The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton’s ninth novel, was published in 1913, just after she had finalized her divorce and settled in Paris. It follows the transatlantic adventures of a social-climbing beauty from the Midwest who is determined to acquire money and position through marriage—or divorce. Along with excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, we will discuss the following themes: customs and mores, democracy and aristocracy, America and Europe, marriage and divorce, and commerce and art.


Image: Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess D’Abernon (1904) by John Singer Sargent

Cheryl Miller & Chris Scalia discuss the future of the humanities


Cheryl Miller

Cheryl Miller is executive director at the Hertog Foundation. Previously, she served as deputy director of research in the Office of Presidential Speechwriting and as research assistant to David Brooks at The New York Times. Her reviews and commentary have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard. She graduated from the University of Dallas with Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Politics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • The Custom of the Country (TCOT), Chs. 1–13
  • Notes on the Name Undine
  • Excerpts from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
    • “On the Principal Source of Beliefs Among Democratic Peoples” (pp. 407–10),
    • “On the Taste for Material Well-Being in America” (pp. 506–08),
    • “On the Particular Effects That the Love of Material Enjoyments Produces in Democratic Countries” (pp. 508–09),
    • “Why Certain Americans Display Such an Exalted Spiritualism” (pp. 510–11),
    • “Influence of Democracy on the Family” (pp. 558–63)


  • Undine Spragg, Miss U.S. of A.
  • Ralph Marvell & Old New York
  • Marriage & Divorce
  • Materialism & “Exalted Spiritualism”

Recommended Listening:

Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe Miss Undine Spragg of Apex City (Miss U.S. of A.). In what ways is Undine an American heroine? What American traits does she exemplify?
  2. Describe Undine’s upbringing. What kind of parents are the Spraggs?
  3. What different social classes or “sets” does Undine navigate as she ascends from Apex to New York? Why does Undine keep misjudging the social status of the people she meets?
  4. Describe Ralph Marvell and the Old New York society he represents. How is Old New York different from the “new money” now ascendant? How is it similar?
  5. Compare the customs of courtship, marriage, and divorce in Apex City to those of Old New York. Take particular note of Undine’s conversation with Mr. Dagonet in Ch. 7 and Undine’s conversation with Elmer Moffatt in Ch. 9.
  6. Why does Ralph choose Undine rather than the more suitable Harriet Ray?
  7. If Undine wants wealth, why does she marry Ralph after learning he is not rich?



  • Portraiture & Art
  • “The custom of the country”
  • Honor & Fame
  • Peter Van Degan

Discussion Questions

  1. Consider the discussion of portraiture in Ch. 14. How should men and women be portrayed, according to Peter Van Degan? What does this suggest about their roles in society?
  2. Contrast Claude Walsingham Popple (likely based on John Singer Sargent) and Ralph Marvell as artists. What makes Popple successful as an artist? What does his art illustrate about “how we [Americans] live and what we want”?
  3. In the following chapter, Charles Bowen defends Undine by arguing that the business-obsessed American husband is to blame for the grasping American wife. Is he right? Is Undine a victim of “custom”?
  4. Consider the question of honor in Ch. 18. What code of honor does Old New York live by, and how does it compare to the business code of Mr. Spragg and Elmer Moffatt?
  5. Why is Undine not content to be Peter Van Degan’s mistress? Is this a matter of honor? Why risk her social standing on the gamble that he will divorce Clare and marry her?
  6. Why doesn’t Ralph fight the divorce? Does his “self-effacing, self-sacrificing” inaction prove Charles Bowen’s argument?



  • The Princess Estradina & Faubourg Saint–Germaine
  • Paris & New York
  • Marriage, Mistresses, & Annulments
  • Ralph and Paul Marvell

Discussion Questions:

  1. A down-on-her-luck Undine finds social rehabilitation in the friendship of the Princess Estradina and her aristocratic social set. Compare the French aristocracy to Old New York and Undine’s “new money” friends. How do these different social sets differ in their customs and values?
  2. In Ch. 29, Undine and her old rival, Nettie Wincher (now Madame de Trezac), discuss the French view of marriage, adultery, and divorce. How do French and American attitudes differ?
  3. What plan does Elmer Moffatt suggest to Undine, and why—how can she?—go along with it? (“Undine Spragg—how can you?”)
  4. Is Undine (and/or Elmer) responsible for what happens to Ralph?


  • TCOT, Chs. 37–46
  • Excerpts from Tocqueville:
    • “What Makes Almost All Americans Incline Toward Industrial Professions” (pp. 526–29),
    • “Why the Americans Show Themselves So Restive in the Midst of Their Well-Being” (pp. 511–14),
    • “How the Excessive Love of Well-Being Can be Harmful to Well-Being” (pp. 521–22)


  • Raymond de Chelles
  • Aristocracy & Democracy
  • Undine & Elmer

Discussion Questions:

  1. Compare Raymond Chelles, as a husband and aristocrat, to Ralph Marvell. How are they different, and how, alike?
  2. What is Raymond’s conception of marriage, and what role does he expect Undine to play? Is Undine’s discontent with life at Saint Desert and her efforts to escape it justified?
  3. What is Raymond’s critique of America and American values?
  4. Raymond, like Ralph, is defeated by the combined efforts of Undine and Elmer. What does this suggest about the fate of aristocracy and Europe in the modern age? Are democracy and America superior?
  5. Compare Elmer Moffatt to Undine Spragg. Both are social climbers determined to rise above their obscure Midwestern origins. Are they well-suited to one another? Do they share the same values? How do they achieve their ends?
  6. Does Undine get her just deserts in the end?

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