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Custom of the Country, The

undine social wharton york

a novel by Edith Wharton, published in 1913. Set in the early twentieth century, the narrative recounts the successive marriages of the beautiful and ruthlessly avaricious Undine Spragg: to Ralph Marvell, the gentle yet vulnerable representative of the older New York; to the Marquis Raymond de Chelles of the old French aristocracy, with houses in Burgundy and the Faubourg St Germain; and to the immensely wealthy Elmer Moffatt, formerly of Apex City, Kansas, a robust member of the new American social breed who had been Undine's first husband in a short-lived secret marriage before becoming her fourth and last husband. Wharton constructs a subtle narrative of contrasts and similarities between a variety of customs and countries, of social structures and social types. Ralph Marvell's old-fashioned New York is contrasted with that of the invader and conqueror Peter van Degen, a gross millionaire playboy, who takes Undine as his mistress for two months. These in turn are contrasted with the fashionable Paris milieu, and the life of the French aristocracy. The novel is a fierce indictment of the mindless materialism Wharton sees infecting American life at the turn of the twentieth century.

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