The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Meanwhile at the Dagonet place, Laura Fairford is waiting for Undine to bring Paul but after the long delay figures Undine must have simply forgotten. She talks with Charles Bowen about how Undine is always late, particularly since Ralph has started working in the office and spending long hours there. Charles Bowen seems to take Undine’s side, however, saying that the average American looks down on his wife.
This chapter explores the consequences of Undine’s absence from Paul’s birthday. Laura Fairford likes to preserve harmony, so she phrases her criticism of Undine indirectly. Meanwhile, Charles Bowen, who seems to be unmarried, has no problem giving advice about marriage.
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Just then, Ralph’s late arrival interrupts Laura Fairford and Charles Bowen’s conversation about American marriages. Ralph thinks that perhaps he’s missed the party, but then he finds the cake uncut and learns that Undine never brought Paul to his own birthday party. Ralph hears a horn outside and thinks it’s Undine, but it’s Clare. Ralph finds Clare’s presence calming, particularly as things have begun to get more tense with Undine, with Undine lying about some of the expenses she racks up.
The uncut cake represents how Ralph and other characters have had to put their own lives on hold in order to cater to Undine’s whims. Ralph’s increasing dissatisfaction with Undine drives him back to his old love Clare, but he remains inhibited and mostly doesn’t act on his feelings.
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While talking with Ralph, Clare happens to bring up Elmer, who has been making a name for himself on Wall Street, despite his mysterious origins. Clare recalls the night at the opera when they saw Undine talking to Elmer, so Ralph finds it odd that Undine never mentioned the man to him. Clare gives Ralph a ride home. He expects to see Undine there, but a maid informs him that she isn’t back yet.
Clare is a keen observer who knows what she’s doing by bringing up Elmer Moffatt. She believes that Ralph has a right to know about what Undine is up to, even if Ralph himself sometimes seems like he prefers to remain ignorant about his wife’s shortcomings.
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Ralph sits down and reads the paper until eight thirty, but then he starts to get impatient. He wonders what excuse Undine will use when she finally gets back. At last, she comes back. When Ralph confronts Undine about missing the birthday, Undine blames the nurse for not taking Paul over. She says the portrait viewing went late, even though Clare told Ralph it was a tea. When Ralph asks if Undine took a cab, she tells him that Peter gave her a ride back. Ralph wants to ask more questions but holds back.
Because of his conversation with Clare, Ralph knows that Undine is lying to him. Nevertheless, he doesn’t act on this information, showing once again how inhibited he can be. Undine is no fool herself, and she admits to riding back with Peter, figuring that it’s better to confess it rather than be caught in a lie.
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