“‘I know just what I could do if I were free. I could marry the right man,’ she answered boldly.”
The speaker is Undine Marvell, née Spragg, the ambitious protagonist of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Published in 1913, Wharton’s novel is a biting portrayal of New York’s high society, one in which wealthy men aspire to have a life of leisure and women aspire to marry these men.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Undine realizes too late that Ralph Marvell is not “the right man” for her. In my opinion, he’s far too good for her, but I can’t blame her for being unhappy. From his perspective, it may have been a “love match,” as opposed to one arranged by his family, but from hers, it was a business deal. In their sexist world, marriage is Undine’s only way of achieving the high social status, wealth, and power she so desperately wants. To her, Ralph hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain.
Yes, Ralph is from an established family of New York society, but he does not have much wealth or business acumen. Instead, he’s an aspiring writer:
“Harvard first—then Oxford; then a year of wandering and rich initiation. Returning to New York, he read law, and now had his desk in the office of the respectable firm… But his profession was the least real thing in his life. The realities lay about him now: the books jamming his old college bookcases and overflowing on chairs and tables; sketches too—he could do charming things, if only he had known how to finish them!— and on the writing-table at his elbow, scattered sheets of prose and verse; charming things also, but like the sketches, unfinished.” [Chapter VI]
Poor Ralph, whose wife is hardly supportive of his creative tendencies or his lackluster legal career. He can’t afford the extravagant lifestyle she demands.
And poor Undine (which I can admit despite hating her). She is the product of stifling times. The demeaning gender norms of her day persist to some extent in ours; however, in our century, a woman as ambitious as Undine could reasonably strive to be a prominent person in her own right, and not just the wife of one.
**By the way, I want to wear my “proud wife” hat for a minute to mention that Mr. AMB just opened his own law firm! Thankfully, the “custom” in our modern marriage is nothing like the one described in Wharton’s novel in which a wife is expected to know nothing about her husband’s work: “Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in them (Chapter XV).” In our case, we support each other’s professional lives. I’m very excited about this next step in Mr. AMB’s legal career. That said, he probably should be a writer instead. Isn’t that true of most lawyers? 😉