The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 43 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Undine watches Raymond leave, knowing that despite their recent argument, he’ll be courteous the next time they see each other. She can’t find any way to get through her husband’s hard exterior.
Like many members of high society (on both sides of the Atlantic), Raymond prefers not to express strong emotions, even in private.
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Undine fantasizes how, if given the opportunity, she could use up all the wealth even of a man as rich as Elmer. In fact, she’d be doing just that if she had only remained his wife. She thinks back to Apex and how when Elmer first arrived, no one knew anything about him. He started making a name for himself, at first more with the men of the town than the women because of his coarse manners. Eventually, he was invited to give a prominent speech for the local Temperance Society.
Even from his early days, Elmer demonstrates a lack of manners. But he also shows some of the charisma that will help him succeed in business in New York. This passage references a time before Prohibition, when temperance (abstaining from alcohol) was a popular social movement but not yet the law in the U.S.
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Elmer’s speech for the Apex Temperance Society went over wonderfully. Afterward, there was an ice cream supper in a church basement. Elmer’s speech earlier in the day was so popular that people called on him to say more. Elmer, however, caused a scandal when he gave a speech about how he enjoys everything about drinking except the next day. After giving the speech, he tried to sit in a chair that wasn’t there and fell down. But despite the temporary social embarrassment, Elmer stayed around working various jobs. Sometimes, people praised this as industrious;  other times, they condemned it as lazy.
Even back in Apex, Elmer showed an aptitude for switching sides, first making a popular speech in favor of temperance, then later on the same day, apparently getting so drunk before his second speech that he tried to sit down and missed his chair. The incident harmed Elmer’s reputation, but for the persistent and resilient Elmer, no setback ever seems to cause lasting damage.
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In Apex, Undine judged people’s worth based on how good they were at getting what they wanted. Despite that, she found herself most interested in Elmer at one of his greatest moments of failure, shortly after he caused another minor scandal by being spotted one Sunday morning with a young woman who was “less known” to the churches than to “the saloons of North Fifth Street.” Undine ran into Elmer on Main Street, and he invited her to take a walk. Although she didn’t approve of Elmer’s actions, she liked being independent and doing something that would make the other people in Apex mad.
Even before coming to New York and trying to break into high society, Undine realized the value of reputation and of trying to manipulate people. Elmer causes a scandal by spending Sunday morning with a woman who seems to be a sex worker rather than going to church. While Undine doesn’t approve of Elmer’s specific actions, she seems to sense that many people in Apex act hypocritically around sex and marriage, leading her to admire Elmer’s brazen disregard for public opinion.
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On the day of their walk in Apex, Elmer told Undine that he was down on his luck. Undine said that based on his behavior after the Temperance function, it seemed like he was down by his own choice. Elmer then told her that the only reason he was sticking around in a small place like Apex was because of her. Undine got angry at first, but suddenly they were kissing, and Undine entered one of the brightest periods of her life. She snaps back to the present in Paris and realizes that Elmer is still within reach.
Elmer and Undine have many traits in common, including their materialism and their ambition, so it makes sense that the two of them would get along. The fact that Undine still remembers her time in Apex with Elmer fondly suggests that maybe Elmer truly is different from her other husbands and suitors.
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