Chapter 1 Summary

In praising the protagonist in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, British critic Margaret Drabble, writing for the Guardian, describes her as one who “dares, risks, exceeds, rises, falls, and rises again.” The protagonist’s name is Undine Spragg, whom Drabble goes on to call “one of the most appalling and fascinating heroines ever created.” The Custom of the Country was first published in 1913 and was Wharton’s ninth novel.

The novel opens in an elegant hotel suite that is decorated with lush materials and portraits of European royalty. This is the current residence of the Spraggs—husband and wife and their adult daughter, Undine. There had been a party the night before at the hotel, at which Undine had been introduced to several society figures. She is currently standing at the window, perplexed by a note she has just received. Her mother is visiting with Mrs. Heeny, a stout masseuse who has frequent appointments with Mrs. Spragg, as prescribed by Mrs. Spragg’s doctor. Mrs. Heeny serves people in high society and keeps newspaper clippings in her purse that detail the activities of the most important and influential among them.

At the previous night’s party, Undine had met Claud Popple, a man who showed a lot of interest in her. He had mentioned that he wanted to paint her portrait. When Undine receives the note the next day, she assumes it is from Popple. When she discovers it is not, she crumples the letter and throws it into her mother’s lap in disappointment.

Curious about what the note contains and why Undine appears to be provoked, Mrs. Heeny joins the conversation between Mrs. Spragg and Undine. In the course of the discussion, Mrs. Heeny discovers that the note Undine has received is from Laura Fairford. Mrs. Heeny asks if Ralph Marvell was at the party the night before whether Undine met him. Undine claims she did, referring to Ralph as “a little...

(The entire section is 579 words.)