Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Difficult one to assess. One of the 'literary' works, and I came into this one with an assumption of complexity and excellence in writing that was only partially born out. It's overall an effective work, however, and renders the core characterizationg effectively. Thinking back to the novel after reading it, the point that emerges clearly is how the protagonist grapples with and manipulates American class structures from personal ambition and general access to resources. It not a hugely distinguishable personality that stands memorably beyond the story, and in a way the lack of true complexity weakens the force of the book. There are certainly advantages to tying the main psychology so closely to the unfolding of events. It's elements like this that linked with engaging prose and control over time that make for a good energy to reading the work.

The strongest critique in the novel and the point where it's most compelling is it's representation of marriage in the early twentieth century class structure. The fetishes of bourgeois marriage are well presented, particularly the ritualized protestations of love and respectability that bound fundamentally mercenary structures. In exposing general social hypocrisy and framing dramatic situations that specifically embody such facets the novel succeeds, and it must have been a sensation when published in 1913. It hasn't aged entirely well, however, and in some ways suffers from the specificity of its scenario. Certainly basic issues with marriage, capitalism and aristocracy remain relevant, but the book lacks a certain force, a necessary drama that would lift this work into truly great literature.

I feel at this point that I've been somewhat too harsh, after all this book is effective both in the core mechanics of constructing the narrative as well as rendering a biting social message without resorting to cliche or preaching. It delivers a strong central character and a plot that's unique as well as relevant. Still, measured on the grounds of sheer engrossment with the process of reading or endurance for the force of the social critique I see Wharton's novel as second-tier to the best.

Worse than: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Better than: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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