Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Some critics consider The Custom of the Country an epic tale, complete with a hero (in this case, a heroine) and various battles (that is, her marriages). Do you agree? What aspects make the novel epic? Which aspects refute this idea?
2. What do the novel’s descriptions of marriage and divorce tell us about Wharton’s views on the subject?
3. Are we to look at Undine as a sympathetic character? Consider women’s roles at the time of the novel. Was Undine forced to be the person she was?
4. In contrast to Wharton’s other New York—set novels, there is no dominant moral character in The Custom of the Country to oppose the selfish Undine. Why did Wharton let Undine go unchallenged? What is she saying about New York–and, by extension, American–society?
5. Wharton consistently presents Undine as monstrously acquisitive, yet Undine seems to get these characteristics from her father, who uses them in business. Does Wharton approve of these behaviors at all? What is she saying about the gender differences of the time? If Undine had been allowed to use these characteristics in business, would she be a different person in her personal life?
6. Do you think Wharton hates Undine? If she does, how does this affect the narrative?