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Home » The Custom of the Country Summary: Exploring Edith Wharton’s Classic Novel

The Custom of the Country Summary: Exploring Edith Wharton’s Classic Novel

“The Custom of the Country” by Edith Wharton is a classic novel that explores the themes of love, ambition, and social class in turn-of-the-century America. The story follows the beautiful and ambitious Undine Spragg as she navigates the upper echelons of New York society in pursuit of wealth and status. In this article, we will delve into a summary of the novel and examine its themes and characters.

Overview of “The Custom of the Country”

“The Custom of the Country” is a classic novel written by Edith Wharton, first published in 1913. The novel follows the story of Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest who moves to New York City with her parents in search of social status and wealth. Undine is determined to climb the social ladder and marry into a wealthy family, but her ruthless ambition and lack of empathy for others lead her down a destructive path. The novel explores themes of social mobility, gender roles, and the corrupting influence of wealth and power. Wharton’s writing is known for its sharp social commentary and incisive portrayal of the upper class in early 20th century America. “The Custom of the Country” remains a relevant and thought-provoking read today, offering insights into the complexities of human nature and the pursuit of the American Dream.

Edith Wharton’s Life and Writing Career

Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 to a wealthy and prominent family. Despite her privileged upbringing, Wharton was not content with the societal expectations placed upon her as a woman of her class. She found solace in writing, and published her first book, a collection of poetry, at the age of 16.

Wharton’s writing career took off in the early 1900s, with the publication of her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902. She went on to write numerous novels and short stories, many of which explored the complexities of the upper class society she was born into.

Wharton’s most famous novel, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. However, it was her lesser-known novel, The Custom of the Country, that truly delved into the themes of ambition, greed, and the desire for social status that were prevalent in Wharton’s own life.

Throughout her career, Wharton was known for her sharp wit and keen observations of human behavior. She was also a trailblazer for women in the literary world, becoming the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University in 1923.

Despite her success, Wharton struggled with personal tragedies and health issues throughout her life. She died in France in 1937, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.

Main Characters in “The Custom of the Country”

The Custom of the Country, a novel by Edith Wharton, features a cast of complex and intriguing characters. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is a beautiful and ambitious young woman from the Midwest who is determined to climb the social ladder in New York City. Undine is selfish and manipulative, using her charm and beauty to get what she wants. She is also incredibly naive and lacks empathy for others, which ultimately leads to her downfall.

Undine’s husband, Ralph Marvell, is a wealthy and cultured man who is initially drawn to Undine’s beauty and energy. However, he soon realizes that she is not the ideal wife he had hoped for and struggles to reconcile his love for her with his disappointment in her character.

Other notable characters in the novel include Undine’s parents, Abner and Leota Spragg, who are obsessed with wealth and status, and Elmer Moffatt, a shrewd businessman who becomes involved with Undine and plays a pivotal role in her story.

Through these characters, Wharton explores themes of social climbing, greed, and the corrupting influence of wealth. The Custom of the Country remains a timeless classic that continues to captivate readers with its vivid characters and incisive commentary on American society.

The Role of Society and Class in the Novel

In Edith Wharton’s classic novel, “The Custom of the Country,” society and class play a significant role in shaping the characters and their actions. The novel is set in the early 20th century, a time when social status and wealth were highly valued, and the upper class held immense power and influence. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is a young woman from a middle-class family who is determined to climb the social ladder and become a part of the elite society. Her relentless pursuit of wealth and status leads her to marry several wealthy men, but she remains unsatisfied and continues to strive for more.

Wharton’s portrayal of society and class in the novel highlights the stark differences between the upper and lower classes. The wealthy elite are shown to be shallow, materialistic, and self-absorbed, while the middle and lower classes are depicted as hardworking and honest. Undine’s desire to be a part of the upper class is driven by her belief that it will bring her happiness and fulfillment, but she soon realizes that the elite society is not as glamorous as she had imagined.

The novel also explores the theme of social mobility and the challenges faced by those who try to move up the social ladder. Undine’s attempts to climb the social hierarchy are met with resistance and disdain from the upper class, who view her as an outsider. Her lack of social graces and cultural knowledge make it difficult for her to fit in, and she is constantly reminded of her lower status.

Overall, “The Custom of the Country” is a commentary on the social and cultural norms of the early 20th century and the impact they had on individuals. Wharton’s portrayal of society and class highlights the flaws and limitations of the upper class, while also showing the struggles faced by those who try to break into it. The novel remains relevant today, as social mobility and class divisions continue to be important issues in society.

