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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country (1913)

by Edith Wharton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,793475,916 (4.01)1 / 289
  1. 30
    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (jennybhatt)
    jennybhatt: While the heroine of this novel is also a social climber, she's a more sympathetic portrait that contrasts well.
  2. 20
    Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Limelite)
    Limelite: This social climbing, greedy, French counterpart of Undine doesn't get the same ending. Her story does, however, benefit from Flaubert's trenchant satire of the bourgoisie.
  3. 20
    Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (davidcla)
    davidcla: Wharton's 1913 novel is excellent, and very interesting to read as a companion to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Wharton's Undine casts Eliot's Gwendolen in a new light. And vice versa.
  4. 10
    Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (jennybhatt)
    jennybhatt: As social climbers go, Scarlett O'Hara ranks among the top ones. The similarities (marrying or attaching to various men as a way to get ahead) and evolutionary differences (the self-determination to make it solo if needed and feasible) between Undine Spragg and Scarlett O'Hara provide interesting juxtaposition.… (more)
  5. 00
    Pink and White Tyranny by Harriet Beecher Stowe (espertus)
    espertus: A lighter account of the marriage of a selfish social climber to an upstanding man

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Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
A very clearly written emotional treatise on the mores of the American upper class before the Great War, about its constituency and relationships with the Old World aristocracy, and, more narrowly and poignantly, about the role of women there and then.

The protagonist, a young and beautiful small-town parvenue serves as a spotlight as she ascends gradually into her dream world of high social status and unlimited dress-making and thing-having arcade, dragging all sorts of obsolete notions and deprecate concepts out into the light and brutally dispensing with all that. As it turns out, high social status is not unconditionally linked with unlimited resources for dress-making and such, but is involved in some kind of obscure semantics which implies incomprehensible limitations and obligations. Is it maturity? Responsibility? Oh God.

Wharton's prose is incisive, her latinate phrases never stray from their aim of describing desires and emotions pretinent to the case in hand. Being highly rational and avoiding poetic stances and lyric effusions suits her purpose well; "Undine" the heroine (named after a successful line of products sold by her father) while remaining explicitly infantile in her wishes and aspirations never lets any emotions cloud her judgment, nor any castle-in-the-air type ethical codes deter her from getting it right. Most of the characters further the author's purpose in a similar way, smartly doing their jobs. People are but gears in that huge social machine (rolling on towards the War one cannot help but think), and characters are gears, springs and screws in the novel as a vehicle, but this suit is just too tight for a work of literature.

The ideas toward which Wharton seems to move the novel are absolutely worth consideration and she - thankfully - does not solve them for the reader; there is vigor and precision in the movement, but it is not gracious enough to turn the bulk of text into a novel. Dramatic dialogues that could be staged without even turning the non-spoken islets of prose into stage directions; abnormal psychology, bouts of anger, mourning is either treated as an exercise in dostoevskian writing or spared to the reader - and the writer; eerily cinematic panoramas are dealt with by conspicuously introducing observers and "off-screen" interpreters who do not drive the narrative... I imagine an excellent series of articles for a first-rate periodical, or - better - a multipart documentary, names changed, interviews restaged with actors, commentaries by leading university professors, history, sociology, philosophy and some delightful costume and make-up artist features.

It is possible that I just missed all those features that make Wharton original, only looking for the familiar and begging the question by proclaiming it stale and vicarious; if, say, "House of Mirth" comes my way I'll not hesitate to review my opinions, but for a while I'm gonna pretend Undine is a name I seem to recall from a very interesting piece of investigative journalism in the New Yorker or the Boston Globe and look for Belles-lettres on another shelf. ( )
  alik-fuchs | Apr 27, 2018 |
”Even now, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”

Meet Undine Spragg, possibly the most unlikable woman in literature and that quote just about sums her up. She’s not completely happy because there may be something out there that she wants if only she actually knew about it. That quote comes up towards the end of the book but pretty much lays out the journey Wharton takes you on from the beginning. Undine cares about only one person. Undine. The rest of society is only there to supply her with an audience to note how beautiful and wonderful she is. She needs money; lots of it and beginning with her father, every man in her life needs to supply her with plenty of funds to buy the things she just has to have. I kept hoping someone was going to say, “Undine stop. There’s no money left for that.” But the bills just keep coming.

The fact that Edith Wharton is able to portray this self-centered social climber without making the reader throw the book against a wall is all to her credit. But isn’t that what Wharton always does? Whether it was Lily Bart in The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome and Zeena and Mattie she always manages a psychological portrait of her characters that will surprise, maybe shock, but will be in keeping with the ugly reality that is life, in this case life among the wealthy of New York and Paris in 1913. You know it’s satire but it’s all so believable I had to wonder if Wharton knew people like Undine.

The writing, as is always the case with Edith Wharton, is sublime and the pages practically turn themselves. Very highly recommended. ( )
1 vote brenzi | Mar 25, 2018 |
Oh Undine!

I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived.

Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest everything they had, and to do without themselves, to help you reach the very highest echelons of New York society.

You always got what you wanted. Always.

Did you appreciate what they did for you? Did you understand how much they sacrifice? I think not; there was nothing in your words, your actions, your demeanour to suggest that you did.

At first I was inclined to blame your parents for spoiling you, but I came to realise that it wasn’t them, it was you. I began to feel sorry for them.

You made some mistakes as you climbed the ladder, because you didn’t quite understand quite how that rarefied society worked, but you were a wonderfully quick learner. You changed your behaviour, your appearance, your expectations, to become the person you wanted to be, the person you needed to be, to achieve your ambitions.

