The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s June in New York after a spring of chaotic weather, and Ralph is exhausted. For a while, he received weekly letters from Undine in Europe, which he valued less for what they said and more for giving him an excuse to write back to her. Her letters don’t seem particularly concerned with Ralph’s welfare or even Paul’s.
This chapter from Ralph’s perspective shows the consequences of Undine’s globetrotting. Although Ralph’s letters suggest that he still doesn’t understand his wife that well, his patience and his devotion to Paul make him more sympathetic.
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At first, Undine’s absence felt freeing to Ralph, but soon he realizes that even when she’s gone, he can’t fully escape her influence. His job continues to drain his energy, even though his deal with Elmer raised his standing in the company. Occasionally, he takes Paul over to see Mr. Spragg and Mrs. Spragg, hoping to bring her back by bringing their families closer together (although Mrs. Spragg in particular seems to resist getting closer).
Unlike Undine, Ralph doesn’t have clear goals in life, and this causes him to flounder when given freedom. Although Undine’s goals may be selfish and short sighted, they give her purpose and direction, whereas Ralph is less goal oriented, mostly just trying to please the people around him, whether it’s at work or with his family.
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Sometimes, when Ralph visits Mr. Spragg and Mrs. Spragg with Paul, Mrs. Heeny is also visiting. She often gives Paul sweets that the Dagonets forbid him from having. Ralph finds it hard to talk with his in-laws, particularly once Undine stops writing and he runs out of news from her.
As recent New York transplants, the Spraggs don’t have much in common with Ralph, who comes from an old-money family that has lived in the city for ages. Undine connected their two worlds, and without her, Ralph struggles to communicate with his in-laws.
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One afternoon near the end of June, Ralph begins to wonder if Clare is still in town. He goes to visit her in person, hoping her presence will be a comfort. She is glad to see him—he asks why she didn’t invite him sooner, and she says she hoped he’d come to see for himself. Ralph gives Clare a long account of his marital problems and his drudgery at his job. When Clare asks about Ralph’s writing, he seems to avoid the subject. Although Ralph is happy talking at first, eventually he gets tired and says he must leave.
Despite the fact that their romance apparently never worked out, Ralph and Clare remain on good terms. Ralph, however, never considers cheating on his wife, even as he suspects his own wife may be cheating on him (with Clare’s husband). Clare understands Ralph well enough to sense that his writing isn’t going well, and so she drops the subject. This level of understanding comforts Ralph, who is used to Undine deliberately testing the limits of what he’ll put up with. 
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When Ralph gets home, he finds a letter that was sent to him from Paris, apparently forwarded by Undine. He expects a bill, but in fact it’s an advertisement for a Parisian detective agency that investigates “delicate” situations. He laughs and throws it out, then groans.
It's unclear why Undine sent the advertisement and if it was even intentional, but the effect is that Ralph can no longer ignore how obvious it is that something is deeply wrong with his marriage.  
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