The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ralph ponders his life and how there were signs that he should’ve noticed long ago. He feels that he has avoided confronting Undine about Peter because he’s afraid of learning the truth. He suspects that Peter isn’t her lover but that—even worse—he provides her with admiration. He goes into the office, and the routine helps him feel a little better.
Ralph’s life was easy because of his privileged upbringing, but his marriage to Undine forces him to confront uncomfortable truths. He believed that Undine’s lack of connections to New York society made her innocent, but he sees now that it also leaves her constantly craving validation from people around her like Peter.
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Undine, meanwhile, is surprised at how well Ralph took her missing Paul’s birthday. She still likes some aspects of Ralph, but their money problems are driving a wedge between them. Still, she likes that Clare likes Ralph, since she likes having things that other people want. Undine is also happy to hear at a dinner that the investigation into Harmon B. Driscoll has mysteriously stopped and Elmer’s sudden good luck seems to have disappeared, and so the Driscolls will hold a ball after all.
The novel shifts perspectives to show that just as Ralph doesn’t really understand Undine, Undine doesn’t really understand Ralph. Undine thinks she got away with something after the gallery party, when in fact, she has caused Ralph to worry about their marriage even more than he already did. 
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The Driscoll ball is a lavish affair. Undine enjoys seeing everyone’s admiration, although she feels that perhaps Peter is admiring her a little too much. Peter has recently gifted her money, and she spent it all immediately. After the successful ball, however, she has a nervous breakdown, right around the same time when Paul is very ill, adding even more to their family expenses. Undine feels like Peter sometimes looks at her as if wondering where all his money went.
Undine hasn’t even left Ralph yet, and it already seems that any potential relationship she has with Peter might be equally doomed, for similar reasons. Despite Peter’s much greater ability to fund Undine’s lifestyle, he resents how she feels entitled to his money, and Undine resents him right back—although she depends on him too much to reject him (and his money).
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
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One day, Peter announces he’s sailing for Europe. He says maybe Undine can visit him in Paris at some point, but Undine says she probably won’t get away farther than the Adirondacks because of Paul. Peter asks if there’s any way he can straighten things out for her, but Undine reminds him that she’s married, and Peter gives up the idea, saying he’s married too.
Peter is used to getting what he wants, and perhaps because he’s a man, he can stretch the limits of his marriage without facing any serious consequences—a privilege that Undine herself doesn’t have. The Adirondacks are much closer to New York than Europe; this suggests how Undine’s lack of wealth limits how far she can go, both metaphorically and literally
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Quotes
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