses her guilt-scheme, blaming Ralph for her woe.
“Of course, I understand how little we’ve got to spend; but I left New York without a rag, and it was you who made me countermand my trousseau” (555). Undine succeeds in getting her way—Ralph borrows the money from his sister. Undine utilizes her manipulative skills on other men in the novel as well, but it is Ralph Marvell who acquiesces to her the most, causing him, to take his own life.
Undine has become an expert at getting what she wants, despite any obstacle. Edith Wharton describes Undine’s persuasive prowess through a conversation between her and Ralph regarding her bargaining ability with dress-makers, “You ought to see how I’ve beaten them down” (556). Undine beats down anyone who stands in the way of getting what she wants.
Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country. Four Novels. New York: Library of America, 1986. 447–838.