Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The hand motif in The Custom of the Country

1 of the 1st things I looked for in The Custom of the Country was light—whether Edith Wharton still made use of light. She does, but because I’ve written about light in The House of Mirth, I won’t write about light in this one. 
Instead, let’s look at the hand motif. 
This is Undine’s hand: 
“It was small and soft, a mere featherweight, a puff-ball of a hand—not quick and thrilling, not a speaking hand, but one to be fondled and dressed in rings, and to leave a rosy blur in the brain. The fingers were short and tapering, dimpled at the base, with nails as smooth as rose-leaves. Ralph lifted them one by one, like a child playing with piano-keys, but they were inelastic and did not spring back far—only far enough to show the dimples.” (Ch.11) 
The hands of a spoilt girl, who can’t do anything. Personally I don’t really like the phrase “puff-ball of a hand”, nor “nails as smooth as rose-leaves”. Is that Ralph the writer speaking? 
“Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it.” (ibid.) 
“Infant hands” ugh.
“He told her once that she had a miserly hand—showing her, in proof, that, for all their softness, the fingers would not bend back, or the pink palm open. But she retorted a little sharply that it was no wonder, since she'd heard nothing talked of since their marriage but economy; and this left him without any answer.” (Ch.13) 
What does it mean that “the fingers would not bend back”? On a side note, I don’t think you want to see my fingers (though some people have worse). 
These images are not random, however, as the hand motif runs through the novel. In fact, this is the opening line: 
“"Undine Spragg—how can you?" her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid "bell-boy" had just brought in.” (Ch.1) 
“Mrs. Spragg consentingly slipped the rings from her small mottled hands.” (ibid.) 
This is the scene where she gets her nails done by her manicurist and masseuse Mrs Heeny. 
“A wave of almost physical apprehension passed over Mrs. Spragg. Her jewelled hands trembled in her black brocade lap, and the pulpy curves of her face collapsed as if it were a pricked balloon.” (ibid.) 
Wharton keeps referring to the jewels on Mrs Spragg’s hands. She describes the hands to convey something about the characters. Check out Ralph Marvell: 
“Undine noticed the delicacy and finish of her companion's features as his head detached itself against the red silk walls. The hand with which he stroked his small moustache was finely-finished too, but sinewy and not effeminate. She had always associated finish and refinement entirely with her own sex, but she began to think they might be even more agreeable in a man. Marvell's eyes were grey, like her own, with chestnut eyebrows and darker lashes; and his skin was as clear as a woman's, but pleasantly reddish, like his hands.” (Ch.5) 
Another person who doesn’t do anything. A gentleman, he’s called.  
His grandfather Mr Dagonet: 
“Mr. Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on, hers…” 
Mr Spragg: 
“Mr. Spragg heard her out in silence, pulling at his beard with one sallow wrinkled hand, while the other dragged down the armhole of his waistcoat.” (Ch.10) 
This is the scene where Undine meets Elmer Moffatt: 
“"Well—this is white of you. Undine!" he said, taking her lifeless fingers into his dapperly gloved hand.” (Ch.9)  
His hands are seen later: 
“He leaned back, crossing his legs, and twisting his small stiff moustache with a plump hand adorned by a cameo.” (Ch.10) 
Such an ugly image. Contrast that with Ralph Marvell’s hands. 
Wharton uses the hand motif in interesting ways. She writes about Ralph thinking about Undine, wondering about her limitations and crudities, but loving her and wanting to save her, and has to stick in the hand motif. 
“But how long would their virgin innocence last? Popple's vulgar hands were on it already—Popple's and the unspeakable Van Degen's!” (Ch.6) 
Then there’s a jump in time: 
“Some two months later than the date of young Marvell's midnight vigil, Mrs. Heeny, seated on a low chair at Undine's knee, gave the girl's left hand an approving pat as she laid aside her lapful of polishers.
"There! I guess you can put your ring on again," she said with a laugh of jovial significance; and Undine, echoing the laugh in a murmur of complacency, slipped on the fourth finger of her recovered hand a band of sapphires in an intricate setting.” (Ch.7) 
As in The Portrait of a Lady, the courtship, seduction, and proposal are all skipped. Undine is now engaged. And how does Wharton tell readers about the engagement? By writing about the ring on her hand. 
“Could it be that the hand now adorned with Ralph's engagement ring had once, in this very spot, surrendered itself to the riding-master's pressure?” (Ch.9) 
That’s good. 
She also writes about hands to convey the character’s emotions: 
“She moved toward the toilet-table, and began to demolish with feverish hands the structure which Mrs. Heeny, a few hours earlier, had so lovingly raised.” (Ch.8) 
“Mrs. Spragg stooped to gather up the scattered garments as they fell, folding them with a wistful caressing touch, and laying them on the lounge, without daring to raise her eyes to her daughter. It was not till she heard Undine throw herself on the bed that she went toward her and drew the coverlet up with deprecating hands.” (ibid.) 
“A quiver of resistance ran through her: he felt it and dropped her hands.” (Ch.9) 
I haven’t mentioned all the moments where the characters hold out their hand, lift their hands, lay a hand on someone’s arm, pass their hand through someone’s arm, kiss someone’s hands, shake hands, clasp their hands, place hands in their pockets, take someone’s hands, etc. 
The hand motif runs through the entire novel—Edith Wharton describes hands, and uses hands to say something about the characters’ life, status, personality, and emotions. 
Interesting, no?

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