The Theme of Marriage and Divorce

In “The Custom of the Country,” Edith Wharton explores the theme of marriage and divorce through the character of Undine Spragg. Undine is a young woman from the Midwest who comes to New York City with the goal of marrying into high society. She is determined to climb the social ladder and will do whatever it takes to achieve her goal, including divorcing her husband when he no longer serves her interests.

Through Undine’s character, Wharton critiques the societal norms surrounding marriage and divorce in the early 20th century. She highlights the double standards that existed for men and women, with men being able to divorce their wives for any reason while women were expected to remain loyal and obedient to their husbands.

Undine’s marriages and divorces also reveal the shallow nature of high society and the importance placed on wealth and status. Undine’s first husband, Ralph Marvell, is a kind and intelligent man who loves her deeply, but she ultimately leaves him for a wealthier man who can provide her with the luxurious lifestyle she desires.

Overall, Wharton’s exploration of marriage and divorce in “The Custom of the Country” sheds light on the societal pressures and expectations surrounding these institutions and the consequences of prioritizing wealth and status over love and loyalty.

The Portrayal of Women in “The Custom of the Country”

In “The Custom of the Country,” Edith Wharton portrays women as complex and multifaceted characters. The novel follows the story of Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest who moves to New York City in search of wealth and social status. Undine is ambitious and determined, but she is also selfish and manipulative. Wharton’s portrayal of Undine challenges traditional gender roles and expectations, as she is not the typical passive and submissive female character often seen in literature of the time.

Wharton also explores the theme of marriage and the role of women in relationships. Undine’s marriages are all based on her desire for wealth and social status, rather than love or companionship. This highlights the limited options available to women in society at the time, as marriage was often seen as the only way for women to secure their financial future.

However, Wharton also presents other female characters who challenge these societal norms. Ralph Marvell’s mother, Mrs. Marvell, is a strong and independent woman who refuses to conform to the expectations placed on her by society. She is a successful writer and intellectual, and she encourages her son to pursue his own passions and interests.

Overall, Wharton’s portrayal of women in “The Custom of the Country” is complex and nuanced. She challenges traditional gender roles and expectations, while also highlighting the limited options available to women in society at the time.

The Significance of New York City as a Setting

New York City serves as a crucial setting in Edith Wharton’s classic novel, “The Custom of the Country.” The city’s bustling energy and fast-paced lifestyle provide the perfect backdrop for the story’s themes of ambition, social climbing, and the pursuit of wealth. Wharton’s vivid descriptions of the city’s opulent mansions, exclusive clubs, and fashionable neighborhoods highlight the stark contrast between the wealthy elite and the struggling middle class. Additionally, the city’s cultural diversity and melting pot of different social classes and backgrounds add depth and complexity to the novel’s characters and their relationships. Overall, New York City plays a significant role in shaping the novel’s themes and characters, making it an essential element of the story’s overall impact.

The Impact of World War I on the Novel

The impact of World War I on the novel cannot be overstated. The war brought about a shift in literary themes and styles, as writers grappled with the trauma and disillusionment of the conflict. Edith Wharton’s classic novel, The Custom of the Country, was published in 1913, just before the outbreak of war. However, the novel’s themes of social climbing, greed, and moral decay are reflective of the cultural anxieties that would come to define the post-war era. The novel’s protagonist, Undine Spragg, embodies the ruthless ambition and materialism that characterized the Roaring Twenties, a period of excess and decadence that emerged in the wake of the war. Wharton’s novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition and the corrupting influence of wealth, themes that would continue to resonate with readers long after the war had ended.

The Use of Irony and Satire in “The Custom of the Country”

Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” is a novel that uses irony and satire to critique the social norms and values of the upper class in early 20th century America. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is a young woman from the Midwest who is determined to climb the social ladder and marry into wealth and status. However, her relentless pursuit of material success and social status leads her to make questionable decisions and ultimately leaves her unfulfilled and unhappy.

Wharton uses irony and satire to highlight the absurdity of the social conventions and expectations that Undine and her peers adhere to. For example, Undine’s obsession with acquiring expensive possessions and social status is portrayed as shallow and empty, as she is never truly satisfied with what she has and always wants more. Similarly, the characters’ obsession with maintaining appearances and adhering to strict social codes is shown to be stifling and oppressive, as it prevents them from living authentically and pursuing their true desires.

