Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

🔶️ I always believe that Edith Wharton is the female Émile Zola, in terms of the Naturalism movement in her writing. This remarkable novel, The Custom of the Country, is the perfect proof of it. Not that Wharton is less in writing quality compared to Zola, but because she applied the naturalism theme in a more subtle way, while Zola was more ferocious.

🔶️ Why makes me think that The Custom of the Country is the perfect proof? How about Wharton's other famous novels, like The House of Mirth or the one that gave her a Pullitzer prize - The Age of Innocence? It's because the significance of human's inability to resist their circumstances is portrayed in almost every character in this book. More significant than in The House of Mirth (which is relying almost solely on Lily Bart's character). How about The Age of Innocence? Well, to be honest, I've completely forgotten its story. And to this day I'm still puzzled over how that book could win Pulitzer, instead of The House of Mirth or, even, The Custom of the Country.

🔶️ Undine Spragg is a selfish spoilt girl from middle class background, but with an upper class taste. Her sole desire is always having the "best" in life. By the best, it means the most luxurious and glorious lifestyle. However, her perception of the 'best' keeps changing.

🔶️ Undine Spragg reminds me of a little girl who longs for a beautiful doll she plays with at her friend's. She'd do anything in the world to have that beautiful doll, and it's a happy day when she finally gets it and plays with it. Then, her other richer friend brings a Barbie doll with the most magnificent dress she'd ever seen. Now she thinks her present doll is ugly, and that having that Barbie doll would be her next sole purpose in life. And it's repeating again and again. Undine Spragg could be the grown up version of that little girl, but instead of dolls, her 'commodity' is social fortunes, and her means of procuring it is... a husband-no, husbands.

🔶️ Undine's first husband is Ralph Marvell, a pleasant young man from an old money family. She presumed at first, that this set of family is the highest in the society ladder. Soon, however, she found that the Marvells are too conventional, neither wealthy nor fashionable, and she began to despise her husband.

🔶️ From this first stage of her career we witness our anti-heroine's egoistic, heartless and ruthlessness. She never cares for anyone else, not even her own son. Undine whole universe is herself. And that would certainly bring ruins to people around her.

🔶️ Ironically, other characters in this book (particularly Undine's husbands) show the determinism in their inability to think or respond beyond the principle values in which they have been brought up. While in Undine's case, her determinism is in herself; while her values kept re-shaping.

🔶️ Edith Wharton had written this story brilliantly. The irony, the tragedy, and of course, her portrayal of the New York society in the turn of the century are poignantly beautiful.

🔶️ I am, probably, more captivated by the character of Paul (Undine's son with Ralph Marvell). Following the hereditary doctrine of Naturalism, Paul should inherit both parents' characters (flaws). But fortunately, Paul seems to disinherit Undine's, and is more like his father. His politeness, reserved manner, and fondness of books are all of Ralph's. Her mother might have left him the evasive and uprooted feelings in him, as a result of her ever changing world. I wished Wharton wrote another book about Paul Marvell - what becomes of him when he's grown up - it would certainly be an interesting book.

Rating: 5 of 5


  1. Thanks Fanda! Now I'm going to have to reread all my Wharton's to see if I can also spot the Zola influence. I hadn't thought about Wharton's characters as being deterministic, but you're right, free will, is not something many of them display.

  2. I love how you tie Edith Wharton to Zola! They're two of my favorite authors and I NEVER made this connection -- maybe that's why I love them both so much? I wonder if Edith read Zola. . . she did mention him in at least one of her books, Hudson River Bracketed, which I read last year. It's just a passing reference but I was so amused I included it in my review. Here's a link if you're interested:

  3. Great review, Fanda. I loved to hate this novel, ,because Undine Spragg has to be one of the worst main characters I have ever read. What a horrible person. But you can't take you eyes off her! I agree, too, with your assessment of Wharton's Pulitzer. The House of Mirth is better.


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