And you succeeded. You drew the attention of Ralph Marvell, the son of one of the oldest, grandest families in New York. He loved your beauty, your difference; and you loved everything that he stood for. And so you married …..

Sadly, it wasn’t a happy ending.

You didn’t understand that the families at the pinnacle of society were not the wealthiest. You couldn’t understand that Ralph didn’t share your ambitions – I don’t think that you even realised that was possible – and certainly it was quite beyond your comprehension that he dreamed of a writing a novel. He never did, he had not one iota of your drive and ambition, and I suspect that he lacked the talent. Ralph drifted through life, disappointed that he could not expand your narrow horizons, that he could not open your eyes to the beauty of the art and literature that he loved.

He was part of an old order that was dying, and you were part of a new order that would adapt and survive. You learned how to bend and even change society’s rules to allow you to do exactly what you wanted to do. You really didn’t understand him, you broke him, and my heart broke for him.

I even began to feel at little sorry for you, despite your selfishness, because there was so much that you didn’t understand. There are more important things than money, luxury, fashion, and social position. Things can’t really make you happy, because there will always be other things to want, there will always be things beyond your reach. You learned so much, but you never learned that.

There would be more marriages, more travels, more possessions ….

There would be more damage. My heart broke again, for the son you so often seemed to forget you had. And though you would never admit it, you were damaged by your own actions. But you were a survivor Undine, weren’t you?

You did learn a little; I learned a little about your past, and I came to feel that I understood you a little better; most of all, I do think that when you finally married the right man it made all the difference. It wasn’t quite enough for me to say that I liked you, but I was always fascinated by you.

Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.

You are perfectly realised; your world and everything, everything around you is perfectly realised. The telling of your story is compelling, beautiful and so very profound. It speaks of its times and it has things to say that are timeless. Because, though times may change, human nature stays the same.

Edith Wharton was a genius – it’s as simple as that. ( )
2 vote BeyondEdenRock | Dec 1, 2016 |
If you’re the kind of person who gets angry while reading about annoying characters to the point of wanting to punch them in their fictitious faces, don’t read this book. Wharton does paint an enduring portrait of a gold digger in Undine Spragg, but at 500+ pages, it gets to be a little much. She also satirizes ‘new money’ in America, both how it was made, through unscrupulous backroom deals and connections, as well as its lack of grace and culture. Undine has an extraordinary amount of ambition, but as a woman can only channel this by using her charms to marry a rich man, and someone with connections in society. As with all greedy, selfish people, no amount of material possessions are ever enough for Undine, and she can only improve her situation by divorcing and remarrying, something that carries a stigma in America and is not possible in France, where she lives for a portion of the novel. Wharton’s writing is great, but none of the characters are likeable, so it’s a bit of a masochistic read. It’s the 8th novel I’ve read by her and was far from a disappointment, but I would recommend ‘The Age of Innocence’, ‘The House of Mirth’, ‘The Reef’, or good old ‘Ethan Frome’ instead.

On beauty, a sign of the times then (and again now), and I liked the last phrase:
“She was tall enough to carry off a little extra weight, but excessive slimness was the fashion, and she shuddered at the thought that she might some day deviate from the perpendicular.”

And this one, on being admired:
“What could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied her dress, the men did not so much as look at it?”

On men:
“He put it to her at last, standing squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed, and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated gentleman usually pined at her.”

On moments of rapture, and writing; the best passage of the book:
“It was one of those moments when the accumulated impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general life that one felt one’s self a mere wave on the wild stream of being, yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in its fullness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had but to wave his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the wand lie.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Nov 29, 2016 |
What a wonderful reread this was. Undine Spragg is a fantastic character, right up there with Becky Sharp and Emma Bovery. She is both a product of her culture and a victim of it and you just don't know whether to slap her or cheer her on.

The Wharton biography I am currently reading made me especially attentive to certain elements in the novel - the restlessness of the characters, the brilliant descriptions of locations and interiors, and Wharton's powerful indictment of marriage and the non-education of women. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
Edith Wharton's "The Custom of the Country" turned 100 this year, and the adventures of its heroine, Undine Spragg, remain as brazen today as when she first advanced upon the American scene.

» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edith Whartonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Conlin, GraceNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, DianeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orgel, StephenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raver, LornaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Showalter, ElaineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wagner-Martin, LindaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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.
Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913), takes its title from a Jacobean play by Fletcher and Massinger about the buying and selling of women's bodies, but the country whose customs she mercilessly satirizes in the novel is her native America. (Introduction)
"Just so; she'd even feel aggrieved. But why? Because
it's against the custom of the country. And whose fault
is that? The man's again—I don't mean Ralph I mean
the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus.
Why haven't we taught our women to take an interest
in our work? Simply because we don't take enough
interest in THEM."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
With the intention of making a suitable match, Undine Spragg and her parents move to New York where her youthful, radiant beauty and ruthless ambition prove an irresistible force. Here Edith Wharton dissects the traditions, pretensions and prohibitions of American and
European society - both the ostentatious glitter of the nouveau riche and the faded grandeur of the upper classes - with an eye all the more exacting for its dispassionate gaze. And in Undine Spragg she has created an unforgettable heroine - a woman taught to dazzle and enslacv, but to know nothing of the financial and social cost of the status she so passionately craves.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143039709, Paperback)

Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton's second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine's marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted.
This new edition features a new introduction and explanatory notes and reset text

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:57 -0400)

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This is the story of spoiled Undine Spragg, a vain heroine who rises from Dakota to New York to Paris, leaving behind a trail of broken promises on her quest for a place in the upper class.

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