The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edith Wharton

Born Edith Newbold Jones, Edith Wharton was born into a wealthy real-estate family in New York City. She spent much of her youth traveling around Europe and became fluent in several languages. Wharton started writing at a young age, and with help from her family, got a few poems published, many anonymously. Her parents, however, initially placed more emphasis on her social status than her writing. After her society debut in 1879, she didn’t write much for several years, and instead participated in New York social life and married her husband Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885. During the early years of her marriage, Wharton traveled extensively. Although she didn’t publish a novel until she was over 40 (The Valley of Decision in 1902), she became extremely prolific, writing over 15 novels, as well as many shorter works, poems, and nonfiction works. She is perhaps best known today for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Age of Innocence (1920) and for the novella Ethan Frome (1911). She died in 1937 at her country home in France.
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Historical Context of The Custom of the Country

Wharton published The Custom of the Country during the Progressive Era, just before the start of World War I. The Progressive Era was a time of social change (including a greater acceptance for divorce in many parts of the United States), but it was also a time of widespread corruption, where even new “trustbusting” laws were not enough to stop big corporate monopolies. As Undine Spragg’s situation in the novel shows, many women had more social and economic freedoms than they did in previous eras, but they still lacked the right to vote, and men still dominated positions of authority.

Other Books Related to The Custom of the Country

Due to her affluent background, Edith Wharton had a strong education in canonically classic writers such as Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), John Milton (Paradise Lost), Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), and Washington Irving (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). The character name “Ralph Marvell” may have been inspired by the poet Andrew Marvell (“To His Coy Mistress”). Wharton’s precise style also draws influence from scientific writers of the time, such as Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species) and Herbert Spencer (Principles of Biology).
Key Facts about The Custom of the Country
  • Full Title: The Custom of the Country
  • When Written: Early 20th century
  • Where Written: Paris, France
  • When Published: 1913
  • Literary Period: The Progressive Era, Modernism
  • Genre: Novel, Comedy of Manners, Tragicomedy
  • Setting: New York City and France
  • Climax: Undine realizes she wants to marry Elmer Moffatt again.
  • Antagonist: Undine’s own selfishness and materialism
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Custom of the Country

Life Imitates Art. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” (i.e., trying to compete with your neighbors to own the best things) may have originally referred to Edith Wharton’s father’s family (whose last name was Jones). Fittingly, many of Wharton’s novels are about characters who metaphorically try to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Based on True Events. The Custom of the Country, a novel about a woman who gets divorced four times, was published in the same year that Edith Wharton divorced her own husband.