Why Do Women Want?: Edith Wharton’s Present Tense



Edith Wharton. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Undine Spragg—how can you?” her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid “bell-boy” had just brought in.

It strikes me as odd that the opening of Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, rarely appears on those “best first lines in literature” lists that go around every so often. The sentence has everything that makes the novel, and Wharton’s work in general, so great: vigor, voice, irony, detail. Through it, Wharton sketches a tense and dissonant world in which the colloquial and the bejeweled come into uncomfortable relation with each other. Dramatic and dynamic, this world nevertheless feels intensely claustrophobic. From the first five words of the novel, the reader is tied to a repetitive present tense that feels inescapable—no future, no past, just a boxed-in present (“how can you?” rather than the usual “how could you?”).

Each time we read the novel, it seems, the continuous present of the deliciously named Undine Spragg happens to us all over again. The Custom of the Country, many recent commentators have noted, feels uncannily up to the minute. Its heroine, the beautiful, social-climbing, rapacious, and empty-souled Undine Spragg, reminds us of a tabloid fixture or a reality television star; her currency as a figure who exemplifies the ideas about white womanhood in every era has remained constant. If the morality of divorce—the main “problem” in this 1913 “problem novel”—is perhaps no longer the most pressing social phenomenon to imaginatively explore, Undine’s grasping, financially speculative approach to personal identity and relationships still is.

Custom tracks Undine’s destructive rise from her life as the middle-class daughter of an upwardly-mobile businessman and his fluttering, matronly wife in the fictional Midwestern town of Apex City to the highest echelons of New York and French society. She chews through husbands and children in search of ever more money and ever better social position, marrying and divorcing like Goldilocks trying various bowls of porridge. In her treatment of each of Undine Spragg’s husbands (and their families), Wharton explores the textures of turn-of-the-century wealth: the prim Old New York dinner table (“the high dark dining-room with mahogany doors and dim portraits”); the musty Louis Quinze traditions of the stuffy French aristocracy; and the vulgar electric light illuminating the capitalist acquisitiveness of the American nouveau riche. As Undine moves through these various worlds of wealth, the novel highlights her comparative freshness within the contexts of their enervating gildedness, extending a sort of deep compass onto this substantially superficial character. The combination of compassion and sharply observed frankness is typical of Wharton’s fiction, which tends to love its characters without letting any of them off the hook.

As Undine’s mother raises that wrinkly hand to “defend” against what turns out to be the social invitation that sets her on her path, Undine swoops in and grabs the proffered note with her “quick young fingers.” Undine’s hand, as Hermione Lee has pointed out, is deeply symbolic—always grabbing and twisting and darting. It is, as her first husband Ralph Marvell describes it, a “miserly hand,” desiring and insistent but also cheap: she refuses to pay to get what she wants. The Custom of the Country documents and dramatizes Undine’s wants and desires, from the expected—“Fifth Avenue was where she wanted to be!” and “I want to look perfectly lovely!”—to the comically resistant: she has “a fierce desire to spend [her time] in upsetting … immemorial customs.” In the end, it is the frankness of Undine’s wants—the quick, open willingness of her grasp—that draws a reader in and cultivates our complex emotional attachment to her. It feels a little bit thrilling to see a woman ride the wave of her desires, uncut by ambivalence or ambiguity.

Is, then, The Custom of the Country a feminist text? This is a question that has accompanied the novel since its publication, even as the term “feminist” as a descriptor for imaginative expression remained latent in the era. Initial reviews were split. In the New York Times, one critic called Undine the “most repellant heroine we have encountered in many a long day.” Others acknowledged the draw of her villainousness, and still others placed the character in the argument that white women’s domestic and marital work is work. An anonymous 1913 reviewer in The Nation draws a long, complicated, suggestive comparison between Undine’s violent ascent and the work undertaken by “pioneer women,” arguing that “the rigors of pioneer life fall more painfully upon the woman than upon the man.”

