The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Undine returns to the Stentorian. The next morning at breakfast, she tells Mr. Spragg that he needs to get her a box at the opera for the next Friday. He and Mrs. Spragg had hoped that Laura Fairford’s dinner would make Undine a little less excitable, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. It’s already unusual for Undine to be down at breakfast, since she usually wakes up too late and just has Celeste bring her chocolate in bed. Undine’s request surprises her parents; her father asks if orchestra seats would do, but Undine insists on a box, even though she’s going by herself. Eventually, she adds that maybe she’d invite Mabel Lipscomb to pay her back for how well she’s treated her in New York so far.
Undine wants a box at the opera because it’s a public place where people will be able to see her. After the dinner party where Undine struggled to keep up with the conversation and where Ralph seemingly rejected her, Undine wants to prove her worth in New York society by putting on a public display of wealth. Undine can be tricky when she wants something, and she learns here that the best way to convince her father is to disguise her selfish motivations as altruistic (by saying she wants to treat Mabel).
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
By invoking Mabel Lipscomb and the idea of reciprocity, Undine starts to convince Mr. Spragg to get the tickets. Undine pleads that she only wants an opera box once, and her father notes that Undine seems to only want most things once. Still, he protests that he’s low on cash at the moment. Undine decides to go out for a horse ride, because she knows it makes Mrs. Spragg nervous.
Although Undine is far from patient, she knows how to bide her time when she wants something.  By going on a horse ride to make her mother nervous, Undine hopes to wear down her father’s resolve and make him give in and buy her an opera box.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Mrs. Spragg is indeed worried and greets Undine enthusiastically after her horse ride. Undine tells her mother she still wants an opera box. Her mother tries to explain that while Mr. Spragg was rich for Apex, he’s not quite so rich in New York. Undine asks why they ever left, but her mother tells her they came to New York so Undine could meet people. Still at a stalemate, Undine decides to go see an art gallery that Laura Fairford mentioned to her at the dinner party.
The name of Apex is ironic, because “apex” suggests the top, but someone who is at the top in Apex might not be that important in New York City. Although Undine previously had no interest in art, she is a fast learner, and she realizes that faking an interest might be her best way to make social connections.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Undine goes to the art gallery, but she’s more interested in looking at the people than the art, like a woman with a tortoise-shell eye-glass with a pearl chain. An unpleasant-looking young man with bulging eyes comes up to Undine and makes conversation about what an awful crowd it is that day. But then the lady with the eye-glass calls the young man Peter, and Undine realizes that he is Peter Van Degen, son of a famous banker. Undine is happy but remembers none of the art she saw when she goes home.
Undine’s focus on the people instead of the art makes it clear why she’s really at the gallery—to be part of the crowd. In fact, she succeeds and connects with Peter almost instantly. Although the other characters are less open than Undine about their motives, art galleries seem to play an important social role for the other characters too.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Back at the Stentorian, Undine is disappointed thinking that she’ll probably never see Peter again, and she’s also disappointed to see that Ralph stopped by and left his card (since, if he stopped without first making an appointment, this suggests he isn’t serious about her). She is even more disappointed when Mrs. Spragg informs her that Ralph actually came to see Mrs. Spragg herself, not Undine. Mrs. Spragg thought Ralph might have a message for Undine, but he simply talked for a while before leaving without really explaining what he wanted.
Undine’s insecurity makes her see the worst in positive situations. Although she has potentially made new connections with both Ralph and Peter, she remains dissatisfied with her progress. Ralph’s behavior is strange, particularly when he visits Mrs. Spragg—unlike Undine, Ralph doesn’t seem to know what he wants, which is why he sometimes seems interested in Undine and sometimes not.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Undine reflects on the past and how she’s managed to get things out of her parents before. Her first big goal was to find a way to get out of Apex in the summers. Initially, when she was home from boarding school, she went to a cottage her parents owned in the summer, but it always seemed to Undine to be less exciting than what other girls were doing. Undine began insisting that she had to see New York.
Undine’s past reveals that often gets what she wants. Still, because of her materialistic personality, whenever she gets what she wants, she finds a new thing to long for. This is why the cottage isn’t enough for her, especially not after she hears what the other girls do in the summer.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Back in the present, Mr. Spragg comes into Undine’s room and lets her know that he has gotten her an opera box not just for one Friday but for every other Friday. Mrs. Spragg worries about the cost, but Mr. Spragg says that he just wants Undine to be able to keep spending time with the new crowd of people she’s meeting. In private, Mrs. Spragg asks Mr. Spragg if he happened to see Elmer again, but he says once was enough.
Mr. Spragg caves to his daughter’s demands and in fact goes well beyond them, suggesting that he spoils her. Despite his constant concerns about money, Mr. Spragg comes from Apex and has simple wants, so even as he worries about debt, he seems to have more money than he knows what to do with.
Themes
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon