Summary:

The Custom of the Country is a novel that takes place in the familiar Wharton territories of the New York and Paris high societies. It charts the rise of Undine Spragg, the daughter of nouveau-riche parents who travel from their home in Apex, Kansas to New York City in the hopes of marrying Undine into one of the families of the American aristocracy. The story revolves around this ruthless anti-heroine, who aggressively pursues her ambition of acquiring a husband who can fund the lifestyle that she has read about in society columns and seen achieved by her Midwestern peers.

Undine is a portrait of female life where worth is dictated by beauty - and it is Undine's beauty that opens the doors of society. While she does not possess the intellect and culture of the older, more patrician set, she has learned enough from the masculine business of Wall Street to know that her beauty is a commodity. And like a ruthless robber-baron, Undine trades and bargains on her femininity in order to infiltrate the established New York society and capture the heart of romantic poet Ralph Marvell.

For the majority of the novel we follow the lives of Undine and Ralph, witnesses as gender, culture, and intellect collide. But this is not a book about love. It is a scathing examination of the burgeoning nouveau-riche and their rise to dominance in the New York society that Wharton knew so well. Yet even this seems a reductive comment in relation to the text. For as we watch the relationship between Undine and Ralph disintegrate, it becomes clear that Wharton is commenting on more than the
nouveau-riche. She is also discussing the failings of the established society whose steadfast refusal to develop with the changes in American culture have left them vulnerable to this invading sect. And it is also an attack on America, a country stunted by its inability to establish or foster the tradition and civility found in Europe; a country wholly concerned with the acquisition of more - more money, more goods, more everything. It is this culture that has birthed Undine, a woman who is
never satisfied with her conquests but lives for the discovery of another rung to climb on the social ladder.

The reader is forced to watch as a discontented Undine sheds herself, with tragic results, of Ralph and enters the "unattainable" Fauborg society of the French aristocracy by marrying Raymond de Chelles. Unable to understand, let alone acclimatize to, the lifestyle dictated by French tradition, Undine moves on to her final husband, Elmer Moffatt, formerly of Apex, Kansas - and formerly her secret first husband. So Undine ends up where she first began, married to someone from her own class. Yet this remarriage demonstrates the difference a few years has made, as both are recognized as successful members of the wealthy new society. And Wharton's condemnation continues to the last line, as Undine discovers a new part in life that her divorces have rendered unattainable, leaving her once again dissatisfied.

Discussion Questions:

1. Should we, as readers, condemn the behavior of Undine? Or has Wharton created a character with whom, as a product of American society, we must sympathize?

2. The death of Ralph, a character who embraced poetry and aestheticism, symbolizes the death of arts and culture in American society. Is this a valid claim?

3. Examine Ralph and Undine in terms of gender. How has Wharton switched the traditional roles with these two characters?

4. Wharton is well-known for her precise use of language. Discuss how she uses business terminology to describe the social events in the text.

--Contributed by Karen Wikander, Oxford University