Conversation around Edith Wharton's ‘Custom of the Country'


LENOX -- Most of her popular work, incluing "Ethan Frome," has a thread of nostalgia and a sense of melancholy, of chances not taken, said Kelsey Mullen, public programs coordinator at The Mount. Wharton can see a different world, a world where these people could have been happier if they had made different choices.

"Custom of the Country" is forward-moving -- progressive-era reform, expansion of the West, centers of economic power, divisions between old and new money -- and if she sees a different world, then in orer to get ther she would have to change not just one woman but the society that made that woman who she is.

"In some other novels, when the heroine makes choices that frustrate you, she's thinking of other people," said the Mount's communications director, Rebecka McDougall. Here, the heroine thinks only of herself. "Undine Spragg makes destructive choices because she doesn't learn."

"This woman has plans," Mullen said. "She has her eyes on a prize she's convinced she wants, and she goes for it."

But she goes for it without thinking -- without thinking about what she's doing, or about what will happen if she gets what she is aiming for, and she hurts people.

The name Undine, Mullen said, has a mythological root: An undine was a soul-less water nymph who could only gain a soul by marrying and having a child.


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