Saturday, February 1, 2014
Mop Philosophy Book Club: The Custom of the Country
-Raymond de Chelles, to Undine Spragg, Book V, Chapter XLII, The Custom of the Country
As the enchantment of Undine's beauty fades and the realization of what she truly holds dear seemingly slaps Raymond de Chelles across the face he is finally able to articulate what we, as readers, are thinking: Undine Spragg is a brittle shell of pretty hair and finery with a hollow centre. She adores wealth, the "next thing", and is ruthless and clawing in her savage desire to be always the richest, the prettiest and the most socially accomplished. Her shining moments involve sweeping into rooms, radiant and dazzling with beauty and wealth, a captivating vision which quickly dissipates as she opens her mouth... for she has nothing of any interest to say and her understanding does not extend past the superficial and the obvious.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the drawing rooms of Paris, where women are expected to be well turned-out but also to have cultivated their intellect through books and conversation. Beauty inside and out as it were.
Why did Edith Wharton draw such a despicable character as Undine Spragg? Does Undine represent everything Edith Wharton found alarming about her own country?
If Ralph Marvell represented everything that was good, solid and intelligent in New York society, why does he display a certain lack of courage when confronted with the hollow yet powerful Undine? In taking his own life is he displaying weakness or is this a result of Undine's destruction of anything that blocks her ruthless path?
As a character I found Elmer Moffatt almost decent, did you find him at least honest and straight, or does he just seem this way when compared to the terror that is Undine?
What do you think Edith Wharton would say about the new social climbers? Did you think this novel was prescient of our materialism, our current celebrity culture? For an excellent perspective on this and to see how Undine is still being discussed today please read THIS ARTICLE, it was sent to me by our Wendy and I think you'll find it interesting...
Does Mrs. Heeny represent the media's participation in building a hollow celebrity culture, with her bag of clippings? Is the heartbreak of Paul Marvell's life illustrated as Mrs. Heeny reads aloud the clipping she carries describing his mother's divorce from his beloved "French Father" and immediate remarriage to Elmer Moffatt? Is Paul Marvell's sad and lonely life the ultimate criticism of Undine Spragg and her selfish, vacuous ideals?
Any and all thoughts you have on the book will be greatly appreciated, I feel a book like this leaves much to discuss and that conversation could go in many directions...