The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next afternoon, Undine goes out walking in Central Park in her plainest outfit. She is worried about accidentally running into her fiancé, Ralph, or even worse, the Austrian riding-master that she was engaged to earlier. In the park, she arrives at the place where she’s arranged to meet with Elmer. He seems surprised that she actually showed up, and while she says she’s glad to see him, he doesn’t believe her.
Undine’s plain clothes are unusual, since in almost every other situation, Undine dresses so that people will notice her. Her cautious behavior suggests that Elmer could represent a threat to her new engagement to Ralph.
Themes
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Undine says she was surprised to learn that Elmer was in town—Mr. Spragg didn’t tell her about seeing him earlier. Undine says she never felt as afraid of Elmer as her father does. Elmer brings up how back in Apex, Undine was engaged to marry a notable local man; she was still so young that the newspaper called her a “child bride.”
Undine failed to tell her mother about Elmer at the opera, but her mother also failed to tell her that her father saw Elmer in New York, meaning the failure of communication goes in both directions. This passage reveals some of Undine’s backstory, notably a previous engagement. Counting the Austrian, that means Ralph is at least Undine’s third engagement.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Undine says she didn’t mean to avoid Elmer the previous night. She tells Elmer she’s engaged again. Elmer reveals that he is working as a secretary for Harmon B. Driscoll, and Undine is surprised to learn that Elmer is living in New York. Elmer had to get out of Apex after some “unpleasantness” between him and Undine made Mr. Spragg and Mrs. Spragg turn against him, and they turned the rest of Apex against him too.
Mr. Spragg may not be a major player in New York City, but this passage reveals that he wielded a lot of influence in Apex, turning the whole town against Elmer. This passage hints at a previous relationship between Undine and Elmer without revealing the exact nature of that relationship. 
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Undine begs Elmer not to mention anything about their history together in Apex to anyone in New York. She says on the East Coast, people don’t even like it when a girl has been engaged before. Elmer says he has no intention of telling anyone, but he continues to prod her with questions. Undine says that all she wants is to marry Ralph without anyone discovering her past. Elmer asks for just one favor in return—if through marriage she meets anyone who might be a good business contact for Elmer, she should introduce him. Undine promises that she will.
Undine uses euphemistic language, but reading between the lines, this passage makes it clear that she married and divorced Elmer back in Apex. Although the people of New York are supposedly more modern than the people of Apex, they seem to hold much more old-fashioned views about marriage and divorce, which is why Undine wants to keep her previous relationship with Elmer a secret from Ralph and his family.
Themes
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Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
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Undine heads back to the Stentorian, hoping for solitude, but Ralph is there waiting for her. They talk about wedding plans. Ralph asks her to take off the veil she’s wearing, and she is reluctant at first. When Undine does take off the veil, Ralph notices she’s been crying. She claims it was just hot out, which made her angry. She says she wishes they could get married even sooner, and Ralph says that’s actually a good idea.
Although Ralph cares for Undine, this passage makes it clear that he doesn’t understand her that well. Ralph looks past Undine’s flaws to see what he wants to see, and so when Undine suggests moving the wedding date up, Ralph assumes that Undine is just as eager as he is to get married.
Themes
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
Materialism and Ambition Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon