The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Undine’s room at the Stentorian is white and gold, with a view of Central Park and a view of Fifth Avenue just past it. Undine begins to study the letter she received from Laura Fairford. She is disappointed that the note doesn’t have a monogram on it and begins to think less of Laura. At last, she begins to write a reply letter, pretending to be her mother (Mrs. Spragg). She rewrites the letter several times, changing only how she writes the closing of the letter.
Undine can see Fifth Avenue, but she can’t reach it. This represents how Undine knows her goals and the social circle she wants to join but lacks the means to do so. Fifth Avenue is also significant because, in addition to being a fashionable place to live, it is also in the process of becoming a major commercial district with luxury shops, and so Undine’s desire for Fifth Avenue reflects her materialistic worldview.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Quotes
Undine then calls over her French maid, Celeste, to help her pick an outfit. Although she has an extensive wardrobe, she doesn’t feel that she has any good dinner dresses, since she rarely has a chance to wear them. Eventually she decides on one and sends Celeste away.
Although Undine is not wealthy enough to belong to the Fifth Avenue crowd, her family is still wealthy enough to employ a maid. Undine may feel inadequate, but Celeste’s presence shows that Undine still lives a privileged life compared to other people.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
As a child in Apex (a town in the Midwestern U.S.), Undine was never very interested in playing with other children; she preferred to dress in her mother’s clothes and look at herself in the mirror. Now, Undine imagines what it will be like to go out in public and see real people looking at her. She regrets not paying more attention to Ralph earlier, focusing instead on Claud Popple.
Undine’s childhood interests foreshadow her concerns as an adult. Her love of the mirror reflects her vanity. Undine’s hometown of Apex is fictional and represents the opposite of the classy Fifth Avenue lifestyle—which is why Undine wants to leave it behind.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Undine comes out of her room just as Mrs. Heeny is about to take her leave of Mrs. Spragg. Mrs. Heeny lingers, telling Undine she looks stunning. She reassures Undine that Ralph is indeed at the top of New York society, along with the rest of his family.
Mrs. Heeny is not, in fact, a member of New York high society, but she lives out her own dream vicariously through Undine. From Mrs. Heeny, Undine learns the value of observation.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
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Since coming to New York, Undine has already gotten engaged once, to a handsome young Austrian. Shortly after promising herself to him, however, Undine ran into Mabel Lipscomb (née Blitch), who was originally from New York, but who went to the same Midwestern boarding school as Undine. They were rivals in school (along with another girl named Indiana Frusk). Eventually, Mabel moved back to New York and married a stockbroker named Harry Lipscomb.
Undine’s materialistic personality encourages her to be competitive. This means that she treats all of her friends as potential rivals. Although she won’t admit it, Undine seems to envy her friend Mabel, and her own desire to succeed in New York may be at least partly an attempt to try to outdo Mabel.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Still in the past, Harry Lipscomb investigated Undine’s new Austrian fiancé and found that he fled Krakow to avoid criminal charges for scamming servant girls. Undine broke things off, and on Mabel Lipscomb’s advice, the Spragg family took up residence in the Stentorian (where Mabel herself is staying).
Undine’s engagement with the handsome Austrian reveals the dangers of being superficial. She judges the Austrian on the surface and becomes so blinded by his superficial charms that she misses out on the fact that he is an experienced scammer.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
After the Spraggs first arrived at the Stentorian, Mabel Lipscomb introduced Undine to the local society. While Undine was interested at first, she soon realized that Mabel’s circle isn’t high enough for her—what Undine really wants is to be part of Fifth Avenue society. Claud Popple was the first person from this higher New York society that Undine recognized.
Because Undine wants to outdo Mabel, she needs to find a social circle that’s even more exclusive than Mabel’s, and so her gaze turns to Fifth Avenue. She sets her sights on Claud Popple, the first man she notices, which seems potentially dangerous, given her recent history with the deceptive Austrian.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Back in the present at the Stentorian, Undine goes to her parents and finds Mr. Spragg sitting next to Mrs. Spragg with her head drooping. Undine hints to her father that she’d like something new to wear to her upcoming party, and despite having bills piling up, Mr. Spragg allows his daughter to go buy something new.
Despite being fairly wealthy, Mr. Spragg always worries about bills. Undine, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the value of money—to her, money simply appears whenever she can convince her father to part with it.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon