The Custom of the Country, one of Edith Wharton’s major achievements, was published midway through her productive period between 1905 and 1920, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. As in The House of Mirth (1905), Wharton examines with an anthropologist’s eye the old New York in which she grew up. As in her masterpiece, The Age of Innocence (1920), she shrewdly examines the conventions of society and the men and women who try to break out of them. The Custom of the Country reflects not only her concern with American cultural inadequacies and her contempt for the values of the newly moneyed and growing middle class (in this concern she resembles her contemporary, Henry James) but also her interest in the issue of the role of women in society.
Wharton’s portrait of Undine is remarkable; nothing quite like it had been attempted in American literature, except perhaps in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Like Dreiser, Wharton shatters the conventions of the age, which sentimentalized women and consigned them to passive roles in melodramas or staid drawing room comedies and romances. The novel ends with Undine still unsatisfied. Her marriage to Moffatt, financially by far her most successful, is marred by her insatiable desire for more, particularly for anything that might enhance her position in society. From the time she leaves Apex and comes to New York to cut a figure in society, she thrives only when she is noticed and treasured and when her extravagance is indulged. She grows more sophisticated but her character does not change. It is unlikely that she will ever be content, which is why Wharton ends the novel with Undine’s longing to be an ambassador’s wife.
It would be simplistic merely to see Undine as a villainess—indeed, Wharton does not treat her as such. Rather, Undine represents her times, late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, when the number of business speculators such as Moffatt rose sharply and the old New York of Edith Wharton’s childhood gave way to a new class of entrepreneurs. Undine is a kind of robber baron, boosting her stock and conniving at investments in her human capital. She is every bit as ruthless as Moffatt, but since she is a woman she has far less latitude than he does and must depend on...
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