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The Custom of the Country (1913)

by Edith Wharton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,090566,174 (4.01)1 / 316
From New York to Europe, the apartments of the nouveau riche to ancient French estates, Edith Wharton tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl from a Midwestern town with unquenchable social aspirations. Though Undine is narcissistic, pampered, and incredibly selfish, she is a beguiling heroine whose marital initiation into New York high society from its trade-wealthy fringes is only the beginning of her relentless ambitions. Wharton weaves an elaborate plot that renders a detailed depiction of upper-class social behavior in the early twentieth century. By utilizing a character with inexorable greed in a novel of manners, she demonstrates some of the customs of a modern age and posits a surprising explanation for divorce and the social role of women, which still resonates for the modern audience today.… (more)
  1. 40
    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. 30
    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.
  3. 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.
  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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» See also 316 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
EXCELLENT BOOK. good writing andinterestist ( )
  evatkaplan | Mar 30, 2022 |
An enjoyable read though notably saying less than both Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. A solid choice for a Wharton fan. Otherwise, read her more famous works -- they are, rightly, more lauded. ( )
  sparemethecensor | Jan 11, 2022 |
One of the best endings I've ever read. ( )
  BeauxArts79 | Jun 10, 2021 |
A young girl, trying to get in with the right crowd, worrying about her clothes, exasperated with her parents who refused to give her money for going out, gossiping with and about the latest scandals — sounds like a typical teen novel, right? Now consider that this novel was written and published nearly a century ago, and then consider whether teens today have really changed all that much.

Undine Spragg and her parents have come to New York City from the small town of Apex; Undine intends to have as much fun as possible heedless of expense, while her parents are hoping more conservatively for their daughter to make a good match. As the novel opens, Undine is fretting over a note from the sister of a “little fellow” in whom she has no interest — until she discovers that Ralph Marvell is a member of one of the first families of New York society. This seemingly insignificant young man will eventually become Undine’s husband, and is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire novel, along with Mr. and Mrs. Spragg, for Undine does not mature gracefully, or perhaps at all throughout.

Despite its age, readers will find timeless characters in this novel. For instance, anyone who has dealt with strong-willed children or teens will recognize this right away: Undine had “two ways of getting things out of [her father] against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold… as a child [her parents] had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.” Though originally published in 1913, Edith Wharton’s novel about the spoiled daughter of well-meaning parents hoping to make a foray into New York Society will still ring true amongst those who work with adolescents and young adults, who despite all the years between, still often long for glamor and adventure regardless of society and financial barriers. ( )
1 vote resoundingjoy | Jan 1, 2021 |
A drag and a disappointment, considering how much I love her other books. Wharton stacks the deck to ensure that we hate Undine: she's shallow and vain and grasping and selfish and petulant and cruel and an insatiable money pit of a wife. Also, needless to say, a terrible mother. But the real *reason* she is all these things is because she is a small town girl from an insignificant family, who has the temerity to believe she's the equal of Wharton's beloved New York "society". I think, in Wharton's better-known books, her snobbery certainly comes through, but it is mixed with an incisive critique of the very society that produced her. Here, her critique is mostly directed at the nouveau riche rubes and bumpkins who dare to infiltrate Fifth Avenue, and it just makes Wharton look petty and mean.

https://donut-donut.dreamwidth.org/803915.html ( )
1 vote amydross | Dec 28, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
The first time I read Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country,” which was published in 1913, I felt at once that I had always known its protagonist and also that I had never before met anyone like her. The values of Undine Spragg—who, in the course of the novel, makes a circuitous and sinister journey from Midwestern rube to ruby-drenched new-money empress—are repulsive, and her attempts to manipulate public attention are mesmerizing. For my money, no literary antiheroine can best Undine—a dazzling monster with rose-gold hair, creamy skin, and a gaping spiritual maw that could swallow New York City. People like her have been abundant in American culture for some time, but I never feel invested in their success; more often, I idly hope for their failure. With Undine, however—thanks to the alchemical mix of sympathy and disdain that animates Wharton’s language in the novel and allows her to match Undine’s savagery with plenty of her own—I find myself wanting her to get everything she desires.
 
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.
added by danielx | editThe Wall Street Journal, Leonard Cassuto (pay site) (Dec 13, 2013)
 

» 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)
Quotations
"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.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From New York to Europe, the apartments of the nouveau riche to ancient French estates, Edith Wharton tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl from a Midwestern town with unquenchable social aspirations. Though Undine is narcissistic, pampered, and incredibly selfish, she is a beguiling heroine whose marital initiation into New York high society from its trade-wealthy fringes is only the beginning of her relentless ambitions. Wharton weaves an elaborate plot that renders a detailed depiction of upper-class social behavior in the early twentieth century. By utilizing a character with inexorable greed in a novel of manners, she demonstrates some of the customs of a modern age and posits a surprising explanation for divorce and the social role of women, which still resonates for the modern audience today.

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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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