It is proof of Edith Wharton's literary talent that she manages to keep the reader's attention in the history of one of the most repellent and unlikable characters in all literature. It is worth distinguishing: she's not an eccentric, malign genius like Wilkie Collin's Count Fosco, nor a monster of envy and pettiness like Uriah Heep or a demented, embittered Mrs. Havisham. She's even more terrifying because Undine Spragg fits Hannah Arendt's dictum about "the banality of evil" and because of the naturalism with which Wharton depicts her.
Undine is neither eccentric nor intelligent: to her undeniable wile and powers of observation is joined a total lack of scruples. She's lucky, just as, unfortunately, are many harmful people which attain power, economic success, and social recognition. For those who deplore the current adoration of physical beauty and amorality as weapons for triumph, and long for a more "spiritual" past, Undine is a good reminding of the power of seduction and cynicism in every age.
This novel follows the deplorable career of Undine towards a social triumph that is never enough. The only child of a rich couple from a small town, Undinde establishes in New York. Spoiled and tyrannical, she forces her parents to sacrify everything in order to stand out among high society, which she manages, after some frustrations, when she nets Ralph Marvell, a man from the patrician families of New York, but not really rich. This marriage illustrates one of the central themes of the novel: the substitution of the old New York aristocracy and its codes of moderation, prudence and austerity, by a new plutocratic class (centered around Wall Street) without scruples, ostentatious, frivolous and greedy. It is to this class that Undine wants to belong, but in her ignorance she mixes up both groups and thinks that by marrying Ralph she has attained her objectives. When she realizes her mistake, she quickly corrects course, destroying Ralph's life as well as their child's.
Permanently short on money, she turns to Elmer Moffat, another provincial to whom a dark secret links and whom she fears, to make him do business with her husband, which allows her to travel to Paris in search of a true aristocrat. Moffat is the prototype of the new class, a man willing to do anything, even abject things, in order to make an obscene fortune. Infatuated with Undine, Moffat helps her in spite of her aversion for him. Undine then nets a future French Marquis, who has a castle but little liquidity, and so she makes another mistake. Eventually, and after much suffering, Undine will correct course again, when she at last realizes where to find what she really wants. Naturally, this time it will also not be enough, for the simple reason that what Undine does is not to pursue an objective, but to run away from the nothingness that characterizes her and that will chase her forever.
Undine is not interested in politics or business, two thing that bore her profoundly. She's not interested in culture or the accumulation of works of art (something that Moffat is actually interested in). She's not interested in hoarding money, but to spend it on dresses, hats and jewels to be admired in. The problem is that, as soon as she gets admiration, she gets bored and craves another thing. What is it she wants? Amusement, adulation, noise to fill her vacuum. Incessant activity so she's never alone with herself. Money and shopping. To receive adoration and then despise those who adore her. Along the way, Undine destroys the lives of men who mistake her physical beauty with spiritual beauty. Is she motivated by ego, by pride? No: she's willing to debase and humiliate herself in order to be accepted by people who in fact despise her and, if anything, appreciate her as an adornment.
The novel works because Wharton explores Undine's psyche exhaustively, searching for something where there's nothing, but exposing that nothing and its consequences with literary genius. Ralph Marvell, Raymond de Chelles, and even the repellent Moffat adore her and want to make her happy, but that is impossible.
: As a sort of "postscript" to my
: previous post, I offer this quote from
: Chapter 24:
: "Undine had been perfectly sincere in
: telling Indiana Rolliver that she was not an
: 'immoral woman.' The pleasures for which
: her sex took such risks had never attracted
: her, and she did not even crave the
: excitement of having it thought that they
: did. She wanted, passionately and
: persistently, two things which she believed
: should subsist together in any well-ordered
: life: amusement and respectability; and
: despite her surface-sophistication her
: notion of amusement was hardly less innocent
: than when she had hung on the plumber's
: fence with Indiana Frusk."
: I think it is a misreading to think that she
: is all about money. If she were, she
: wouldn't keep going for
: "respectability," first marrying
: into an Old New York family and then into
: the French aristocracy. Unfortunately,
: neither provided much amusement. Her last
: marriage (in the novel) appears to be more
: for amusement, and the novel ends with her
: longing for a higher level of
: respectability--being the wife of an
: I would like her better if she pursued love
: and passion, perhaps because I can
: personally relate to such motivations.
: --Previous Message--
: The self-made "man" quote seems
: ironic, since they were both born into
: wealthy New York City families. They may
: have made a great deal of the advantages
: they inherited, but
: Undine sympathetic to moderns? Well, maybe.
: Bloom recounts a story in which he asked a
: class whom they'd rather be or be in love
: with: Lily from The House of Mirth, Ellen
: from The Age of Innocence, or Undine. He
: expected them to choose Ellen (his own
: choice), but they chose Undine. I have not
: read the other books (although I saw the
: film of TAoI), so I can't really comment,
: except to say that I would remain celibate
: the rest of my life rather than fall in love
: with Undine. She's utterly toxic and
: startlingly self-centered.
: My experience, which admittedly is
: influenced by my practice because it brings
: me into intimate conversations with people
: with whom I would not choose to socialize,
: is that no one wants to admit that only
: money matters to them. Everyone thinks that
: God, the nation, moral standards, their
: family, their personal honor, whatever,
: matters more than money, even though their
: actions do not always support their beliefs.
: I was as shocked as Bloom by his class,
: because I can't imagine anyone not being
: horrified by Undine. I can understand some
: sympathy for Elmer, who doesn't really seem
: to be that bad a fellow. (Unless, of
: course, Moffatt intentionally drives Ralph
: to suicide by his disclosure, but I don't
: see how he could have anticipated that. I
: Her carelessness and heartlessness toward
: her child, the fact that she intentionally
: goes off on a spree with a lover and starts
: the divorce process immediately after
: learning that her husband is desperately
: ill, her steady ruining of her parents
: without a flicker of remorse--she is an
: absolute and utter villainess without
: redeeming features. Jonathan Franzen has
: "Undine is an extreme case of the
: unlikable person rendered perplexingly
: sympathetic by her desires. She’s almost
: comically indestructible, like Wile E.
: Coyote. The interest I take in her ascent,
: her Coyote-like survival of the seeming
: wipeout blows that her divorces deliver to
: her social standing, may be akin to the
: fascination of watching one spider in a jar
: prevail over other spiders, but I still
: can’t read the book without aligning myself
: with her struggle."
: H-m-m. Well, I can. I would have loved to
: see the book end with her complete ruin. I
: absolutely loathed her.
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