The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 35 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ralph manages to get Elmer the money within 48 hours. He feels happy to have resolved his long period of indecision before meeting with Elmer. He has enjoyed watching Paul grow up, and his book is coming along too. Ralph doesn’t get to see Clare often in person, but they communicate frequently on the phone or by letter, and she acts like she used to when they were young.
Things seem to be going well in Ralph’s life. Small decisions used to paralyze him, but now that he has decided to risk $50,000 on Elmer’s scheme, he paradoxically feels less stress because at least he has decided to take some sort of decisive action. While his relationship with Clare continues to go well, their lack of physical meetings suggests that some old taboos are hard to break.
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Quotes
Meanwhile, Ralph hears more rumors about Elmer. Apparently, Elmer was supposed to testify against Harmon B. Driscoll, but Driscoll paid Elmer a significant amount to stay quiet. This hush payment gave Elmer the momentum to become a major player on Wall Street. For the first time, Elmer’s success seems like it might last.
Previously, it seemed like Elmer might suffer the consequences of his shady dealings and his willingness to quickly change sides in disputes, but in the end, he prospers, suggesting that high society rewards people with flexible morals.
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Ralph reads the papers for news from Apex that Elmer’s scheme has gone through. But the news doesn’t come, and when Ralph tries to call Elmer, but he’s out, and when Elmer gets back, he’s evasive. Ralph then gets a letter from Undine’s lawyers reminding him of the deadline for their financial agreement. He goes to see Elmer in person. Elmer’s words and well-dressed appearance help give Ralph confidence.
During their last deal, Elmer and Ralph both needed each other to get ahead, but the balance of power has shifted so that Ralph needs Elmer a lot more than Elmer needs Ralph. Elmer tries to reassure Ralph, but it’s clear that he doesn’t have as large a stake in the deal as Ralph himself does.
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Ralph’s lawyers get an extension from Undine’s about the payment, but more time passes and still Elmer’s deal doesn’t go through. Finally, Ralph happens to hear from Henley Fairford that the Apex deal actually fell through. Ralph tries to get ahold of Elmer for a few days with no luck. Finally, he shows up in person at Elmer’s office and, after a long wait, he gets a meeting with Elmer.
Elmer’s evasiveness suggests that perhaps he isn’t completely surprised by the outcome in Apex. Ralph, however, still never expects bad things to happen to him—likely due in part to his privileged upbringing—and so he greets the bad news with shock.
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Elmer confirms for Ralph that the Apex deal hasn’t gone through. He says not all hope is lost—perhaps it’ll go through next year. Ralph accuses Elmer of misleading him, but Elmer says it’s still a safe deal that will pay off eventually. Ralph explains Paul’s custody situation and why he can’t wait any longer for the money. Elmer understands and agrees that Undine won’t settle for any less than she’s asked for. In fact, he reveals that he knows so much about divorcing Undine since he’s already done it himself.
Elmer doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as Ralph—he makes the money no matter when the deal goes through, but Ralph needs the money immediately for Paul’s custody. Although Elmer definitely misled Ralph, he speaks calmly and tries to reassure Paul because, like Mr. Spragg, Elmer believes that there’s no business value in stirring up bad feelings for no reason.
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Elmer’s confession shocks Ralph. Elmer talks about how he promised to stay quiet so that Undine’s past wouldn’t offend Ralph’s family. Elmer explains that back in Apex, he and Undine eloped, although they only had about two weeks before Mr. Spragg stepped in with his lawyers to undo the marriage, with some help from Representative James J. Rolliver. Ralph thinks back to all the ways Undine has lied to him about Elmer. Elmer says something about how Ralph just has to sit tight on his investment, but Ralph is in a daze as he leaves the office.
Elmer’s motives for confessing about his marriage to Undine are mysterious. He seems to be trying to win Ralph’s sympathy by showing that he understands the situation that Ralph is going through. But if Elmer is trying to pacify Ralph, his words end up having the opposite effect, and Ralph leaves the building shaken by how little he really knew about his ex-wife, Undine.
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