In 1986, Janet Malcolm came out with guns blazing in a New York Times review of a new Library of America volume of Wharton’s novels. Titled “The Woman Who Hated Women,” the review’s central piece of evidence is The Custom of the Country. In Custom, Malcolm asserts, Wharton “takes her cold dislike of women to a height of venomousness previously unknown in American letters.” Malcolm’s essay is a fun, provocative read, but as a polemic it fails to convince. After all, must one like women to be a feminist, or even to evade the “misogyny” Malcolm accuses Wharton of harboring? The literary critic Arielle Zibrak, in “The Woman Who Hated Sex,” a 2016 essay whose title plays cheekily on Malcolm’s, reframes both Malcolm’s argument and the longer history of the “Is it feminist?” question about Custom. For Zibrak, the question is a nonstarter. Wharton was not personally a feminist, and The Custom of the Country’s portrayal of Undine reveals an undeniable anger at the figure of the young woman. Yet, as Zibrak points out, in the text’s forward-thinking critique of “consumerism supplanting sexual desire,” Wharton extends a prescient political analysis of the experience of white womanhood that is especially relevant to the twenty-first century’s “lean-in” and girlboss fame economies. The rollicking fun of The Custom of the Country may lie in a reader’s chance both to judge and cheer on Undine’s avaricious pursuit of what she wants. But the book’s deeper and lasting commentary seems to lie in its exploration of how and why, and under the pressure of what social and psychological forces, Undine has come to want what she wants at all.

Wharton’s prescience is tied to what was happening in her life: during the years in which she composed Custom, everything was collapsing around her. Her (by all accounts sexless) marriage to her husband, Teddy, had been disintegrating since the day the match was made, but it finally crumbled in the years between 1910 and their divorce in 1913. Her tumultuous affair with the bisexual writer Morton Fullerton came to a painful end in 1909, though they continued to correspond as intimate friends. As so much change unfolded, Wharton was trying to figure out not only what she wanted going forward—Who would she spend her time with? What would “home” look and feel like? What would her work be?—but also, tracing backward, how in the world she had ever come to want (or resign herself to) so many things that had turned out to be wrong.

The Custom of the Country puts a spin on a question that’s been asked by men from Sigmund Freud to Mel Gibson: What do women want? Wharton is less interested in unpacking what women want than which desires are even available to them. She was devoted to imagining the relationships between individual feeling and behavior and the social norms, conventions, and values that shape them. Undine Spragg is, perversely, a near-perfect character for this question, not because she is powerfully individual (like Lily Bart, Ellen Olenska, or Wharton herself) but because she has nearly no recognizable sense of authentic selfhood at all. As the critic Stephanie Foote has observed, Wharton achieves this effect by limiting her use of free indirect discourse to represent Undine’s consciousness on the page. Readers are treated to Undine’s speech, and a lot of omniscient narration about what Undine wants from the social world that she marauds through, but throughout the novel we encounter very little language from Undine’s complex consciousness. The result, in Foote’s description, is a sense that Undine has “no secret self” that exists apart from the conventions of the various social worlds she is devoted to imitating and echoing.

The novel’s representation of imitation is provocative, and not only as a critique. Undine is frequently shown watching, learning, and performing. In Undine’s own formulation, “one of the guiding principles of her career” is that “it’s better to watch than to ask questions.” At a momentous dinner party with the Old New York Marvell-Dagonet family, we discover that Undine’s “quickness in noting external differences had already taught her to modulate and lower her voice, and to replace ‘The i-dea!’ and ‘I wouldn’t wonder’ by more polished locutions.” Late in the novel, we encounter Undine’s thoughts on the “superiority” that her marriage into the French aristocracy had given her over the American nouveau riche: “She had learned things they did not guess: shades of conduct, turns of speech, tricks of attitude—and easy and free and enviable as she thought them, she would not for the world have been back among them at the cost of knowing no more than they.”

