The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Six weeks later, Undine stands at the window of her hotel looking down at Paris. She feels that her life is finally headed in the right direction. Compared to the Paris she sees now, her past summers seem stale and boring, even her honeymoon in Europe. She has just received two letters. One is from Ralph, telling her that, while he hoped she’d enjoy his money, he also hoped she’d enjoy it less quickly. The other is from Laura Fairford, telling her that lately Ralph has been overworked and in a bad mood.
As is typical for his character, Ralph doesn’t fully express himself in his letter, only passive aggressively hinting at his financial concerns without getting into his deeper concerns about the whole foundation of their marriage. Just as she did at the beginning of the novel when she invited Undine to dinner, Laura Fairford speaks on Ralph’s behalf in her letter. This passage explores how men and women communicated differently, specifically how men were encouraged to show more reserve.
Themes
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Quotes
Undine feels that the main factor making her enjoy Paris more is her new friendship with Raymond. She finds him attractive, and while she knows that his own attention toward her might not last, she finds it valuable due to the way it makes Peter jealous. She wants Peter to finally be clear to her about his intentions.
Undine sees Peter more as a conquest than a future partner.  Her goal is to use him to secure her financial future. This suggests that Undine sees marriage as a kind of business transaction—and that she has no qualms about employing underhanded tactics, like using Peter’s own jealousy against him.
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One day, Peter confronts Undine about why she just suddenly disappeared for a couple days, and she tells him she went away to Raymond’s chateau. Peter believes Raymond just wants to “compromise” Undine. Undine replies that, based on his reputation, Peter could do the same to her. Peter asks her about where they’re going to dinner that night, but Undine says she already has plans with Raymond. Peter says Raymond is making a fool of Undine, but Undine replies that it doesn’t matter what she does in Paris, since Ralph has ordered her home next week anyway.
Peter is a hypocrite who expects Undine to be faithful to him, even as he cheats on his own wife and helps Undine cheat on her husband. Like Ralph, Peter avoids looking directly at difficult truths, but while Ralph generally directs the blame at himself, Peter looks outside and blames Undine for failing to live up to his idealized version of her.
Themes
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Peter begs Undine not to leave Europe just yet. His request moves Undine, but she resists Peter in the moment because she has her eyes on a long-term goal. She allows him to kiss her for the first time to say goodbye to her. Peter tries to make her stay. Undine tells him she simply can’t go on with her present life, and the only way she won’t go home is if she decides on a new life. Peter takes this to mean that she is thinking of marrying Raymond. Undine refuses to give a straight answer about this. Just then, a telegram from Laura Fairford, interrupts their conversation, informing Undine that Ralph has pneumonia and that Undine should head back at once.
This passage depicts Undine at her most manipulative. Although Undine ultimately wants to end up with Peter, she is willing to do anything to get there, including making Peter suffer by thinking that she wants to marry Raymond instead. Undine plays a dangerous game; in trying to instill urgency in Peter to make him propose, she risks scaring him off for good. Her previous successes, including with Ralph, have made her confident—maybe too confident.
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Peter asks why Undine has suddenly gone so pale. She just crumples the telegram up and says that Laura Fairford is telling her that Ralph wants her back at once. Peter says he’ll do something to make Undine stay, but she says she doesn’t just want someone to pay her bills. She again seems to imply that the only way she’ll stay in Europe is if she marries Raymond. Peter angrily walks out, and Undine worries she’s gone too far, but then Peter comes back. He says he’ll do anything to keep her in Europe.
Undine becomes so selfish at this point that she barely even shows concern when she hears that Ralph is seriously ill—perhaps because she herself recently used an illness to get what she wanted, and she expects that other people do the same. Despite Peter’s long resistance, the chapter seems to end with him finally seeing things Undine’s way, proving her tactics successful.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon