54 pages 1 hour read

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1913

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Summary and Study Guide


The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton is a tragicomedy of manners that explores themes of greed, ruthless ambition, progress, and gendered ideas. Wharton, who was herself a member of the New York City elite, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and her novels are pieces of classic American literature for their social commentary, multilayered characters, and analysis of American culture.

Published in 1913, this novel can be read as both a historical artifact and a contemporary lens into layers of the American ethos. The Custom of the Country has been a source of inspiration for many writers, including the writers of the iconic television series Downton Abbey.

Content Warning: Please be advised that this novel depicts death by suicide.

Plot Summary

Undine Spragg is a Midwestern girl who moves to New York City in pursuit of a wealthy marriage and entrance into high society. Her family struggles to make good connections during their first two years in New York, and their financial security plummets. When Undine finally gains entrance to elite society through her engagement to Ralph Marvell, a member of the illustrious Dagonet family, her past behavior threatens her family’s newfound proximity to extreme wealth. Undine is spoiled by her father’s desires to see that his daughter gets everything she wants, and her earlier engagement and marriage to Elmer Moffatt almost ruined everything her father worked toward. Although that marriage ended, Elmer’s presence is a dark secret the Spraggs must keep quiet to secure their role in high society.

Undine marries Ralph, but the Spraggs are surprised to discover that Ralph doesn’t have a lot of money. Like many of the New York elite, Ralph receives enough family money to live a comfortable life but not enough to support an entire family. Because Ralph wasn’t taught to make money, the expectation is that Undine’s father will finance their lifestyle. Ralph and Undine embark on a honeymoon in Europe, with the understanding that Ralph will get a real job once he returns to New York. Undine’s father is wealthy, but his wealth is wearing thin. In Europe, Undine becomes bored of Ralph, and Ralph is confused to discover that Undine doesn’t care about anything except socializing with other elite people. Undine becomes pregnant, and the couple returns to New York.

As the years go by in New York, Ralph works hard at his new job for a real estate company. However, because he wasn’t raised to be an employee, he struggles to meet his wife’s extravagantly expensive expectations. While Ralph works, Undine continues to actively participate in the socialite world of New York City, to the detriment of her husband’s finances and all while ignoring her son, Paul. She eventually decides that marrying Ralph was a mistake and sets her sights on getting a divorce once she has secured the promise of a richer husband. Because of this, she convinces Ralph to make a business deal with Elmer and come up with the money to send her to Europe on her own, where Peter Van Degen is also on his own. Peter and Undine have been flirting for years, but both would need a divorce from their spouses, which would cause a scandal. Nonetheless, Undine manipulates Peter into courting her in Europe while Ralph is ill with pneumonia back in New York.

Undine files for divorce from Ralph, but Peter doesn’t file for divorce from Clare. This leaves Undine friendless, a source of scandal within her former group of socialite friends. Undine and Ralph divorce, and Undine moves back to Europe. She redevelops connections with European aristocracy and meets Raymond de Chelles, whom she first met while courting Peter. She convinces Raymond to marry her, but because Raymond is Catholic, Undine needs an annulment for her first marriage, which is quite expensive. Undine files custody rights for Paul to strong-arm Ralph into paying her off with the money she needs. Ralph finds solace in his friendship with Clare, whom he was once in love with before she married Peter. Through Clare and his family, Ralph comes up with money that Elmer can double in stocks, and Ralph and Clare become closer.

Ralph invests his money with Elmer, but the deal isn’t finalized in time for Undine’s payment. When Ralph begs Elmer for help, Elmer reveals that he and Undine married and divorced when they were much younger. Enraged that his life has been a lie, and depressed at the thought of losing his son, Ralph kills himself. Paul is sent to live with Undine in France, who can now marry Raymond easily because she’s technically a widow. Undine initially enjoys her new husband but quickly discovers his fiscal conservatism. As head of a noble family, Raymond must use his money to maintain estates so that they survive progress. Raymond becomes more controlling of Undine and moves them to the countryside. Undine, restless and bored in the countryside, finds ways to go to Paris whenever she can. However, she continues to spend lavishly, so Raymond stops talking to her about serious issues. When Undine attempts to sell Raymond’s family’s antique tapestries, he’s shocked by her inability to appreciate his history.

Undine is reacquainted with Elmer in Paris. Elmer has become extravagantly wealthy through successful business ventures—and he’s the one who wants to buy the tapestries. She starts spending more time with Elmer and recalls how much she values that they’re both motivated by material desires. Elmer helps Undine secure a quick divorce and marries her, providing her with the wealth that enables her to finally attain all her material ambitions. Paul is sent away to school and rarely sees his mother. The novel ends with Paul in tears over his loneliness, while Elmer and Undine are married and in possession of Raymond’s tapestries. Undine suddenly has a deep desire to become the wife of an ambassador.