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"The Custom of the Country" by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

First published in 1913, this is the story of Undine Spragg. Undine's social and monetary aspirations show themselves early in life, as she convinces her parents to move from their comfortable existence in the Midwest to New York City. There she throws herself into high society and finds her ambition and greed grow as she climbs the social ladder, all the while hoping to keep her checkered past hidden from view.

For those familiar with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, there is a distinct similarity between Undine and that novel's heroine (or anti-heroine), Becky Sharp. These ladies are pure ambition, and they don't mind tossing away their reputations--or anyones else's for that matter--to get what they want.

Not counting books I was made to read in high school, The Custom of the Country was my first Edith Wharton. I had stayed away from her because of her penchant for disastrous endings and unsympathetic characters. Now I know I was missing out. Perhaps because I'm older or hardened by just having read Wuthering Heights for the third time, I loved Undine's heartless antics. I sped through the pages, curious what she would be up to next. Her male counterpart in the novel, Elmer Moffatt, was equally appeasing. This ugly, cunning financier (some would say swindler) curiously appears in all major turning points of the novel. It is not until the end that you find out why.

The meaning behind the title of the novel? Apparently Wharton led an unhappy married life, and after her divorce she moved permanently to France. She must have formed some decided opinions on the differences between European and American customs, particularly having to do with courting and marriage. Wharton spells out her opinions through that of Charles Bowen, the novel's wise and elderly observer:

"Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she's so important to them that they make it worth her while! She's not a parenthesis, as she is here--she's in the very middle of the picture...Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman's drawing-room or in their offices? The answer's obvious, isn't it? The emotional centre of gravity's not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it's love, in our new one it's business. In America the real crime passionnel is a 'big steal'--there's more excitement in wrecking railways than homes."


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