The Custom of the Country

by Edith Wharton

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In chapter 19 of The Custom of the Country, what is the tone of the passage?

Quick answer:

The tone of this passage is one of irony and satire, as Bowen’s detachment from the social mores makes him an ideal observer.

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As in most of her work, Edith Wharton employs the literary effects of irony and cynicism to her novel The Custom of the Country. Chapter 19 takes place at the “great Nouveaux Luxe” restaurant in Paris where Charles Bowen is about to meet a French count named Raymond de Chelles. The very name of the establishment, which means “The New Luxury” points with witty mockery to the fact that Undine Marvell, the American protagonist of the novel, although married to a once-wealthy man, belongs to the nouveaux riche, known as a group for lacking in tradition, breeding, and class.

Throughout the chapter, Bowen, as the observer, notes the “seemingly endless perspective of plumed and jeweled heads” with a satirical detachment of one who is above the way of the world; he is an elderly man and is less bound by the strictures of acceptable class behavior. Once he meets the count and they both notice Undine Marvell, he is amused by the deft game she plays—not just with the Count but with her own dinner companion Van Degen: she flirts openly with them both. Edith Wharton presents the scene with a wry tone of recognition of the power games people in such societies play, especially when they are looking to better their own position, as Undine does.

Even though the author’s irony is subtle and refined, the bite of the meaning is clearly noticeable because the games Undine plays are not subtle at all.

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