Review: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country features one of literature’s more memorable characters:  Undine Spragg.  Beautiful, vapid, self-centered, ambitious, money-grubbing … need I say more?  She’s thoroughly despicable, but so well-drawn that I loved this book.

When the story opens, our heroine and her parents have just moved from Apex, Kansas to New York City, where Undine is to make her way in society while her father’s business ventures satisfy her every need.  Undine asks her father to buy her a box at the opera.  He grumbles about how expensive it is, but he buys it.  We soon come to understand the long-standing pattern: what Undine wants, Undine gets.  In fact, her insatiable desire for the finer things was the impetus for the family’s move to New York.

Undine watches her social circle like a hawk.  She wants to stand out, and is well aware of the effect her looks have on others.  Yet she also constantly monitors shifts in status and power, so she can ally herself with the most advantageous people:

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative.  She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. (p. 10)

Undine marries Ralph Marvell, who comes from old New York money and is trying to make his way in some sort of ambiguous business venture.  Unfortunately, Ralph has difficulty keeping Undine in the style she demands.  Where the men in this novel improve their status through business deals, Undine deals in relationships, climbing a social and economic ladder through her men.  Each one brings new material rewards, but Undine’s appetite knows no bounds, and she will stop at nothing to reach the next rung on the ladder.

At each phase of Undine’s life, I hoped she would finally grow up and be sensible.  I wanted her to learn enough about the world around her to be able to carry on meaningful conversation.  I wanted her to be happy with her station in life, and make a personal investment in her relationships.  I felt terrible for Ralph Marvell, and for their son Paul, growing up with a mother who was completely clueless about the needs of children.

In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton was largely satirizing the concept of the American dream, and the social climbing typical of New York’s “new money.”  But Wharton also offers an important lesson that is still relevant today:  there’s more to life than material possessions, and possessions alone cannot and will not make you happy.


14 thoughts on “Review: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

  1. I can’t wait to read this and more Wharton as part of my Reading America list…Edith Wharton is such a brilliant writer. I love how she writes about such unpleasant people!

    • I hope you’re also able to get over to her estate (The Mount, in Massachusetts) while you’re over here. It would make a nice weekend trip. It’s also only about 3 hours by car (which, by our standards, is a short journey).

  2. I didnt fully read this review because I am currently reading it and am almost halfway through. At the moment I want to give Undine a slap but Ill be back when Ive finished it!

  3. I finished this last night and I really enjoyed it. I love how Undine never had her own opinions or view but just fitted in with whatever her social group thought. There were also some quite funny bits in it like when Undine decides that she needs to contribute more to her conversations so hires a philosopher for an afternoon to giver ideas.

    But of course I also felt very sorry for everyone left in her wake, esp her poor son.

    • Jessica, I’m glad you enjoyed it in the end! Undine was quite a character but I agree — I felt very badly for her son. Thanks for returning to comment!

  4. Just read the comments about Custom of The Country- I agree with most of what has been said..but feel that the book lacks any character that the reader can feel sympathy for.. Undine is a less intelligent version of Becky Sharpe..Ralph is so wet you want to slap him and Paul is just a prop for us to pity- but never comes alive except to show us how cold Undine is. Reminds me of the less serious- but still satirical- Mapp and Lucia series by E F Benson.

    • Tony, you’re right about not being sympathetic for the characters, but I don’t think we’re supposed to be. Undine is one of those characters that you love to hate!

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