Guide The Custom of the Country

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Not all enjoyable novels are great, and not all great novels are enjoyable. This is, supremely, both. I liked it when I first read it many years ago, but I was far more impressed when I came across it again.

The Custom of the Country Summary

The circumstances of my rediscovery may have had something to do with this intense delight. I was stranded by bad weather for many hours at Newark airport, New Jersey, after a long flight from a literary festival in Mexico.

What to do in Newark for a spare and useless day? I took myself on the courtesy bus to the shopping mall, one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. Mile upon mile, acre upon acre of merchandise spread before me, with hardly a shopper in sight, and no piece of merchandise that I or perhaps anyone could conceivably want. It was like a ghost town, the abandoned squat of North American capitalism. I trudged around, forlornly, and at last I came upon a large basement bookshop.

I had run out of reading matter, so I entered, hopefully. How to cheer myself up? I'd been reading a grim diet of the formidable Carlos Fuentes who was treated like royalty at the Mexican festival and I needed something more cheering.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton - Reading Guide -

A reliable classic, a reassuring costume drama might do the trick. Edith Wharton was an inspired choice.

As soon as I opened the novel I knew I was in safe hands. The airline could delay and insult me, the storms could batter me, but I was secure, enthralled by the fortunes of one of the most appalling and fascinating heroines ever created. Undine can, and she does. She dares, risks, exceeds, rises, falls, and rises again. She is a force of nature. Her energy is dreadful, her beauty is fatal. She is a fortune-seeker from the Midwest, upwardly mobile, ignorant but quick to learn, and ambitious not for riches her humble and devoted father has made money and spent lavishly upon her but for admiration and social glory.

We watch, as she glitters and ascends, through a rapidly changing society that seems forced to accommodate her longings and bend to her will. Will she ever meet an obstacle to her rapacious desires?

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton [Full Audiobook]

You have to read on, literally to the last line, to find out. Her physical presence in the novel is extraordinarily powerful. About two months after their meeting, Undine and Ralph become engaged.


One night, they go to see a play, where Undine is shocked to find herself sitting next to Elmer Moffatt, someone who knows about her past. She promises to meet him privately in Central Park the next day. When they meet, Moffatt, a blunt, vulgar man, tells Undine that she must help him in his business deals after she marries Ralph. Spragg refuses, asks him to join in a business deal.

The beautiful and the damned

Spragg is fortunate in his business deal with Moffatt and is able to give Undine a big wedding. After Ralph and Undine are married, Ralph gradually realizes that Undine cares less for him than for the social world. Her unhappiness and resentment increase when she learns that she is pregnant.