- The Custom of the Country
"The Custom of the Country" is a 1913 novel by
Edith Wharton, published when she was 51 years old.
It was published at a time when she herself was going through a divorce. She had, however, started writing the novel as early as Spring 1908 when she had completed six chapters in France. Then she stopped for a couple of years, and translated her difficulty to write through Ralph Marvell's own inability to write too. It was in 1912 and 1913 that she managed to put an end to the novel, when she declared, "I have taken up again my sadly neglected "great American novel"."
It was first serialised in a literary magazine, The
Scribner's Magazine, in January 1913, and then appeared in book form in October of that same year.
Undine Spragg, a social upstart, arrives in New York City from Apex with her parents and attempts to find a husband to go up the social ladder.
The Spraggs, a family of Westerners from Apex who have made money through shady financial dealings, arrive in
New York Cityat the prompting of their daughter Undine who is dissatisfied with their station. For a while Undine struggles to enter the top echelons of society until finally she meets Ralph Marvell, a member of the old upper-class New York society, and they get married. Although Ralph cares for Undine a great deal and caters to her every whim, unfortunately his financial situation does not permit the kind of extravagances Undine desires. Undine's unsatisfied greed leads her into an affair with nouveau richePeter Van Degen and after having a child, Paul, with Ralph, she divorces him hoping to marry Peter Van Degen. For a period of a few years Undine lives in North Dakota, New York and Pariswhile trying to work out a way to divorce Ralph and marry Peter Van Degen, who does not seem to want any further contact with her. In Paris Undine meets a former acquaintance, a French Count who desires her hand in marriage. Her future husband, Raymond De Chelle is a French aristocrat whose faith does not permit a marriage with a divorcee. To procure money for an annulment, Undine blackmails her previous husband, Ralph Marvell. Undine is willing to allow Ralph to keep custody of their only son, whom he adores, if Ralph sends her a large sum of money. Although Ralph works he does not have the sum she is requesting and must gather money from his friends and family (including the life savings of his cousin Clare who is in love with him). The money he gathers is not enough, he needs double the sum if he is to keep his son with him; devastated, Ralph enters into a deal with Elmer Moffatt. The deal does not work out as planned and Ralph is told that he will not have the money by the deadline Undine set out. Unable to bear the separation from his boy Ralph commits suicide and Undine is married to Raymond De Chelle as a widow. For a while, Undine gets the glittering life she always wanted, however after a few short months, the customs of the De Chelle family and her husbands reluctance to spend extravagant sums greatly impair her vision of a perfect future. Again, she is unable to find contentment and divorces him to marry Elmer Moffatt, who by now has made a fortune. Undine is finally in possession of great wealth and able to give the parties of her dreams, however, the last pages lead the reader to think that she is again dissatisfied with her situation (as divorced women can never become an Ambassador's wife and she wants what's out of reach).
Characters in "The Custom of the Country"
* Undine Spragg, a young woman, the protagonist; some have called her name "the worst character name [ever] conceived."
* Mr. Abner Spragg, a financier
* Mrs. Leota Spragg, a housewife
* Elmer Moffatt, a cunning financer from Apex whom Undine marries (he is her fourth husband).
* Ralph Marvell, an old New York society gentleman who marries Undine, has a son with her and is then divorced by her
* Peter Van Degen, a man with whom Undine has an affair
* Clare Van Degen, married to Van Degen, unhappy with their marriage; she is Ralph Marvell's cousin who is deeply in love with him
* Charles Bowen, a grey-haired elderly man from New York City, who acts as a kind of observer; friend of Laura Fairford
* Raymond De Chelle, a French aristocrat who marries Undine after she is widowed; he her third husband
* Paul Marvell, Undine's and Ralph's child, Raymond's stepson
* Laura Fairford, Ralph Marvells sister; at her dinner, Undine first meets Ralph
* Henley Fairford, husband to Laura Fairford
* Claud Walsingham Popple, a painter who paints a portrait of Undine
* Mrs. Heeny, a masseuse who keeps company first with Undine and Mrs. Spragg and later with Undine and her son; she also keeps clippings of all high society events
* Celeste, Spragg family's French maid
Like much of
Edith Wharton's work, The Custom of the Country is an obliquely feminist critique, but in this case Undine Spragg also represents the US, as the initial letters in her name suggest. It is also a social survey insofar as it deals with the phenomenon of the Marriage Millsand the business proceedings that divorce entailed at that time. There is also a confrontation between old New York and the newly rich, and between French culture and American culture.
Literary significance and criticism
It belongs to her major period, which had began in 1905 with "
The House of Mirth". Edith Whartonherself called it, "a real magnum opus". The novel is divided into 5 books, which echoes the structure of a drama, if not a tragedy.
References from other works
Edith Whartonsaid the title of the novel came from a play by English playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, entitled "The Custom of the Country", in which the term 'custom' referred to the money paid by a master to get a girl's maidenhead.
*gutenberg|no=11052|name=The Custom of the Country
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