Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country).


Undine Spragg, together with Madame Bovary are definetely two of literature’s most self-absorbed and self-righteous -and thus, despicable- female characters. Edith Wharton’s craftmanship, though, has made “The Custom of the Country” such a pleasure to read and Undine Spragg a vivid character that stays with you long after you’ ve finished the book. The novel’s up-to-datedness is impressive and for that, credit is due to Wharton’s sharp eye for detail and social observance. At the dawn of the twentieth century, where the new comers aka the invaders aka the new money struggle with the initiated of old New York and Washington Street to take the lead, the Custom of the Country chronicles the human greed to climb to the top and stay there. A greed that has stayed with us ever since.


Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg- to follow at your own risk.

  1. Marry either to wealth or to social title. Divorce to obtain the other half.
  2. Skip the opera boxes. But if you do hire an opera box, don’t do it on the wrong night.
  3. Don’t be ashamed to sell what you can’t afford to keep. Yes, even your husband’s historical estate tapestries Louis the Fifteenth had given to his great-great grandfather. Declutter.
  4. Live up to your opportunities and divorce.
  5. There is a lot to learn from your manicurist & masseuse. Hire one with the natural  talent of having manicured some really high-class nails.
  6. Change continents with the ease of changing dresses.
  7. Give your marriage a chance before you reach any conclusions or take any action. Go as far as to use honey moon as a trial period.
  8. When everybody around you is saying that this is the end of the world as we know it, just go out and buy another pair of shoes.
  9. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it.” Still: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.” So, think big and proactively. Get a lover before the divorce. It speeds up the process.
  10. You’ll need your parents on board in this. You must be on the same page here. Rather they must be on the same page with you. No need to be overtly hostile or intimidating to them, a passive-aggressive behavior will do.
  11. Make sure a fashionable artist does your portrait. Pick the one who knows how to “do pearls” and who “keeps his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress”.
  12. If a very wealthy man offers you a ride with his car on the day of your son’s birthday, trust your instinct to choose- not the maternal the other one, the raw, that of social survival. And if you feel “that rush of physical joy that draws scruples and silences memory”, then you know you’ve made the right decision.
  13. Of course you can miss out on your kid’s birthday. There is always next year. Kids forget.
  14. Don’t settle. Divorce.
  15. Invest in your looks. Not your books.
  16. When your mother says “How could you?” it’s not that she didn’t expect it from you. It’s that she can’t help feeling stupefied every time it happens.
  17. Don’t think low of marriage. One couldn’t be divorced without it.
  18. Talk nonsense as long as you look nice on your new dress.
  19. Discard whatever smells of history. Old Newyorkers, European titles, whole Italy.
  20. Live beyond your means and divorce.

My 30 reasons for always returning to Chekhov’s stories.

ckekhov short stories

Lists may not be everyone’s favorite form of argumentative thought but sometimes thinking disconnectedly –but not incoherently- is the only way to think at all. My 30 reasons is an arbitrary number to signal my love for Chekhov. It could very well be 40, 60 or just one: his talent for humanity.

