The Custom Of The Country by Edith WhartonThe Custom Of The Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom Of The Country

byEdith Wharton

Mass Market Paperback | April 1, 1991

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First published in 1913, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country is a scathing novel of ambition featuring one of the most ruthless heroines in literature. Undine Spragg is as unscrupulous as she is magnetically beautiful. Her rise to the top of New York’s high society from the nouveau riche provides a provocative commentary on the upwardly mobile and the aspirations that eventually cause their ruin. One of Wharton’s most acclaimed works, The Custom of the Country is a stunning indictment of materialism and misplaced values that is as powerful today for its astute observations about greed and power as when it was written nearly a century ago.
The upper stratum of New York society into which Edith Wharton was born in 1862 provided her with an abundance of material as a novelist but did not encourage her growth as an artist. Educated by tutors and governesses, she was raised for only one career: marriage. But her marriage, in 1885, to Edward Wharton was an emotional disappo...
Title:The Custom Of The CountryFormat:Mass Market PaperbackDimensions:480 pages, 6.87 × 4.26 × 1.05 inPublished:April 1, 1991Publisher:Random House Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0553213938

ISBN - 13:9780553213935

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Read from the Book

Book OneChapter One"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.But her defense was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it."I guess it's meant for me," she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother."Did you ever, Mrs. Heeny?" Mrs. Spragg murmured with deprecating pride.Mrs. Heeny, a stout professional-looking person in a waterproof, her rusty veil thrown back, and a shabby alligator bag at her feet, followed the mother's glance with good-humored approval."I never met with a lovelier form," she agreed, answering the spirit rather than the letter of her hostess's inquiry.Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites,and the drawing room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the center of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.Mrs. Heeny, in comparison, had a reassuring look of solidity and reality. The planting of her firm black bulk in its chair, and the grasp of her broad red hands on the gilt arms, bespoke an organized and self-reliant activity, accounted for by the fact that Mrs. Heeny was a "society" manicure and masseuse. Toward Mrs. Spragg and her daughter she filled the double role of manipulator and friend; and it was in the latter capacity that, her day's task ended, she had dropped in for a moment to "cheer up" the lonely ladies of the Stentorian.The young girl whose "form" had won Mrs. Heeny's professional commendation suddenly shifted its lovely lines as she turned back from the window."Here-you can have it after all," she said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother's lap."Why-isn't it from Mr. Popple?" Mrs. Spragg exclaimed unguardedly."No-it isn't. What made you think I thought it was?" snapped her daughter; but the next instant she added, with an outbreak of childish disappointment: "It's only from Mr. Marvell's sister-at least she says she's his sister."Mrs. Spragg, with a puzzled frown, groped for her eye-glass among the jet fringes of her tightly girded front.Mrs. Heeny's small blue eyes shot out sparks of curiosity. "Marvell-what Marvell is that?"

Bookclub Guide

1. Some critics consider The Custom of the Country an epic tale, complete with a hero (in this case, a heroine) and various battles (that is, her marriages). Do you agree? What aspects make the novel epic? Which aspects refute this idea?2. What do the novel’s descriptions of marriage and divorce tell us about Wharton’s views on the subject?3. Are we to look at Undine as a sympathetic character? Consider women’s roles at the time of the novel. Was Undine forced to be the person she was?4. In contrast to Wharton’s other New York—set novels, there is no dominant moral character in The Custom of the Country to oppose the selfish Undine. Why did Wharton let Undine go unchallenged? What is she saying about New York–and, by extension, American–society?5. Wharton consistently presents Undine as monstrously acquisitive, yet Undine seems to get these characteristics from her father, who uses them in business. Does Wharton approve of these behaviors at all? What is she saying about the gender differences of the time? If Undine had been allowed to use these characteristics in business, would she be a different person in her personal life?6. Do you think Wharton hates Undine? If she does, how does this affect the narrative?

From Our Editors

A woman of extraordinary ambition and exuberant vitality, Undine is consigned by virtue of her sex to the shadow-world of the drawing room and boudoir.

Editorial Reviews

"Edith Wharton's finest achievement."—Elizabeth Hardwick