The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Undine is standing outside her father’s office. She’s only ever failed to get her way with her father once before, and she doesn’t feel like she’ll fail this time. She cautiously brings up the topic of divorce. While Mr. Spragg doesn’t oppose divorce, he is shocked when Undine suggests that she’d consider divorcing Ralph because she’d much rather be with Peter. After talking with her father, she takes the elevator down and is surprised to see Elmer waiting for her. She tries to avoid him, but he insists. He tells her to follow him to his office—it’ll be worth the trip.
On the one hand, Undine’s father is traditional enough that he hesitates when he hears that his daughter wants to get divorced after such a short period of time. On the other hand, however, Mr. Spragg has had misgivings about Ralph from the start. In addition, Mr. Spragg is so focused on money that he knows divorcing Ralph could be a smart financial decision for Undine, especially if marrying Peter is a real possibility.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
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Undine goes with Elmer to his office. At the office Elmer explains everything: He wants to meet Ralph, since Ralph could be useful for business and years ago Undine promised to introduce Elmer to business contacts. Ralph happens to be working for a firm where a big deal is underway, but Elmer doesn’t want to approach the firm directly.
Elmer’s focus on his business interests turns out to be both a blessing and a curse to Undine. Elmer holds back on exploiting the information he has about his marriage to Undine, which could make her new life in New York very difficult, but he also presses to see Ralph at a time when it’s very inconvenient for Undine.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Undine invites Elmer to a dinner with Ralph, Laura Fairford, Clare, and Charles Bowen. Ralph is impressed with Elmer and the others are interested in his role in the Driscoll affair (which is Undine’s excuse for inviting him), although he doesn’t otherwise impress the women there. Ralph says that what’s striking about Elmer is that despite his loss in the Driscoll case, he doesn’t seem all that discouraged.
Despite the fact that Elmer lost the Driscoll case, it still raised his profile, suggesting that fame and name recognition, no matter the source, has some value in New York society. Put differently, Elmer’s whole life makes the argument that all publicity is good publicity.
Themes
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Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Quotes
Undine asks Ralph what he and Elmer discussed earlier when they were smoking. Ralph mentions a business proposal that Elmer made that could be huge. He says that should make her happy, given how bad at making money he’s been so far. Undine, however, feels weak and begins to cry. Ralph realizes she’s potentially on the verge of another nervous breakdown.
Given Elmer’s involvement in shady deals and Ralph’s overly trusting nature, Undine surely realizes that pairing the two of them is a bad idea. She seems to show remorse here, perhaps after she realizes that Ralph is going along with the scheme mostly to please her.
Themes
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Gender Roles Theme Icon
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The next morning, Undine is too weak to get out of bed. Her doctor explains to Ralph that she needs several days of rest, followed perhaps by a change of scenery. As Undine recovers, she begins asking about going to Europe more and more often.
Undine may be faking her illness, or she may simply be taking advantage of the circumstances. Undine is opportunistic and often thinks short-term rather than making detailed long-term plans.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Elmer shows up two days later to see Ralph at his West End Avenue residence, since the meeting is too sensitive to take place at Ralph’s office. Although Elmer impresses Ralph at first, his second meeting makes him begin to wonder if Elmer is involved in something shady. Still, Ralph is eager to reverse his poor record at his real estate company. He decides to ask Mr. Spragg for advice.
Ralph’s by-the-book attitude makes him a liability at his firm, illustrating how getting ahead there often means stretching the rules. Still, Ralph’s desire to please people outweighs his desire to follow the rules, and so he ultimately decides to hear about Elmer’s scheme.
Themes
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Mr. Spragg tells Ralph that he doesn’t see the trouble with the arrangement, as long as no one involved is under any sort of special obligation. (Ralph doesn’t mention that it’s Elmer who proposed the deal.) Ralph decides to go along with the deal, since hesitating might only make things worse. Elmer is also eager to get things resolved, and so they complete the deal just under two weeks later.
Mr. Spragg doesn’t see any problems with Elmer’s proposed deal (when he doesn’t know Elmer proposed it), suggesting that Mr. Spragg still condones bending the rules, he’s just learned specifically not to trust Elmer.
Themes
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On his way out of Elmer’s office, Ralph runs into Mr. Spragg. Mr. Spragg asks how Ralph knows Elmer, and Ralph mentions the dinner Undine hosted recently. Mr. Spragg asks if Undine is still set on going to Europe, and Ralph confirms she is, so Mr. Spragg says he’ll let her do it. Ralph himself is in favor of her going, hoping that perhaps things will be better when she gets back.
The naïve Ralph hopes that Undine will think better of him after going to Europe, when in fact she is using the trip as a way to get away from and potentially divorce Ralph. Mr. Spragg seems to understand all this, and he seems fine with his daughter leaving Ralph, although he doesn't tell Ralph this. Mr. Spragg isn’t as openly selfish as Undine, but his deep concerns about money mean he is materialistic in his own way.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
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Undine is pleased to hear about Europe but tries not to seem too happy about it. As her departure gets closer, however, she finds it harder to hide her excitement. A day or two before her departure, she takes Paul to see Mr. Dagonet, and on the way back, she runs into Elmer. Elmer says it’s nice to meet Paul and offers to carry him, which Undine accepts. Paul is afraid at first, but eventually he likes how tall Elmer is, since that means he can carry him even higher than Ralph.
Undine’s excitement (and her attempt to hide it) suggests that if she ever was sick, she has long since recovered. Despite Undine’s mistrust of Elmer, she lets him carry Paul, suggesting how reckless she is with her son. Alternatively, it’s possible Undine is deliberately trying out a new father for her son to imagine life after a divorce. Ralph’s physical shortness represents his inadequacies, at least in Undine’s eyes.
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Elmer says that Ralph really helped him make a fresh start and thinks he helped Ralph make a fresh start too. Undine is happy to hear it. She mentions her upcoming trip to Europe, which surprises Elmer. Undine brags that she owes her trip all to Elmer. They walk more, and Elmer mentions some Apex gossip about how Indiana Frusk got Representative James J. Rolliver to abandon his family for her. Undine marvels at this, thinking Indiana was lucky to get her first husband, a druggist’s clerk with whom Undine herself had broken off an engagement.
Despite the dangers of doing business with Elmer, Ralph ultimately made out pretty well, suggesting that in the real estate business it might counterintuitively be more dangerous to play it safe than to take risks. Meanwhile, just as Undine is at her moment of triumph, she feels that she hasn’t done enough, once she learns that her old rival Indiana Frusk has somehow married someone even more impressive than she has.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon