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In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton weaves business and greed into the society of her novel. Undine, the heroine of the novel, has insatiable wants, complete disregard for anyone else’s needs and frightening precision in getting what she desires. Although the novel very rarely treads into the offices of Wall Street and only alludes to the business practices making and breaking the characters, business is brought into the parlor and even bedroom of Undine Spragg,
“She had done this incredible thing, and she had done it from motive that seemed, at the time, as clear, as logical, as free from the distorting mists of sentimentality, as any of her father’s financial enterprises. It had been a bold move, but it had been as carefully calculated as the happiest Wall Street ‘stroke.’ She had gone away with Peter because, after the decisive scene in which she had put her power to the test, to yield to him seemed the surest means of victory.” (p.229)
In this passage she goes over the recent unfavorable events of divorcing her sickly husband and then, compromising her respectability, goes about with Peter Van Degen. She describes this play with only regret that she had been foiled in her plans. The language of this reflection is all business, a disturbing theme of the novel. She does not feel even compassion for the hard-working husband who forfeited his health to give her what he could, and thinks of her relationship with Van Degen as a game of cat and mouse.
Undine and her comrades of the nouveau riche social climbers embody the sense of the modern American woman, so effected by the commerce infused atmosphere, they become their own kind of entrepreneurs. Looking for husbands they go about their work with precise study and in Undine’s case, careful emulation, hoping for a glamorous lifestyle for which their husbands will merely provide a good name and unlimited funds.
This passage exemplifies Undine’s philosophy on how to go about life: by calculating and trading. Undine in her constant need to emulate and fit in, takes from the business background of the novel the same skills and puts them to use in her own selfish plots.
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