The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 46 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the library of a private hotel, Paul looks out a window at Paris in twilight. He’s nine years old and has just got back from his fancy private school for the Easter holidays. Undine has married Elmer, and they’ve just returned from America, having been on many trips around the world during their first two years of marriage. Paul is used to them being absent and sending telegrams from abroad.
Throughout the novel, Paul has been the innocent victim of Undine’s social climbing. The final chapter begins by depicting Paul as a lonely child. Undine’s own efforts to have a social life have condemned her son to have the kind of isolated life that she herself hates.
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Paul still likes Raymond best out of all his fathers, but Raymond has totally disappeared from his life. Elmer has bought a hotel for his family to live in, and Paul wanders around the big building alone. He remembers a conversation with Mrs. Heeny (whom Undine brought back from America) about how she has some newspaper clippings to show him sometime. Paul finds Mrs. Heeny, and they talk. Paul tells Mrs. Heeny that he doesn’t even remember much of Ralph. Mrs. Heeny gives Paul several newspaper clippings about his mother’s life to help him better understand his situation.
Paul’s affection for Raymond seemingly played no role at all in Undine’s decision to leave Raymond for Elmer. In fact, Undine seems to do all she can to foist the responsibility of raising Paul onto other people, bringing back Mrs. Heeny to act as a sort of de facto nanny while Undine herself is out. Mrs. Heeny uses newspaper clippings to teach Paul about his mother’s life, symbolizing just how deeply Undine chooses to live her life in public, where everyone can see.
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Paul asks Mrs. Heeny why Undine married Elmer. Mrs. Heeny says it was because Undine got divorced. She provides newspaper clippings about it, but Paul doesn’t really understand them. Just then, Elmer and Undine arrive. They greet Paul happily, although Undine has to rush off to get ready for dinner almost immediately.
Paul is too young to understand divorce, but even Mrs. Heeny seems to have limited knowledge on the topic. She talks of divorce as just a thing that happens sometimes (which might be how it seems to someone who only reads the newspapers), but she doesn’t comment on why divorce happens.
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Paul happens to notice some tapestries that used to hang in Raymond’s chateau at Saint Desert. Elmer says Paul has a good eye to remember them. Paul doesn’t dislike Elmer, but the tapestries remind him of his “French father,” causing him to cry. Elmer says that if Undine isn’t around, he’ll try to be there for Paul.
During earlier upheavals in his life, Paul was young enough to take everything in stride. As he gets older, he begins to comprehend how parts of his life are unfair—such as how he may never see Raymond again. Like Raymond and Ralph before him, Elmer realizes that he might have to step up to offset Undine’s own lack of parental instincts.
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Meanwhile, Undine is preparing for her first big social event since her marriage, one with people she actually wants to see. Several of her New York and Paris friends have been invited—even Peter. Undine finally has everything she could ever want, and yet she can’t shake the feeling that she’d want many other things if she only knew what they were. Elmer is better at fulfilling Undine’s wishes than either of her previous husbands, but he’s not without his own faults.
Undine has waited a long time for this moment—when she makes her triumphant return to her old social circle. Still, despite her impending victory, she remains uneasy. Even though she has everything she wanted at the beginning of the book, she can’t shake her constant desire for more. Her situation illustrates the consequences of committing too deeply to materialism.
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Quotes
Undine talks with Elmer about plans for their dinner that night. Elmer brings up a mutual friend who managed to get a job as ambassador to England. Undine suggests that that’s the sort of position Elmer should go for, but Elmer says no one wants a divorced ambassadress. Undine laughs but takes offense at this unspoken rule against divorce. Car motors outside reveal that the first guests are on their way. Undine looks brilliant in her glittering jewels, but as she goes to greet her guests, she secretly despairs that she’ll never be an ambassador’s wife, since that is what she was really destined to do in life.
By most metrics, Undine’s story ends happily, since she gets everything she ever wanted. Yet just at the moment when Undine has everything, she comes up with something she wants but doesn’t have—in fact something that it’s impossible for her to ever have. Previously, Undine showed no interest in being an ambassador’s wife; now, she wants it precisely because she can’t have it (due to her history of divorce). What could have been a happy ending instead becomes a reminder about the consequences of being too materialistic and of seeking too much external validation.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
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Quotes