Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bell relies on the technique of first-person narration to create a sense of irony throughout this story. Because the narrator does not understand fully the role she has played in creating the situation in which she now finds herself, Bell arouses tension that causes readers to question the reliability of the narrator’s view of her situation. Although the woman’s direct address to readers at first generates sympathy, readers come to realize that she is really not yet ready to resume responsibility for raising her child. The narrator has a strong sense of justice, but her means of achieving it are not socially acceptable. Her decision to resort to violence when she does not get her way affirms to readers that, while likable in many ways, she should not succeed in her quest to regain her child if the boy is to be given a chance to grow up normally.

The story’s title, “Customs of the Country,” alludes to The Custom of the Country, a 1913 novel by Edith Wharton, an early twentieth century writer who explored the dark underside of fashionable life in New York City. The contrasts between the high society of Park Avenue and rural Virginia may seem at first too drastic for meaningful comparison. The irony that Bell wishes readers to see, however, is that Wharton’s heroine, who possesses all the advantages of high society, rejects her son because he is detrimental to her attempts at social climbing. By contrast, Bell’s uneducated drug addict from rural Virginia cares deeply for her son, and although readers may see the wisdom in the state’s decision not to return him to her custody, there is a deep sense of sympathy for her, even if she does not know how to express her love appropriately.