"Homo sapiens, Americanus": Exploiting the New Logic of Capitalism in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country

O'Connor, Sarah, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Olwell, Victoria, University of Virginia

In 1913, Scribner’s Magazine introduced readers to Undine Spragg—the young and selfish Midwestern who climbs the echelons of society through marriage and divorce. Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country coincides with the era of the New Woman, a time in which readers’ attitudes were shifting about the role of women in society. Yet Undine’s rapacious nature unsettles critics from both the past and present. Wharton’s biographer Louis Auchincloss calls Undine an “evil force incarnate,” and relates her activity to disease as her actions infect American life. Edmund Wilson illustrates Undine in a hostile manner in 1929, and writes, “the prototype in fiction of the ‘gold-digger,’ of the international cocktail bitch." In contemporary criticism, Ammons connects her to a modern Circe—“cruel, destructive, misandrous”—while others simply call her a monster as she rises to power through the marriage market. To read Undine as the villain misses the point of Wharton’s novel, which is simultaneously a critique of American capitalism and a representation of the looser constraints on a woman in the flux of modern American society. Wharton filed for divorce in 1913 from Teddy Wharton, who “misused their money and her affections." Wharton survived the embarrassment of a public divorce, but without the option of remarriage, Wharton became a social outcast and moved to France for the rest of her life. Wharton exhibits a kind of delight in the successes of Undine, who survives what Wharton suffered, and the narrator displays the culture of consumption and exchange as both a nightmare and an opportunity to display and subvert the oppression under the old order. Undine is not a monster, but a woman who takes advantage of new capitalism and the changes of American modernity.

MA (Master of Arts)
Wharton, Modernity, Capitalism
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