Why i love Chekhov

  1. For his clarity of description and the realism in depicting his characters’ inner thoughts, motives and sentiments. Should you try hard, you wouldn’t find a vague and redundant paragraph in his stories.
  2. For making page turners out of plotless stories.
  3. For the undercurrents that undermine even most of his straightforward narratives.
  4. For who else has so entertainingly minuted the lasting fragrances of a random kiss (The Kiss), the restlessness of insomnia (A dull story), the sinister weight of sleepiness (The darling), the longing of a person in love to write a letter and send it to the PO (Love), the unbearable loneliness of bereavement (The Misery, The Enemies), the banality of University life (A dull Story), the uninspiring promiscuity of prostitution (The Chorus Girl, A nervous Breakdown aka An attack of Nerves), the spiritual agony of a nervous breakdown (A nervous breakdown), the dreariness and ordinariness of mental illness (Ward No.6), the uselessness of rank and wealth (A lady’s story)…
  5. For his trademark non-endings. An inconclusiveness ascribed to his desire to make a new era for the story (and the play). One to break free from the unrealistic fixed endings of the past which by giving  answers to the readers, were sparing them the need to think for themselves. No comfort zones here. Just awkward helplessness facing the human predicament.
  6. For his testing of our own fitness as readers. (Virgina Wolf on “The Russian point of view”.)
  7. Especially for the unlikely ending of “The Lady with the dog”: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. For the familiarity of those unfamiliar long roads we all eventually take in our lives. And the relief to find other people there.
  8. For being moral without raising a finger. Predisposed to try to understand his characters rather than judge them. For his stories being a masterclass on empathy.
  9. For his rendering dull characters interesting through evoking a special characteristic that makes them unique. (One of his liveliest dull characters is Ippolit Ippolititch, in the “Teacher of literature”: “He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps {…} not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already.”) For his supporting characters playing a key role in the story. That of blowing an air of physical reality to it.
  10. For his characters struggling with life. Even in the “Dreary Story” (aka A dull or A Boring Story) the teacher who has only 6 months to live, facing his death, it is with life he is struggling. Trying to come in terms with what he has lived and not with the fact that he is dying.
  11. For his sharp anatomy of marriage. Marriages rarely “work” in his stories. Either doomed to failure from their very start due to incompatibility of the spouses or insincerity of their motives (bail out marriages) or starting with the best of intentions (love, admiration), they often lead to the estrangement -even hatred- of the couple.  (A wife, The teacher of literature). Unhappily married wives and wasted husbands constantly draw our attention to the voracious nature of marriage- one of the major subjects of modern theater (Ibsen, Strindberg, Albee).
  12. For his quote “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” More or less the bottom line of all his short stories: a plan for surviving the day.
  13. Long before Eudora Welty’s “listening for stories” (“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on), Chekhov had been programmed to listen for people and unearth characters. For he knew they could be found everywhere.
  14. For the ambiguity of evil and good in his characters. The impossibility for the modern man to be an either/or character. And its soothing effect on our conscience.
  15. For his democratization of suffering. The universality of the human condition that knows no classes, ranks, genders and other borderlines. Everybody hurts and Chekhov made that vividly clear.
  16. For his being existential before it was cool.
  17. For giving  boredom, this intrinsically modern emotional, mental and for Chekhov physical state, its literary expression. Many chekhovian characters are paralysed by ennui that renders them apathetic or prone to evil thoughts and deeds.
  18. For the character of urgency even in the most uneventful of his stories that compels us to follow them to the last -but not final- word.
  19. For the mockery of rank positions and lebels. For his debunking hypocrisy, uncovering shallowness, exposing the pettiness of status stemming only form wealth when not followed by education and humane values.
  20. For his being the russian equivalent of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s critique on pretentiousness on people becoming the brand of their status.
  21. For his characters being resilient enough to persevere. Even with broken wings, they fly. If the can’t fly, they walk. But still, they go on- a beckettian mindset here: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  (The Unnamable)
  22. For his being essentially modern. A timelessness pertaining to the Greek tragedy or Shakespeare in their treatment of free will struggling with fate.
  23. For his content dictating the form and not the other way around. For being essentially anti-postmodern.
  24. For providing you with the words and the sentiments to channel you raw emotional material.
  25. For dismissing the creative courses’ guidelines that for a short story to matter there must be a conflict and a change of its character. Chekhovian characters ponder for a while only to recoil to their familiarly vulgar self.
  26. For reminding us what foolish lives we live. The predecessor of Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco in framing the absurdity of human existence, before the two world wars  would make it one of the most resonant literary movements of the last century.
  27. For his characters not getting what they were after, or getting what they were after, outliving their happiness (“The teacher of literature”).
  28. For blurring the line between the story and the treatise on the elusive nature of happiness (“The Gooseberries”). For being an essayist through his characters’ lives, suggesting that the condition for one to be happy is for the unhappy to remain silent: “It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at that time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him.”
  29. For resorting to weather to mirror moods, with almost chemical precision and accuracy. The descriptions of weather conditions are never redundant in his stories with snow and rain being organic characters.
  30.  For his talent for humanity. (An expression he uses to describe the main character of his short story “A nervous breakdown”. A perfect fit for the writer.) Because just his unparalleled gift for writing stories would have only gotten him so far.