The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ralph feels that he could have kept hold on his book vision near the quiet waterfalls oof Italy, but in busy St. Moritz, Switzerland, he finds that the vision eludes him. Undine, however, is much happier and seems to think better of Ralph. Undine’s lack of foreign language skills causes her to favor spending time with a crowd of other English-speakers at their hotel.
Ralph’s marriage to Undine forces him to make compromises, putting aside his vision of a book in order to please his new wife—although perhaps the book is a daydream rather than a serious goal, given Ralph’s dislike of work.
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Ralph is a little annoyed to find a cavalry-officer they met in Siena, Italy at their hotel. One day, Undine goes out on an excursion with some members of her new social circle without inviting Ralph. Ralph figures it’s a good time to start work on his vision, but he can’t stop thinking about how Undine left him behind. When she gets back late, she looks happy, and Ralph feels left out. Many of the people in Undine’s crowd have titles, like the Grand Duchess, and Undine always uses these titles instead of their names. But Ralph is not as impressed with them as Undine is.
Partly, Ralph feels excluded from Undine’s life because he doesn’t understand her, but it also seems like Undine makes little effort to bridge the gap, leaving Ralph out of certain parts of her life. Undine’s preference for calling her new acquaintances by their titles rather than their names suggests that she values them for what they represent rather than who they actually are.
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As if to challenge Ralph, Undine only spends more time over the next few days with her new acquaintances from the hotel. Ralph, however, is even more worried about a check he is supposed to receive from Mr. Spragg, which might not even be enough to cover their expenses. One day, Ralph finds Undine crying and thinks her father might be ill, but in fact, he has just been investing his money and so will have to skip three months of checks. Undine is sad about going back to New York, but Ralph says he would’ve had to get back soon anyway.
While Undine may have had good intentions at the start of her marriage to Ralph, as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to put aside her materialism and vanity. It’s both sad and humorous that Undine reacts to a missing check from her father as if she’s just received news that he is seriously ill, since it suggests that she values money more than family
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Undine asks Ralph if anyone in his family could help them out with money. Ralph is reluctant to ask Mr. Dagonet for more, although when Undine persists that he should ask his sister (Laura Fairford), he says he’ll see. Eventually, Ralph does send Laura a cable. Laura gets back to him quickly, but only with enough money to get them back to New York. Undine does what she can to stall the journey back, buying clothes along the way in Paris.
Ralph comes from a respectable family where they rarely discuss money in the open, but Undine has no qualms about asking openly for what she wants. Ultimately, Undine proves to be the more persuasive one in their relationship, and she forces Ralph to act according to her values.
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In Paris, Ralph happens to see Peter walking down the street, looking like someone who doesn’t have to worry about money. He greets Ralph amiably and they talk about Ralph’s honeymoon. Peter invites Ralph to a party, but Ralph says he and Undine must get sailing immediately (or else he’ll run out of money). Nevertheless, when he gets back to Undine, she seems too happy that he doesn’t want to tell her they need to leave.
Peter spent a lot of time at the art gallery and the opera with a glamorous woman who wasn’t his wife, so Ralph is suspicious of Peter’s intentions with Undine (as well as envious of Peter’s greater wealth). As always, Ralph hesitates to assert himself, and he puts off telling Undine the bad news about them leaving.
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The delay in leaving Paris causes Undine to look into buying jewels. Ralph tries to pin down a date to sail back to New York. There’s a fast, expensive boat leaving soon and a slower, cheaper boat leaving later; Undine is disappointed because she wants to board the faster boat but doesn’t want to leave so soon. Ralph lets her put off the choice until the evening.
This short section about boats encapsulates Undine in a nutshell: the thing she wants is always the exact thing she can’t have. Undine wants it both ways with the boats, even though that isn’t a possibility.
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