The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 37 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Several months later, Paul is shy in his new grandparents’ drawing room, where portraits of ladies and gentlemen hang everywhere on the walls. Raymond encourages Paul to kiss his new grandmother, the Marquise de Chelles. As Undine watches, she’s happy to see that Paul is so adorable to everyone, although she’s a little annoyed that her in-laws have decided that she must find space for the boy and his nurse in her part of the Hotel de Chelles, which her in-laws own.
After the previous chapter ended on a cliffhanger, this chapter starts with the image of Paul in France, making it clear that, whatever happened at the end of the previous chapter, Ralph didn’t get his way and lost the custody battle. As is often the case, Undine’s victory ends up being self-defeating because even though she triumphs over Ralph, she ends up having to share space with Paul.
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One thing Undine likes about her new living situation is that Raymond is more willing to admit when he feels more jealous than Ralph ever was, making Undine feel powerful again. But she soon realizes that as she gains more power over Raymond, she loses some of her own independence. She has to tell her husband how she spends just about every hour of her day. She is particularly surprised and dismayed to learn that Raymond disapproves of Undine’s friendship with Princess Estradina, believing that Undine is too young and beautiful to be hanging around with the Princess’s crowd.
With Raymond, Undine learns the dangers of getting exactly what she wants. Although Raymond is richer than Ralph and more openly affectionate, he comes with his own flaws. While Undine claims to like making Raymond jealous, it seems clear that she struggles to adjust to having a more watchful husband and retroactively appreciates how much freedom Ralph gave her to do as she pleased without supervision.
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Meanwhile, Princess Estradina and the Duchess themselves turn against Undine, who they believe has caused the growing rift between them and Raymond’s family. The Chelles were themselves skeptical of Undine, but they allowed Raymond to marry her because they were tired of him being a bachelor for so long.
Although marriages are supposed to be joyful celebrations of unity, throughout the novel they seem more likely to drive characters apart, demonstrating yet another way that these high-society characters fail to live up to their lofty ideals.
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Months ago, when Mrs. Heeny first arrived with Paul, she stayed for about two weeks. Undine enjoyed hearing New York gossip, while Mrs. Heeny enjoyed getting a peek at European aristocracy. But when Mrs. Heeny accidentally almost mentioned Ralph, it brought down the mood, since Ralph remained a painful subject for Undine.
This section is the first part of the book to confirm that Ralph is dead, implying that he pulled the trigger at the end of the previous chapter. Ralph’s death leaves many questions unanswered—even with an omniscient narrator the death is shocking, perhaps reflecting how difficult it is to ever know what a person is really thinking.
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About three months after Ralph’s death, Undine got news from her lawyers that Marvell’s estate had received $100,000 from the Apex Consolidation Company. The money goes to Undine because she never formally surrendered her custody over Paul, even if she did hold off on enforcing it in the immediate aftermath of Ralph’s death. Although the money is legally Undine’s, she wishes she had gotten it through some other means. But with the coming of summer, the height of the Paris season, Undine begins to think of other things besides Ralph.
The irony of Ralph’s death is that if he had just waited three months, one of his biggest concerns—his $50,000 investment with Elmer—might have solved itself. But Ralph didn’t have the time: he lived in a fast-paced, present-focused society where three months really did make all the difference. Ralph’s death illustrates the consequences of putting too much emphasis on short-term thinking.
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