The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Custom of the Country can help.

The Custom of the Country: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Claud Popple has had his ups and downs as a portrait painter, but a wealthy patron’s interest in his work has put him on an upward path lately. He keeps a very neat studio, but he tosses off paintings less neatly. Sometime long after Ralph and Undine’s honeymoon, Peter comes by to watch Claud painting Undine. Peter jokes around about the portrait, but Claud takes offense at the potential insult to his work. Undine finds Claud’s descriptions of his work to be very eloquent. Undine used to find Ralph eloquent, but he was a little too eloquent, referencing things she’d never read or heard of before. Undine also likes the emotions she seems to stir in Claud Popple, but she would find it exhausting to have to always talk at his level. Peter, on the other hand, seems to talk at exactly Undine’s level.
Claud Popple does the bare minimum to survive as a member of New York’s upper class, but it turns out that it’s just enough to help him keep his portrait business going. Undine has liked Claud from the very beginning because, like her, he is more interested in the external trappings of upper-class life, unlike Ralph who truly dreams of being a great writer (even if Ralph rarely acts on his big dreams).
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
At times, Undine wonders if her current marriage is as bad as some of the mistakes she made back in Apex. She really feels this way when Claud Popple invites several of her acquaintances to come see her finished painting. No one at the gathering knows much about art: they just believe a portrait should have clothes that look realistic and a face that doesn’t look too realistic. Peter in particular approves of the portrait.
The section humorously demonstrates that Undine isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand art. While she feels left out because of her ignorance about art, it turns out that the people around her also don’t know much about art and simply judge it based on what’s popular and on simple rules they’ve learned.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Quotes
At the portrait viewing, Peter happens to mention how the Driscolls aren’t holding their usual ball because they’re all out of money lately. Apparently, Elmer threatened to give Harmon B. Driscoll a different kind of ball (as in, a ball and chain) because of what he knows about crooked dealings in Apex. The mention of Elmer causes Undine to go pale.
Elmer represents a threat to both Undine and Mr. Spragg, since he could reveal secrets from Apex that would destroy both their reputations in New York. Luckily for Undine, Elmer seems to be less interested in vengeance and more interested in how he can personally benefit from any given situation. 
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Peter asks why Undine is suddenly so white, but she says she’s just tired of posing.  Undine says she’ll take a cab back to her new home on West End Avenue—despite her desire to be on Fifth Avenue, West End was the best her father could afford. She was glad to be away from Fifth Avenue when she was pregnant, but giving birth to her son, Paul Marvell, has interfered with her plans to get into a better house near Fifth Avenue.
While the end of the previous chapter ambiguously hinted at Undine’s pregnancy, this section is the first to confirm that she does indeed now have a son. It’s fitting that the chapter takes so long to mention Paul, since Undine herself seems to often forget about her new son.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Get the entire The Custom of the Country LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Custom of the Country PDF
Peter says Undine will never get a cab on such a snowy night, so he offers to take her. Undine agrees, even though she knows Ralph doesn’t like her being seen out and about with Peter. Eventually she settles in for the ride, but all of a sudden, she realizes that it’s Paul’s birthday and she was supposed to take him to his grandmother’s, but she forgot.
Undine knows that riding with Peter will make Ralph mad, and she knows that forgetting Paul’s birthday is even worse. She seems to be testing the limits of how far she can push her marriage before it breaks.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon