The Custom of the Country

By Edith Wharton
Genre: Adventure
Buy Now This book is on reading list for April 2012

Why We Like This Book

The Custom of the Country is considered a novel of manners, which is a form that deals with aspects of behavior, language, customs and values characteristic of a particular class of people in a specific historical context. It often shows a conflict between individual aspirations or desires and the accepted social codes of behaviour. There is a vital relationship between manners, social behaviour and character.

The idea of manners assumes not only a social significance, as it is applied today, but a moral one as well, which preceded the social context in which it was used. Characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other, however, but there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters. The different degrees of how the characters uphold the standard level of social etiquette is what usually dominates the plot of the novel. (source Wikipedia)

The elements of a novel of manners include:

  • A single woman looking for a husband
  • Socio-economic class is a factor in determining who is eligible as a husband
  • The novel must include scenes that portray the proper and improper way to act within high society, and also outline the differences and relations between the classes
  • The novel ends with either the marriage or death of the female protagonist
Discussion Questions
  1. What does The Custom of the Country tell us about marriage and divorce and the author’s attitude toward the subject?
  2. Are we to take Undine literally or is she a caricature?
  3. What are the differences between the American and European views of marriage? How does Wharton make this contrast?
  4. There is no dominant moral character in the novel. What does this say about New York and by extension American culture/society?
  5. Are we to consider Undine as a sympathetic character? Consider women’s place in society at the time. Does this ‘excuse’ her behavior?
  6. Wharton consistently presents Undine as monstrously acquisitive, yet Undine seems to draw these traits from the males she observes in business. What does this suggest about gender differences? If Undine could have made her own money, would she have acted differently in her personal relationships?
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