Wharton in the News: Custom of the Country

From The New Yorker

The first time I read Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country,” which was published in 1913, I felt at once that I had always known its protagonist and also that I had never before met anyone like her. The values of Undine Spragg—who, in the course of the novel, makes a circuitous and sinister journey from Midwestern rube to ruby-drenched new-money empress—are repulsive, and her attempts to manipulate public attention are mesmerizing. For my money, no literary antiheroine can best Undine—a dazzling monster with rose-gold hair, creamy skin, and a gaping spiritual maw that could swallow New York City. People like her have been abundant in American culture for some time, but I never feel invested in their success; more often, I idly hope for their failure. With Undine, however—thanks to the alchemical mix of sympathy and disdain that animates Wharton’s language in the novel and allows her to match Undine’s savagery with plenty of her own—I find myself wanting her to get everything she desires.