These insights into Undine’s character are underpinned by Wharton’s formal use of repetition. Over and over, the reader encounters a word, idea, or phrase in one chapter only to find it popping up soon after. Without a “secret self” it seems Undine has nothing but empty space into which she can fit an endless amount of knowledge and information about the world. Yet this knowledge never changes her, never causes her to pause and rethink; it never, really, knocks her off course. We learn that as a girl in Apex City, she had flirted with a dentist, thinking him high-status. At the Marvell-Dagonets’ dinner party, she listens closely to casual talk and quickly absorbs, through their offhandedly hierarchical assessments of social status, that not only is a dentist a middling sort but so is a Wall Street broker. Two chapters later, Undine scoffs to herself about her father’s desires for her. “Did he want to … have her marry a dentist and live in a West Side flat?” The Custom of the Country is full of repetitions and echoes like these: a shocking new idea gets introduced to Undine in one chapter only to show up later fully integrated into her worldview and sense of self. There is both nothing Undine can’t learn and nothing, having been learned by her, that can change her.

The intense stagnation of Undine’s character is always balanced against her climb of social ascent. She rides a “train of thought” that transports her from one place to another but never changes her in substance or appearance. Her beauty persists—her rose-gold hair continues to shine; her complexion glows whether under the soft firelight of her French country home or the blazing electric glare of hotel lighting; her cycle of desire, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, desire repeats. The critic Jennifer Fleissner has  commented that many naturalist plots from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries featuring young women are “marked by neither the steep arc of decline nor that of triumph, but rather by an ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion—back and forth, around and around, on and on—that has the distinctive effect of seeming also like a stuckness in place.” These women, like Undine, tend to “oscillate” and “drift” through life rather than achieve or self-actualize as they might in a traditional bildungsroman. Yet of these women, Fleissner floats a provocative claim: their stuckness and resistance to change represents “a serious form of seeking, to which an older ideal of feminine fulfillment can no longer offer an adequate response.”

What does Undine want? The answer is a lot, and also very little. Her most obvious wants are so conventional (to make a good marriage, to be rich, to be famous, to be admired) that it’s easy to miss some of her more unexpected desires. These more perverse cravings often crop up in her relations with the indelible Elmer Moffatt, a loutish man with whom Undine has a secret and complex history. In a scene that takes place early in the novel, Undine nervously agrees to meet Moffatt at a public park, a risky move that she undertakes while wearing a veil so as to remain unseen on the streets. “All I want,” she tells him during this emotional assignation, “is that nothing shall be known.” What is the relationship between Undine’s more expected desires—the spectacular, superficial ones that are easy to mock or judge—and this stranger one, which I do believe she seriously seeks: the request for an aspect of her life to remain unknown? After the meeting, she returns to her fiancé, the Old New York moneyed Ralph Marvell. He comes close, feeling romantic, and demands of her, “Take off your veil.” As pliable and willing to debase herself as Undine tends to be, this request sets her unusually on edge: “A quiver of resistance ran through her: he felt it and dropped her hands.” But Ralph peels her veil back anyway, and what Undine doesn’t say here to the man she will marry and then destroy is that no matter how many veils he peels back, he’ll never be able to know her, because relationships are impossible when one party is as cool, slippery, and ungraspable as water.

Like many novels, The Custom of the Country’s spine is its heroine’s relationships with a series of men. The narrative cycles through multiple marriage plots, from courtship to marriage to courtship to marriage to courtship to marriage. That’s the story the reader loops through, alongside Undine. But the plot of the book is really about what happens between women. A moment toward the end of the novel helps illuminate this tricky aspect of Wharton’s narration. Now serially married, Undine proposes to one of her many men that they become lovers. Balking at the suggestion of infidelity (and desirous to publicly, not illicitly, acquire her), he refuses to cheat with her, declaring that “There are things a man doesn’t do.” It’s a dramatic and unexpected moment, not least because implied by his remark is an insight that can sometimes be difficult to see through the fog of patriarchy, which is that if there are some things a man doesn’t do, there is almost nothing a woman won’t.

