The Custom of the Country


Edith Wharton

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Custom of the Country can help.

Corruption Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Custom of the Country, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Corruption Theme Icon

In addition to being a time of significant social change, the early 20th century (when The Custom of the Country was published and takes place) was also a time of widespread political and business corruption, and this corruption is a constant backdrop throughout the novel. Many of the wealthy characters in the novel, particularly “new money” characters like Mr. Spragg and Elmer Moffatt (who originally come from humbler backgrounds), appear respectable on the surface by going to operas and hosting banquets, but they obtained their wealth through legally dubious means. Although throughout the novel characters obsess over their social reputations, many of them seem to have surprisingly lenient attitudes toward corruption and financial scandal. For example, the many insider deals of Apex politician Representative James J. Rolliver are an open secret, but if anything, the money and power that he obtains through his shady dealings only earn him more respect, improving his reputation and furthering his political career. Similarly, despite his well-known shady dealings, which make the local newspapers, Elmer Moffatt manages to reinvent himself as an upright member of society, becoming a successful Wall Street businessman and a world-traveling art collector. The novel’s protagonist, Undine Spragg, has little interest in backroom dealings, and so many of the conspiracies and rackets in the novel get only brief mentions, reflecting how little Undine herself cares about the specifics of dubious business practices. Undine is willing to overlook just about anything in a person who’ll give her money, and her indifference toward corruption perhaps reflects how, on a broader level, many people ignore tricky ethical questions in situations where they stand to personally benefit. Undine and other characters maintain their ignorance so that they can continue to live their own lavish lifestyles without guilt. The corrupt dealings in The Custom of the Country reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of high society, showing how behind their refined and polite exteriors, many people are willing to put aside their morals for the sake of money.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…
Get the entire The Custom of the Country LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Custom of the Country PDF

Corruption Quotes in The Custom of the Country

Below you will find the important quotes in The Custom of the Country related to the theme of Corruption.
Chapter 6 Quotes

But how long would their virgin innocence last? Popple’s vulgar hands were on it already—Popple’s and the unspeakable Van Degen’s! Once they and theirs had begun the process of initiating Undine, there was no knowing—or rather there was too easy knowing—how it would end!

Related Symbols: Fifth Avenue
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

Moffatt’s social gifts were hardly of a kind to please the two ladies: he would have shone more brightly in Peter Van Degen’s set than in his wife’s. But neither Clare nor Mrs. Fairford had expected a man of conventional cut, and Moffatt’s loud easiness was obviously less disturbing to them than to their hostess. Undine felt only his crudeness, and the tacit criticism passed on it by the mere presence of such men as her husband and Bowen; but Mrs. Fairford seemed to enjoy provoking him to fresh excesses of slang and hyperbole.

Related Symbols: Apex
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

“If you’d only had the sense to come straight to me, Undine Spragg!

There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you—not one!”

Related Symbols: Apex
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 33 Quotes

“But shall I tell you what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date. I don’t believe Undine cares a straw for ‘the appearance of respectability.’ What she wants is the money for her annulment.”

Related Characters: Clare Van Degen (speaker), Ralph Marvell, Undine Spragg, Paul Marvell
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 35 Quotes

Within forty-eight hours Ralph’s money was in Moffatt’s hands, and the interval of suspense had begun.

The transaction over, he felt the deceptive buoyancy that follows on periods of painful indecision. It seemed to him that now at last life had freed him from all trammelling delusions, leaving him only the best thing in its gift—his boy.

Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 36 Quotes

For a moment he was conscious of seeing it in every detail with a distinctness he had never before known; then everything in it vanished but the single narrow panel of a drawer under one of the bookcases. He went up to the drawer, knelt down and slipped his hand into it.

As he raised himself he listened again, and this time he distinctly heard the old servant’s steps on the stairs. He passed his left hand over the side of his head, and down the curve of the skull behind the ear. He said to himself: “My wife … this will make it all right for her….” and a last flash of irony twitched through him. Then he felt again, more deliberately, for the spot he wanted, and put the muzzle of his revolver against it.

Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 41 Quotes

It was of no consequence that the details and the technicalities escaped her: she knew their meaningless syllables stood for success, and what that meant was as clear as day to her. Every Wall Street term had its equivalent in the language of Fifth Avenue, and while he talked of building up railways she was building up palaces, and picturing all the multiple lives he would lead in them. To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence, and as she listened to him the vision of the things he could have unrolled itself before her like the long triumph of an Asiatic conqueror.

Related Characters: Elmer Moffatt, Undine Spragg
Related Symbols: Apex, Fifth Avenue
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis: