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Custom of the Country - Book Report/Review Example

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In the novel Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton tells the tale of beautiful society girl Undine Spragg and her ambitious quest for the life she desires. Undine perfectly captures what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the century. Wharton created her to be a kind of heroin for the up and coming generation of women…
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Custom of the Country
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Download file to see previous pages In order to live up to her high society standards and to attract her husbands Undine's life is completely consumed with beauty. She is constantly concerned with how she looks and how she looks in comparison to others. She obsesses over the Sunday newspaper rotogravure pages and uses this as a way of measuring herself against other members of high society.
Throughout the novel, Wharton gives the characters their worth based on the things they own, what they look like, and where they live. This materialistic measuring of ones worth is very typical of turn of the century ideals because the conventions of beauty established a stereotypical image that was only accessible to a minority of the wealthiest, white, young, attractive women. In other words the turn of the century idea of beauty was one that could only truly be attained by the wealthiest of women who could afford the accessories and clothing necessary to accentuate their looks. This can be seen when Wharton describes Undine's gowns as being, "almost as good as her good looks" (Wharton). These ideals are reflected in the pages of the rotogravure as well with depictions of women dressed extravagantly and wearing only the most stylish of hats while attending the most talked about social events. Wharton reveals how Undine revels in looking at these rotogravures and wishes she could be a part of their "dazzling auriferous world" (Wharton).
Not only would women at the turn of the century look to the rotogravure pages to see who was who in society, they would also be bombarded with all kinds of beauty advertisements only making the cultural obsession with beauty more evident. According to Martha Patterson, "In Victorian society it was considered a woman's duty to make herself beautiful" (Patterson). Even though Undine was an independent woman, and went against societal norms in many aspects, she never dared to stray away from beauty. She knew that in order to be successful in life she had to focus on her self preservation and youthful appearance. Patterson goes on to say that this notion of self perseverance lasted well into the 1920s with one beauty aid in particular advertising "M. Trielty's Nose Shaper which was described as a metal object held over the nose by straps buckled around the head and adjusted with screws" (Patterson).
Undine's character seems to symbolize the dominant qualities of the Gibson Girl which was one of the most popular advertisements of the time. The Gibson girl was always depicted as a tall, discerning, and beautiful young woman with loosely coiffured, voluminous hair and a corseted waist. The image propelled women of the middle and working classes to strive to look like the Gibson Girl who, if were to be an actual person, would most likely have been born into a wealthy family thus affording her stylish good looks. The Gibson Girl never depicted women as working, and often "satirized women as voracious consumers" (Inness). In order to finance her shopping and over the top spending habits the Gibson Girl acts as a kind of siren, luring their awe struck suitors to their financial doom. She was seen as a powerful equal and sometimes teasing companion to young men. She was personified as the ultimate feminine ideal and many have argued was the very first national standard for female beauty. "The Gibson Girl was tall, slender, yet with ample bosom, hips, and ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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