The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Custom of the Country can help.

The Custom of the Country: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Laura Fairford’s dinner disappoints Undine. Laura’s house isn’t very impressive, and the dinner itself isn’t anything exotic, just broiled meat. There are eight guests, none of whom impress Undine, although she figures maybe the other guests are more impressive than they look. Undine recognizes Mrs. Clare Van Degen as perhaps the most illustrious member of New York society there.
Undine often tries to find ways to look down on people that she envies, which is why she nitpicks Laura’s dinner. Undine is insecure about her own position in New York, and so she reassures herself by putting down other people. Nevertheless, her disappointment doesn’t quell her desire to try to join the Fifth Avenue crowd.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Quotes
Undine sits next to Ralph and finds him friendly but even more timid than the last time she met him. He is small and pale, with a little blond mustache. Although Laura Fairford talks well at the party, Undine feels that the people of Apex talk even more, with a larger vocabulary too. Everyone joins in the conversation, and they occasionally reference topics like books or paintings that Undine doesn’t recognize.
Undine’s history in Apex shaped her ideas about sophistication. She prefers showy, ostentatious conversation, and her lack of knowledge about books and art means that those topics bore her.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Eventually, Clare happens to mention that she is getting her portrait done by Claud Popple. Some other guests note that Claud never fails to mention how much of a gentleman he is, and Undine realizes they are making fun of him. Clare is dismayed by this reaction and asks Ralph why he recommended Claud to do her portrait. Ralph assures her that Claud will do a good job.
Claud, who loudly announces how much of a gentleman he is, seems to belong to the unsubtle Apex school of sophistication more than the subtler New York one—this is probably why he was the first person in the crowd to attract Undine’s attention. Undine isn’t completely naïve, however, and she soon learns by observing carefully that Mrs. Heeny was right and that Claud isn’t the most respected person in the group.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
The women go to the drawing room. While Undine appreciates how Laura Fairford doesn’t mention that Undine is new to New York, she gets uncomfortable when Laura asks her questions about books, paintings, and theater. When the men come back from the smoke room, Mr. Henley Fairford begins talking to Undine, which she takes as a sign that the other women have rejected her.
Throughout the book, Undine tends to have an easier time getting along with men than with other women. She focuses so much on becoming a part of New York society that she doesn’t even care that she has so few interests in common with someone like Laura Fairford.
Themes
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Get the entire The Custom of the Country LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Custom of the Country PDF
As everyone goes to leave, Clare puts a hand on Ralph’s arm and says she hopes he’ll go to dinner and an opera with her next Friday. At first, Undine thinks she might be invited too, but instead, Clare just asks her to stop by and see her some afternoon. She is excited when Ralph offers to escort her home, but she is quickly disappointed after he simply takes her outside to get a cab.
Undine senses that there is some connection between Clare and Ralph, even though Clare is already married. Nevertheless, she ignores this and hopes that Ralph is interested in her. By calling a cab instead of walking Undine all the way home, Ralph fails to live up to Undine’s lofty ideals of a gentleman.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon