Undine Spragg is a poor little rich girl in the early twentieth century. Beautiful, spoiled and manipulative, Undine talks her nouveau riche family into moving from Apex to New York in order to give her the opportunity to meet the “right” people and make a good marriage.
Undine’s efforts pay off, and she marries Ralph Marvell, who is impoverished but definitely comes from the “right” family. Undine’s father continues to support her so that she can have the beautiful clothes and things she deserves and can take her place in society. Undine gets pregnant and has a child, Paul, who is the apple of his father’s eye. Undine considers both pregnancy and motherhood a spectacular inconvenience.
With Ralph unable to adequately support her and with a child tying her down, Undine sets her sights on someone even higher up in society, a man who can free her and give her the things she desperately wants. She goes to Paris and has an affair with him. She divorces Ralph but gets dumped by her paramour. Undine learns quickly and will not allow that to happen again.
Next, she marries into French royalty. Surely a royal will be able to provide her with everything she wants. Alas, her new husband has family obligations that Undine thinks are completely unreasonable. He does not have the money she thought he did, is constantly asking her to cut her expenses, and requires her to spend months in the country, away from the excitement of Paris.
Throughout it all, a dubious gentleman named Elmer Moffat crosses back and forth across Undine’s path. Part way through the book, we learn that Undine and Elmer were briefly married back in Apex; they had eloped. Undine’s father came after her and took her back home, forcing her to divorce Moffatt. In the end, though, it is Moffatt who has made much money and who can give Undine everything she wants. Undine divorces again and remarries Moffatt.
You would think Undine would finally be happy, but then she discovers that Moffatt cannot be an Ambassador because he is married to a divorcee. She has everything she wants…except the title of Ambassadress.
Wharton captures her characters well. The melancholic Ralph Marvell is a deep thinker, and Wharton takes us deep into his inner thoughts, emotions and character, and shows us how he developed such depth. Ralph lives life in his head, turning over his thoughts constantly, thinking about writing a book, thinking about how to satisfy his wife, thinking about his child. We meet Ralph in his inner world. In the outer world, he moves like a shadow, barely touching anyone or anything.
Undine, on the other hand, is very superficial; her thoughts go no deeper than where to get her next dress. Wharton never gives Undine a deep thought or an underlying motive. It’s all right there, on the surface. Undine’s life is portrayed in the parties, conversations, and amusements that she enjoys. She is drawn in her context with other people and restless activity.
The entire book is written with a subtle sarcasm toward Americans and toward the rich. Wharton describes what is going on in the book with an apparent wide-eyed naiveté, but she is twisting a sharp blade under all that innocence.
The Custom of the Country is the story of a woman who is always looking out her window at what she wants. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the window is, or how richly appointed the room that houses the window, there is always something out there that she must have, something just beyond her reach. It’s a sad commentary on those who are never satisfied with what they have and must continually reach for the next thing.