The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country is a gigantic novel, both in physical size, weighing in at 400 pages, and in the grandeur of the dimensions realized in the story. Although the protagonist, Undine Spragg, a gorgeous vain Narcissus with a voracious appetite for upward social mobility, first makes her appearance in New York, readers are treated to flashbacks in the midwest and fictionally present settings in France (Paris, St. Désert, and Monte Carlo), Italy (Nice, Siena, and Naples), and St. Moritz in Switzerland. In addition to these sumptuous settings, the novel is packed with a staggering number of situations and incidents, from unexpected encounters at the opera, to shady dealings behind closed doors on Wall Street, to the unforgettable and heart-breaking suicide in a bedroom at home in Washington Square.  

Fourth time is a charm

The Custom of the Country follows the spectacular rise and fall and rise again of Undine’s social career over 10-plus year period. A shallow, peevish, and fiercely individualistic young woman, Undine stumbles from one disillusionment to the next. In large part, this is due to her mistaken belief that social reality, i.e., its surface chit-chat and rapidly changing tastes and fashions, is something solid and permanent. She mistakes fashion for a “true republic of spirit,” to quote Wharton from The House of Mirth.

Undine marries four different times, using her prior marriage as a rung to improve her social position. But what good is a ladder if you can’t climb higher? She first marries Elmer Moffat, an “unpleasant-looking” but highly motivated man who has a “grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes.” Then Undine marries Ralph Marvell, a self-described “lyric idiot” and a member of New York’s golden aristocracy, whose worldview is ground to dust under the churning wheels of his wife’s ambition. Next, she marries a handsome French aristocrat named Raymond de Chelles whose business is honoring his family, its rich history, customs, and traditions. But a highly individualistic woman like Undine will chafe under this social organization. And lastly, in her fourth marriage, she re-marries her first husband Elmer Moffat, who is still ugly as a dinosaur but is now a billionaire railroad king who can buy the richly gilded tapestries that once hung on the walls at Undine’s previous home with Raymond de Chelles in St. Désert.

Apparently, fourth time is a charm — or not.

Futility as aesthetic effect

Like all masterly novels, it’s next to impossible to convey the full measure of its worth. But certainly one of Wharton’s greatest achievements in The Custom of the Country is that she simultaneously diagnoses the dangers of pure, unbridled egoism while elevating the reader out of the hamster’s wheel that is Undine’s life. That’s quite an accomplishment. The novel produces this effect because it describes a circle without progression. Undine ends at last where she started, married to Elmer Moffat, her mid-western sweetheart turned American billionaire and collector. She has everything she wants, she has her son, she has a magnificent home with expensive and beautiful objects in it, and she has unlimited access to all social circles. Yet she bears a worm of dissatisfaction. Because of her history of divorce, Elmer Moffat cannot become an ambassador to England, because it’s contrary to their custom. This vexes Undine terribly. Bedecked and bejewelled, she looks at herself in the mirror:

Under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an ambassador’s wife; and … she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

By the novel’s end, Undine may not be exasperated by the futility and emptiness of her life, but the reader is.

10 Responses to The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

  1. Great review Kevin of a great book. The house of mirth is my favourite of the 6 or so novels of hers I’ve read just because Lily Bart got into my heart, but The custom of the country is an amazingly clear-eyed evocation of social climbing combined with such a thorough lack of self-awareness. And, what a name. Can you ever forget a character with a name like that. It’s up there with Dickens’s best. “Circle without progression” is a great way to describe her life.

  2. Thank you, Sue. As I told Trevor of Mookse and Gripes in an e-mail, the two best novels I’ve read this year, hands down, are House and Custom. Simply amazing. As for Undine’s turn-your-head-to-the-left-and-cough name (a semi-inappropriate reference only fellas might get) I’m writing on it next. Let me know if you start to read O’Connor. I’m especially intrigued by A Good Man is Hard to Find and The River. So many questions are clamoring for answers.

  3. Lyric idiot – something to which I can aspire. Pretty funny.

    Do you really believe 400 pages is gigantic, or is that hyperbole for the parallelism?

  4. Hi AR, it’s the biggest novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Proust! Paradoxical? Yeah, probably. But it has something to do with the staggering wealth of incident and detail, combined with the sheer exhaustion that one feels in the final paragraph. Have you read it?

  5. No, I’ve only read Ethan Frome. Wharton is a major Humiliation.

    I always remind myself that the whole “Humiliation” thing is just a gag, but your writing on this novel and The House of Mirth sort of spoils the joke – maybe I actually should feel humiliated!

  6. Colleen says:

    Sounds delicious and uncomfortable. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for years now. Should I take it on vacation with me in December?

  7. Hmm, that’s a difficult call. A great book, yes. But I’m not sure it’s ideal vacay reading. You should definitely read it at some point, if only because I’m eager to get your reaction.

  8. Kat says:

    Kevin, this is one of my favorite books. I went through a phase where I read a lot of Wharton, all except (some of the) short stories. The Custom of the Country is superb. I read it as though it were popcorn, yet it has real substance. Undine Spragg is a monster, and there’s something Sinclair Lewis-ish about the satire but Wharton is the better writer.

    I should reread this. It’s been a few years since I read Wharton.

  9. […] I absolutely refuse to tell you my three favorite novels of the year. (The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Damn, I suck at […]

  10. […] about and which recently made KFC’s best of the year list (also, K2D2 has written about it on his blog, and I know he’s a major […]

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