Through her use of irony and satire, Wharton exposes the hypocrisy and superficiality of the upper class and critiques the societal values that prioritize wealth and status over personal fulfillment and happiness. “The Custom of the Country” remains a relevant and insightful commentary on the dangers of materialism and the pursuit of social status, and serves as a cautionary tale for readers today.

The Reception and Legacy of “The Custom of the Country”

The reception and legacy of Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” has been a topic of discussion among literary scholars and critics for decades. Upon its publication in 1913, the novel received mixed reviews, with some praising Wharton’s sharp social commentary and others criticizing the protagonist, Undine Spragg, for her selfish and manipulative behavior.

Despite the initial reception, “The Custom of the Country” has endured as a classic of American literature. Its themes of social climbing, greed, and the corrupting influence of wealth continue to resonate with readers today. The novel has been adapted for film and television, and has inspired countless works of fiction that explore similar themes.

Wharton’s portrayal of Undine Spragg, while controversial, has also been praised for its complexity. Undine is a character who is both sympathetic and repulsive, and her story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing wealth and status at any cost.

Overall, “The Custom of the Country” remains a powerful and relevant work of literature, and its legacy is sure to endure for generations to come.

The Comparison of “The Custom of the Country” to Other Works by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is known for her insightful and critical portrayals of the upper class in America during the early 20th century. “The Custom of the Country” is no exception, as it follows the story of Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest who marries into New York City’s elite society.

Compared to Wharton’s other works, “The Custom of the Country” stands out for its unapologetic portrayal of Undine’s ambition and ruthlessness. While other Wharton heroines, such as Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth,” struggle against societal expectations and their own moral compasses, Undine is unencumbered by such concerns. She is determined to climb the social ladder at any cost, even if it means betraying those closest to her.

Additionally, “The Custom of the Country” is unique in its focus on the American nouveau riche, rather than the established aristocracy. Wharton’s earlier works, such as “The Age of Innocence,” center around the old money families of New York City, while “The Custom of the Country” explores the rise of the newly wealthy and their attempts to gain acceptance in high society.

Overall, “The Custom of the Country” is a fascinating and complex novel that showcases Wharton’s talent for dissecting the intricacies of class and society. Its portrayal of a ruthless and ambitious protagonist sets it apart from her other works and makes it a must-read for fans of Wharton’s writing.

The Adaptations of “The Custom of the Country” in Film and Television

Edith Wharton’s classic novel “The Custom of the Country” has been adapted into various film and television productions over the years. One of the earliest adaptations was a silent film released in 1920, starring May McAvoy as the protagonist Undine Spragg. Since then, there have been several other adaptations, including a 1989 television movie starring Rachel Ward and a 1998 television miniseries starring Gillian Anderson. Each adaptation has brought its own interpretation of the novel’s themes and characters to the screen, showcasing the enduring appeal of Wharton’s work.

The Literary Techniques Used in “The Custom of the Country”

Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” is a classic novel that explores the themes of ambition, love, and social status. Throughout the novel, Wharton employs various literary techniques to convey her message and create a vivid picture of the society in which the characters live. One of the most prominent techniques used in the novel is irony. Wharton uses irony to highlight the hypocrisy and superficiality of the upper-class society. For example, Undine Spragg, the protagonist of the novel, is portrayed as a beautiful and ambitious woman who is determined to climb the social ladder. However, her actions are often selfish and immoral, and she is willing to sacrifice her relationships and values to achieve her goals. Another literary technique used in the novel is symbolism. Wharton uses symbols to represent the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. For instance, the house that Undine buys in New York City represents her desire for wealth and status, while the necklace that she receives from her husband symbolizes her greed and materialism. Overall, the literary techniques used in “The Custom of the Country” add depth and complexity to the novel, making it a timeless masterpiece of American literature.

The Criticism and Controversy Surrounding “The Custom of the Country”

Despite its critical acclaim and enduring popularity, Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country” has not been immune to criticism and controversy. One of the main criticisms of the novel is its portrayal of the protagonist, Undine Spragg, as a selfish and manipulative social climber. Some readers have argued that Wharton’s depiction of Undine reinforces negative stereotypes about women and their desire for wealth and status. Others have defended Wharton’s portrayal of Undine as a critique of the shallow and materialistic values of American society at the turn of the 20th century.

Another controversial aspect of the novel is its treatment of race. While Wharton’s novel is primarily concerned with the lives and struggles of wealthy white Americans, it also includes several minor characters who are people of color. Some readers have criticized Wharton’s portrayal of these characters as stereotypical and racist, while others have argued that Wharton’s depiction of race reflects the attitudes and prejudices of her time.

