Discussion Questions for The Custom of the Country
1. Does The Custom of the Country fit this definition of a novel of manners? Novel of manners: A novel dominated by social customs, manners, conventions, and habits of a definite social class. In the true novel of manners the mores of a specific group, described in detail and with great accuracy, become powerful controls over characters. The novel of manners is often, although by no means always, satiric; it is always realistic, however.
2. What items are supposed to be of value in this culture? What items are actually of value?
3. Elaine Showalter has said that The Custom of the Country "is a book about the peculiar art of the American deal, from dilettantish aestheticism to blunt acquisitiveness, and its relations with other and more traditional forms of art." What are the "deals" in this book, and how does Wharton structure her plot around them? What "deals" does Undine make with her father, Ralph, Raymond, Peter van Degen, and Elmer?
4. In her essay "The Woman Who Hated Women," Janet Malcolm suggests that Wharton appreciates the ideals of the men in this novel while deriding those of the female characters. In Undine, writes Malcolm, "Wharton takes her cold dislike of women to a height of venomousness previously unknown in American letters and probably never surpassed. . . . She inspires in her creator a kind of loathing that makes the reader nervous, even as it powerfully works on him." Is this a fair assessment of Wharton's treatment of Undine? Discuss.
5. Wharton admired Thackeray's works, and Undine is said to have been inspired by Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. In what ways is this comparison accurate?
6. In what ways is Undine a peculiarly American heroine? What American traits does she exemplify? Would it be fair to say that in depicting Undine, Wharton sought to provide an accurate rendition of the American character? Is she perhaps representative of the New Woman, as some critics have argued?
7. Watching Undine move toward Raymond de Chelles, Bowen reflects that "it had so long been clear to him that poor Ralph was a survival, and destined, as such, to go down in any conflict with the rising forces" (177). The allusion to Darwinian and Spencerian "survival of the fittest" is clear here; in what other ways (and what other scenes suggest) a Darwinian or even naturalistic clash of forces?
8. What are this novel's ethical codes for marriage? For business? Trace the social classes described here and the social codes to which they subscribe.
9. Bowen at one point (130-131) defends Undine by suggesting that the business-obsessed American husband is to blame for the grasping American wife. Is he right? Discuss.
10. An undine is a water sprite. "Undine" is also the title of a fairy romance published by Briedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué in 1811. The plot is as follows: "Undine is a sylph, the personification of the watery element. A humble fisherman and his wife have lost their child by drowning, and Undine, a capricious roguish maiden, has come mysteriously to them and been brought up in her stead. A knight, Huldbrand von Ringstetten, takes shelter in their cottage and falls in love with Undine. They are married, and the sylph in consequence receives a soul. But her relations, and particularly uncle Kuhleborn, the wicked water goblin, are a source of trouble. Huldbrand begins to neglect his wife and becomes attached to the haughty Bertalda, who is humbled by the discovery that she is the fisherman's lost child. One day, in a boat on the Danube, Huldbrand, tormented by Undine's kindred, angrily rebukes his wife, and she is snatched away by them into the water and seen no more. Presently Huldbrand proposes to Bertalda, and they are about to be married, when Undine, rising from a well, goes to the knight's room and kisses him, and he dies." Comment on the applicability of this tale to The Custom of the Country.
11. What establishes or creates power in this book? Money? Beauty? Intellect? Sexuality?
12. In what ways do the following ideas operate in the book?
13 . We’ve discussed some of the allusions to classical myth here, such as that of Perseus and Andromeda. What about these?
• Keats’s Lamia:
She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermillian-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard … .
• Shakespeare’s The Tempest
• Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (invaders as reptiles) and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (“Behold the Nereids under the green sea/ Their wavering limbs borne on the wind-like stream, / Their white arms lifted o’er their streaming hair”)
• Goddess Latona stops to drink at a clear pond; local rustics stir up mud, and Latona weaves a spell: may they spend their lives there! They turn into frogs.
Comments to D. Campbell.