Maybe this is the aspect of The Custom of the Country that most felt like misogyny to Janet Malcolm: Wharton’s insistence in the novel—also present, though with a softer touch, in The House of Mirth—that under a scarcity of options for fulfillment, women often behave very badly, and in particular very badly to one another. Undine’s marriages are generally made not only because she wants money and status but because she desires—maybe above all?—to dominate over other women, and to demonstrate her dominance in public. The novel’s complexity reveals something deeper than the surface-level conflicts between the individual and family, and even between conventions and their violation. Rather, what Wharton captures is the misery of the feminine continuous present, which sets women inside social systems that allow for no synthesis, no way to make something new out of the insipid materials the world provides them, no light around which to gather.

The Custom of the Country is arch, gossipy, shrewd, and weirdly fun, and it’s also a rigorous and challenging book that captures much about our current moment’s reevaluation of damage done to and by white women. “Poor Undine!” Ralph Marvell thinks to himself, condescendingly. “She was what the gods had made her—a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure. He had no desire to ‘preach down’ such heart as she had—he felt only a stronger wish to reach it, teach it, move it to something of the pity that filled his own.” By putting the feminized language of sentiment and sympathy—heart, pity, instruction, spirituality—in the mind of one of her male characters, Wharton pulls off an interesting trick. Exploring his own feelings of sympathy toward Undine, Ralph goes on to describe their marriage as a form of drowning for them both. Here, somewhat benightedly, Ralph begins to articulate a political critique of marriage and of the idiocies of American gender roles under which he and Undine both suffer; yet it is so easily sublimated back into the very elements he rebukes when he sinks into the easy language of passive and idle sympathy. Poor Undine!

The question occurs anew for readers of this book: What will you make of Wharton’s complicated representation of a white woman behaving very badly to friends and loved ones, inside a social world that has belittled, berated, and narrowed her from the start? The theorist Lauren Berlant has written about the dilemmas posed by stories about feminized suffering, which expose yet also pleasurably dwell in the indignities of life experienced as a woman. Presenting themselves as mere reflections of the truth of what Berlant terms the “female complaint,” these stories “about” white women have come to identify white womanhood with a state of disappointment, particularly in love. Undine Spragg—constantly disappointed, never satisfied—represents both the conventional white woman and the category’s self-embedded critique. Such complex duality extends into the readerly experience, which finds many readers eager to both critique and inhabit the character (Undine Spragg’s initials are, after all, US).

There’s something fascinating about reading Undine Spragg today. Trained ever more precisely by contemporary popular and social media cultures on how to find and appreciate deeper meaning in feminine superficiality, readers today are probably more sympathetic to Undine than ever. Finding myself rooting for Undine—loving her blank voraciousness and how capacious her unsatisfiable desires come to seem—can be a quick step to feeling agential and empowered by my creative reparative reading. These days, we stan a woman who DGAF. Yet I wonder about this self-soothing reading practice. As Berlant has argued, when personal feeling becomes a way to communicate with one another about the structural effects of patriarchy, practices that might more aptly be understood as survival too easily become “recoded as freedom” while never quite serving as freedom.

The Custom of the Country is nothing if not a book about one white woman’s survival. Yet in it Wharton remains committed to representing how wretched survival can be, even when that survival features the most luxurious of fabrics, goods, and surroundings. The book ends without resolution, lacking in synthesis. The continuous present in which it started remains. Undine’s mother’s exclamation echoes: “Undine Spragg, how can you?” Readers are left only with a set of unanswered questions about marriage, gender, white womanhood, and social convention that remain important to consider today. Isn’t it true that Undine’s frank wanting is both freely felt and thrilling to encounter and also meager in kind? Is it possible to both appreciate Undine’s talent for survival while also refusing to mistake it for freedom? In The Custom of the Country, Wharton illustrated something about American white womanhood that has taken too long to name. In search of status, love, and money, white women are a force, not always for the good, to be reckoned with.



Sarah Blackwood is an associate professor of English at Pace University and the author of The Portrait’s Subject: Inventing Inner Life in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Her criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

From The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, to be published by Penguin Classics in November.