Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York 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...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Custom of the Country, Wharton presents a broad panorama of life in the United States and France during the first decade of the...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Custom of the Country lacks two things that are normally considered prerequisites for a popular work of fiction: a sympathetic...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The main settings of The Custom of the Country are New York and Paris, but the economic center is Apex City, Kansas. During the course...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Blake Nevius has called The Custom of the Country Wharton's most Balzacian novel. He mentions Balzac's Pere Goriot (1835) and...

(The entire section is 145 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Lewis, 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.