Places: The Custom of the Country

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1913

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Custom of the Country, TheYork City. On the eve of the twentieth century, New York City is the focus of young Undine Spragg’s dreams. Her determination to marry into the top level of American society is attained there by slow, deliberate, steps, culminating in her marriage to Ralph Marvell, the scion of an old New York family. Once their incompatibility and the Marvell family’s diminished fortunes become clear, she flails about, looking for excitement and a more advantageous arrangement. What she learns of New York “society” mores enables her eventually to succeed. She knows where one needs to be seen in New York: at the opera house, at the painter Claud Popple’s studio, at fashionable milliners’, and at fine restaurants.

Although Edith Wharton provides short, vivid descriptions of New York City scenes, the role she gives to place in this novel is as much about “social space” as about the details of actual physical settings. Undine’s New York City includes only Manhattan, and only people with recognizably northern European-derived names and appearances–this in an era when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were pouring into the city.

*Washington Square

*Washington Square. New York neighborhood in which the Marvell family town house is located. Undine views it as a symbol of Old New York aristocratic society, whose strictures and values she can neither accept nor understand.

Stentorian Hotel

Stentorian Hotel. New York hotel in which Undine and her parents are living when the novel opens. The hotel represents at least two things: the uprooting Undine’s parents endure in order to launch her socially, and Undine’s first, mistaken groping toward attaining social status, as when she asserts that the best people live only in hotels, not fixed abodes.

Spragg’s office

Spragg’s office. New York office of Undine’s father. It is shown in brief scenes as a place that only men enter. Business arrangements, both legitimate and questionable, are made there, in a setting far from the eyes–and interests–of their wives and daughters.

*Paris

*Paris. France’s leading city is the site of fashionable Americans’ annual migration for holidays. Social displays, entertainment, shopping, and meeting the more disreputable or daring of Europe’s remaining nobility are the main attractions of such sojourns. Undine likes Paris and tries to go there when she tires of New York. However, in Paris too her activities are largely confined to shopping, café-going, and nightlife, with occasional motoring trips into the countryside. On one occasion, when she worries about being perceived as a bore in conversation, she spends a morning at the great art museum known as the Louvre, but her experience there confuses her more than it enlightens her.

Chelles home

Chelles home (shehl). Spacious old Parisian house belonging to Raymond de Chelles; most of it is rented out. After marrying Raymond, Undine discovers that an entire proud, tradition-bound world of French aristocrats exists behind the gaudy attractions that delight rich Americans. Raymond is not averse to mounting occasional social events in the city, but he expects Undine to spend most of her time at the remote château of Saint Desert, where constant rain and ancient tapestries intensify her frustrations at being bored and trapped.

Apex City

Apex City. Fictional town in which Undine grows up and where she meets Elmer Moffatt, her first and fourth husband. Critics have speculated that Apex City’s location could be either Kansas or Nebraska; however, Wharton was not familiar with the Midwest and probably had no specific city in mind for a model. Apex City is a mix of small city stereotypes, such as its Baptist church and the walk down Main Street. Paradoxically, the small-town values from which Undine escapes later enable her to come full circle and remarry Moffatt when she tires of life with her French husband. When she protests that the Roman Catholic Church forbids divorce, Elmer points out that she was born a Baptist, and that “we’re differently made out in Apex;” he wants her as a wife, not a mistress.

BibliographyLewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. This standard biography provides important background information on the novel and a sensitive critical discussion placing it in the context of Wharton’s other work.McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976. An introductory study that includes a separate chapter on The Custom of the Country, which discusses its critical reception, compares it to other Wharton works, and analyzes its structure, Wharton’s use of satire, and her deft treatment of minor characters.Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. An early but still valuable study that compares Wharton’s Undine to the creation of the “new woman” in other early twentieth century novels, calling her a “symbolic victim” of the forces shaping modern America.Raphael, Lev. Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame: A New Perspective on Her Neglected Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Compares The Custom of the Country with The House of Mirth and provides a close analysis of the novel’s structure.Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A critical study with significant biographical material that helps illuminate the author’s readings of the novels. Includes a thorough interpretation of The Custom of the Country, emphasizing Wharton’s anthropological view of her characters.
Categories: Places