Synopses & Reviews
Highly acclaimed at its publication in 1913, The Custom of the Country is a cutting commentary on Americas nouveaux riches, their upward-yearning aspirations and their eventual downfalls. Through her heroine, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg, a spoiled heiress who looks to her next materialistic triumph as her latest conquest throws himself at her feet, Edith Wharton presents a startling, satiric vision of social behavior in all its greedy glory. As Undine moves from Americas heartland to Manhattan, and then to Paris, Whartons critical eye leaves no social class unscathed.
At the turn of the 20th Century, it seems the only power a woman has is obtained through the institution of marriage. Or so Undine Spragg, the spoiled, unscrupulous, vain, and magnetic heroine of Wharton's "The Custom of the Country" thinks. She leaves a wake of destruction and despair in her quest for wealth and power within New York's nouveau riche society. With a backdrop of New York, Paris, Reno, and Apex City, Kansas, Wharton paints a picture of greed and power still powerful a near century after it was written.
About the Author
Diane Johnson is the author of ten novels, most recently Le Mariage and Le Divorce, two books of essays, two biographies, and the screenplay for Stanley Kubricks classic film The Shining. She has been a finalist four times for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards.
Reading Group 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 novels descriptions of marriage and divorce tell us about Whartons views on the subject?
3. Are we to look at Undine as a sympathetic character? Consider womens roles at the time of the novel. Was Undine forced to be the person she was?
4. In contrast to Whartons 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?