Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

"Mirror Images in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country: Reflections and Self-Reflection"

Dr. Elaine Toia.

In 'The Custom of the Country', Edith Wharton uses mirrors and other reflecting surfaces to create a heroine who has no self. Like an actress who plays a series of roles and who is created anew by each social context, Undine Spragg exists only as a reflection of her world. But for Undine, the world exists as a reflection of her; for this reason, experience in the world does not change her in any substantial way. Wharton also uses mirrors to mark the limits of Undine's mental world and define the scope of her moral and intellectual drama. Throughout the novel, Undine's knowledge remains limited to what can be reflected in a glass because Undine fails to penetrate the reflecting surface itself. Her preoccupation with her own reflection makes her incapable of self-reflection.
Undine is preoccupied with the glittering reflecting surface of her world, but she does not care to understand its quality or know it intimately. Her lack of introspection brings emptiness and soullessness: she is the equivalent of her portrait by Popple.
Wharton's use of mirrors in the novel's final chapters underscores Undine's lack of moral and intellectual growth. In fact, in the novel's final moment, Undine admires her mirror image and looks forward to her next dramatic role, that of ambassadress. Her story ends where it begins, with marriage to Moffatt and "a look


Dr. Elaine Toia  (United States)
Associate Professor of English
English Department
Rockland Community College

  • Edith Wharton
  • The Custom of the Country
  • Mirrors
  • Self-knowledge
  • Reflecting Surfaces
Person as Subject
  • Wharton, Edith

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)