The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 45 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elmer’s hotel room contains many ostentatious signs of wealth, like Greek marble. Undine repeats that Elmer must not send her away, then says that things are going so wrong in her life. She asks him if he remembers strolling down Main Street in Apex with her. Elmer seems nostalgic but insists he really must get back home.
Undine immediately feels at home in Elmer’s hotel room because he values the same flashy (perhaps even tacky) displays of wealth that she values. She tries to invoke good feelings in him by appealing to nostalgia.
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Undine asks Elmer if he ever misses her, and he says he does. She replies that being with him was the only time she really cared about in her life. She asks if Elmer has another woman, and he says he’s too busy for anything like that. Undine says she and Elmer should do as they please together—after all, a marriage is just a business contract, even if some Europeans fail to see it that way.
Undine knows that Elmer is a businessman, and so she tries to appeal toward that logical side of him when presenting her case for why he should have an affair with her. Undine specifically resists suggesting marriage, perhaps because she has learned the consequences of rushing into a marriage contract, or perhaps because she has internalized some of Raymond’s Catholic ideas about marriage and divorce.
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Elmer says he doesn’t want to just have an affair with Undine. He knows what it’s like to be an outcast from back when he lived in Apex, which is how he’d end up again if news of their affair got out. If Undine wants him, she’ll have to become his wife again. He formally proposes to her. Undine hesitates. She says she’s Catholic and would prefer to just be friends at first, then later maybe work up to more than that. Elmer says he already has places he can go if he wants a causal relationship.
Elmer remains practical and frank, implying that he never got married because he can just go to a sex worker if he wants sex.  Undine protests by saying she’s Catholic, which is humorous, given how recently she converted and how little she seems to practice any religion. Her excuses all seem to be a way for her to avoid commitment.
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Undine and Elmer seem to be at an impasse, with Elmer insisting that he’ll go back to the United States if Undine doesn’t marry him, while Undine wants to make him stay without marrying him. Elmer says Undine doesn’t have the courage to do what she should really do: come back with him. Undine protests again that she’s Catholic, but Elmer points out that she was born Baptist. If she comes back to America, she can get an American divorce and forget all about European marriage customs. Undine can’t come up with a counterargument. Elmer gives the date he’s leaving and says he’ll need a yes or no answer before then.
After being married to Raymond for so long, Undine has lost some of her drive and decisiveness. Elmer encourages her to find it again. Unlike the deeply tradition-bound Raymond, Elmer is practical and makes decisions based on current results, not past ways of doing things. Elmer proves himself to be a good match for Undine, not necessarily because he brings out the best in her, but because the two of them have similar flaws related to their shared, materialistic worldviews.
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