Despite these criticisms, “The Custom of the Country” remains a powerful and thought-provoking novel that continues to resonate with readers today. Its exploration of themes such as social mobility, gender roles, and the corrupting influence of wealth and power make it a timeless classic that is still relevant in the 21st century.

The Exploration of American Identity in “The Custom of the Country”

In “The Custom of the Country,” Edith Wharton explores the concept of American identity through the character of Undine Spragg. Undine is a young woman from the Midwest who moves to New York City with dreams of social climbing and wealth. Throughout the novel, Undine’s actions and desires reflect the American values of individualism, ambition, and materialism. However, Wharton also critiques these values through Undine’s selfishness and lack of empathy for others. Undine’s pursuit of status and wealth ultimately leads to her downfall, suggesting that the American dream may not be as fulfilling as it seems. Through Undine’s character, Wharton offers a complex and nuanced exploration of American identity and the pursuit of success.

The Symbolism and Imagery in “The Custom of the Country”

Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” is a novel that is rich in symbolism and imagery. The novel is set in the early 20th century and follows the story of Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest who moves to New York City in search of wealth and social status. Throughout the novel, Wharton uses various symbols and images to convey the themes of the novel and to explore the character of Undine.

One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the idea of the “custom of the country.” This phrase refers to the unwritten rules and social norms that govern the behavior of the upper classes in society. Undine is initially unaware of these customs and often violates them, causing her to be ostracized by the social elite. However, as she becomes more familiar with the customs, she begins to use them to her advantage, manipulating and exploiting those around her to achieve her goals.

Another important symbol in the novel is the image of water. Undine’s name itself is a reference to water, and throughout the novel, she is often associated with this element. Water represents both the fluidity of Undine’s character and her desire for change and transformation. However, it also represents the danger and unpredictability of her actions, as water can be both life-giving and destructive.

Overall, the symbolism and imagery in “The Custom of the Country” serve to deepen the themes of the novel and to provide insight into the character of Undine. Through these symbols and images, Wharton explores the complex nature of social climbing and the consequences of pursuing wealth and status at any cost.

The Representation of Wealth and Materialism in the Novel

In Edith Wharton’s classic novel, “The Custom of the Country,” the representation of wealth and materialism is a central theme. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is a young woman from a small town who is determined to climb the social ladder and attain the luxurious lifestyle she desires. Throughout the novel, Undine’s obsession with material possessions and her relentless pursuit of wealth lead her to make questionable decisions and ultimately, to a tragic end. Wharton’s portrayal of Undine’s character serves as a commentary on the corrupting influence of wealth and the dangers of a society that values materialism above all else. The novel also explores the theme of class and the ways in which social status can be bought and sold, highlighting the stark divide between the wealthy elite and those who are left behind. Overall, “The Custom of the Country” offers a scathing critique of the American obsession with wealth and the toll it takes on individuals and society as a whole.

The Analysis of Undine Spragg’s Character Development

Undine Spragg, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country,” is a complex character whose development throughout the novel is both fascinating and frustrating. Undine is a young woman from the Midwest who comes to New York City with dreams of wealth and social status. She is beautiful, ambitious, and ruthless in her pursuit of her goals. However, as the novel progresses, Undine’s character begins to change in unexpected ways.

At the beginning of the novel, Undine is portrayed as a shallow and selfish young woman who is obsessed with material possessions and social status. She is willing to do whatever it takes to climb the social ladder, even if it means betraying her friends and family. Undine’s main goal is to marry a wealthy man who can provide her with the luxurious lifestyle she desires.

As the novel progresses, however, Undine’s character begins to evolve. She becomes more self-aware and begins to question her own values and desires. She realizes that her obsession with wealth and status has left her feeling empty and unfulfilled. Undine also begins to feel a sense of guilt and remorse for the way she has treated the people in her life.

Despite these changes, however, Undine remains a complex and flawed character. She continues to make selfish and destructive decisions, even as she begins to understand the consequences of her actions. Undine’s character development is a testament to Wharton’s skill as a writer, as she is able to create a character who is both sympathetic and frustrating.

Overall, Undine Spragg’s character development is a central theme of “The Custom of the Country.” Through her journey, Wharton explores the dangers of materialism and the importance of self-reflection and personal growth. Undine’s story serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who values wealth and status above all else.