Character Analysis: Undine Spragg and Elmer Moffat

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Edith Wharton is well known for her vivid descriptions of wealthy, upper class New York society and their old-fashioned mores. The Custom of the Country illustrates not only the strict values of ‘old money,' from which Wharton herself descended, but, also, the variance in customs held by those with new money, as well as those from other states and abroad. Two of the novel's main characters that attempt to join this society exemplify the conflicts they face as their imbedded small-town, yet, somewhat modern values clash with those of New York society, further demonstrating the shift of values in American society near the end of the Gilded Age. As Undine Spragg and her family move to New York in hopes of securing a fortune and social status by marrying into one of the famously rich families, Elmer Moffat endeavors to make a name for himself in one of the most notoriously wealthy cities of the country. Wharton reveals how difficult it was for these two characters to penetrate the walls of this society. Although both characters come from the small-town of Apex, it seems this ‘small-town' has acquired more modern values than that of the big city of New York. Wharton illustrates that while Manhattan is one of the first and most prosperous cities in America, its affluent society remains mostly conventional, with long-established rules and customs that other cities and the Nuevo riche have long since forgotten or overthrown. As the characters travel abroad to escape the narrow-mindedness of their society, they find Europeans have a similar outlook on these new American customs. They, like the old, ancestral aristocrats of New York, believe in maintaining traditional values, living their lives, for the most part, under the radar, without being too flashy and without scandal. While both Undine Spragg and Elmer Moffat come from a more modern perspective, Undine continues to care little for the spectacle she makes of herself and the affected families as long as she gets what she wants. On the other hand, Elmer, appears to value the new and improved reputation he has created for himself, as well as for appearances. Undine Spragg seems to have no values, however, ironically, places value on everything and everyone she comes into contact with. Although her parents seem to have built a firm foundation, they failed to share their knowledge and experience with Undine. Mrs. Spragg, who at one time "had done her own washing," neglected to teach Undine to appreciate their small fortune; instead, Mrs. Spragg, who had lost her own ambition, "transferred her whole personality to her child/reserved that Undine should have what she wanted" (Ch. 1, P. 10). Undine cares little for others, unless she is attempting to impress them or gain their favor. She sees nothing wrong with her appalling behavior, nor does she worry about the looming debt she's creating for her parents. She is spoiled and uneducated in the sense that she has no morals or standards in which to live by. The only things that matter to Undine are her beauty, money, and social accomplishments. Furthermore, Undine has absolutely no knowledge of the customs and values of the wealthy society in which she hopes to gain entry. This lack of groundwork foreshadows Undines fate amongst this society. For instance, as Undine believes it is perfectly acceptable to "get rid" of one husband for another if he has "been a disappointment to her," she decides to share this belief with, not only the mother of her future husband, but with one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York (Ch. 7, P. 56). The Dagonet's, along with most of the affluent families, believe divorce is unthinkable and, not to mention, a scandal they would never want shadowing their family. Moreover, Undine's vision of great wealth greatly varied from the vision she encountered at the Fairford dinner. Undine thought their house "small and rather shabby," lacking all the flamboyant displays of prosperity she...
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