The Custom of the Country

by

Edith Wharton

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Ralph Marvell Character Analysis

Ralph Marvell is Undine Spragg’s second husband and the father of her only child, Paul Marvell. The Marvell family is related to the Dagonet family, and these families both have long, illustrious histories in New York City but also don’t have as much money as their reputations might suggest. Despite his family’s dwindling funds, Ralph still grows up in privilege, primarily living off an allowance from his grandfather, Mr. Dagonet, while making very small amounts of money off his poetry. While Ralph imagines that he likes to live a simple life, his marriage to the extravagant Undine Spragg forces him to learn the value of money, even taking up an office job in real estate. Ralph is not ambitious or a social climber, making him a bad fit for Undine; ultimately, she abandons both him and Paul, and then divorces him. Ralph’s trusting attitude causes him to be careless during the divorce, and this gives Undine the opportunity to use her custody over Paul to try to get more money out of Ralph. In order to pay Undine off and keep Paul, Ralph goes to Elmer Moffatt and takes a risky business deal. At a low moment, when it seems like he’ll lose Paul and the deal will fail, Ralph commits suicide, only for the deal to go through three months later. Ralph illustrates how the naïve and the unambitious can flounder in a cut-throat society. His death is tragicomic, since three months might have made all the difference, illustrating the dangers of short-term thinking and the need for instant gratification.

Ralph Marvell Quotes in The Custom of the Country

The The Custom of the Country quotes below are all either spoken by Ralph Marvell or refer to Ralph Marvell. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Marriage and Divorce Theme Icon
).
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Undine Spragg—how can you?” her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid “bell-boy” had just brought in.

But her defence was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it.

“I guess it’s meant for me,” she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother.

Related Symbols: Apex
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

The dinner too was disappointing. Undine was too young to take note of culinary details, but she had expected to view the company through a bower of orchids and eat pretty-coloured entrees in ruffled papers. Instead, there was only a low centre-dish of ferns, and plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize—as if they’d been dyspeptics on a diet! With all the hints in the Sunday papers, she thought it dull of Mrs. Fairford not to have picked up something newer; and as the evening progressed she began to suspect that it wasn’t a real “dinner party,” and that they had just asked her in to share what they had when they were alone.

Related Symbols: Fifth Avenue, Apex
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

It had become clear to Undine that Mabel Lipscomb was ridiculous. That was the reason why Popple did not come to the box. No one would care to be seen talking to her while Mabel was at her side. […] She had a way of trumpeting out her ignorances that jarred on Undine’s subtler methods. It was precisely at this point that there dawned on Undine what was to be one of the guiding principles of her career: “It’s better to watch than to ask questions.”

Related Symbols: The Stentorian, Fifth Avenue
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

But how long would their virgin innocence last? Popple’s vulgar hands were on it already—Popple’s and the unspeakable Van Degen’s! Once they and theirs had begun the process of initiating Undine, there was no knowing—or rather there was too easy knowing—how it would end!

Related Symbols: Fifth Avenue
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

“Oh, it all depends on you! Out in Apex, if a girl marries a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change. You’d better think twice of that!”

“If I were only sure of knowing what you expect!” he caught up her joke, tossing it back at her across the fascinated silence of their listeners.

“Why, everything!” she announced—and Mr. Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on, hers, and said, with a change of tone that relaxed the tension of the listeners: “My child, if you look like that you’ll get it.”

Related Characters: Undine Spragg (speaker), Ralph Marvell (speaker), Mr. Dagonet (speaker), Mabel Lipscomb
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Mr. Spragg mused. “Wasn’t he ever taught to work?”

“No; I really couldn’t have afforded that.”

Related Characters: Mr. Abner E. Spragg (speaker), Mr. Dagonet (speaker), Ralph Marvell, Undine Spragg
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

Her colour rose again, and she looked him quickly and consciously in the eye. It was time to play her last card. “You seem to forget that I am—married,” she said.

Van Degen was silent—for a moment she thought he was swaying to her in the flush of surrender. But he remained doggedly seated, meeting her look with an odd clearing of his heated gaze, as if a shrewd businessman had suddenly replaced the pining gentleman at the window.

“Hang it—so am I!” he rejoined; and Undine saw that in the last issue he was still the stronger of the two.

Related Characters: Undine Spragg (speaker), Peter Van Degen (speaker), Ralph Marvell, Clare Van Degen
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

“Do you mean to tell me that Undine’s divorcing me?”

“I presume that’s her plan,” Mr. Spragg admitted.

“For desertion?” Ralph pursued, still laughing.

His father-in-law hesitated a moment; then he answered: “You’ve always done all you could for my daughter. There wasn’t any other plea she could think of. She presumed this would be the most agreeable to your family.”

Related Characters: Ralph Marvell (speaker), Mr. Abner E. Spragg (speaker), Undine Spragg
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

“If you’d only had the sense to come straight to me, Undine Spragg!

There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you—not one!”

Related Symbols: Apex
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 30 Quotes

“You couldn’t, up to now; but now you’re going to get married. You’re going to be able to give him a home and a father’s care—and the foreign languages. That’s what I’d say if I was you…His father takes considerable stock in him, don’t he?”

She coloured, a denial on her lips; but she could not shape it. “We’re both awfully fond of him, of course… His father’d never give him up!”

“Just so.” Moffatt’s face had grown as sharp as glass. “You’ve got the Marvells running. All you’ve got to do’s to sit tight and wait for their cheque.” He dropped back to his equestrian seat on the lyre-backed chair.

Related Characters: Elmer Moffatt (speaker), Undine Spragg (speaker), Paul Marvell , Ralph Marvell, Raymond de Chelles
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 33 Quotes

“But shall I tell you what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date. I don’t believe Undine cares a straw for ‘the appearance of respectability.’ What she wants is the money for her annulment.”

Related Characters: Clare Van Degen (speaker), Ralph Marvell, Undine Spragg, Paul Marvell
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 35 Quotes

Within forty-eight hours Ralph’s money was in Moffatt’s hands, and the interval of suspense had begun.

The transaction over, he felt the deceptive buoyancy that follows on periods of painful indecision. It seemed to him that now at last life had freed him from all trammelling delusions, leaving him only the best thing in its gift—his boy.

Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 36 Quotes

For a moment he was conscious of seeing it in every detail with a distinctness he had never before known; then everything in it vanished but the single narrow panel of a drawer under one of the bookcases. He went up to the drawer, knelt down and slipped his hand into it.

As he raised himself he listened again, and this time he distinctly heard the old servant’s steps on the stairs. He passed his left hand over the side of his head, and down the curve of the skull behind the ear. He said to himself: “My wife … this will make it all right for her….” and a last flash of irony twitched through him. Then he felt again, more deliberately, for the spot he wanted, and put the muzzle of his revolver against it.

Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Custom of the Country PDF

Ralph Marvell Character Timeline in The Custom of the Country

The timeline below shows where the character Ralph Marvell appears in The Custom of the Country. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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...met at a party the previous night), but Undine says it isn’t, it’s from Mr. Ralph Marvell’s sister (Laura Fairford), inviting her to a dinner party. (full context)
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...and that he’s “in it,” but that he is not quite “AS in it” as Ralph. Undine asks if this means the Marvells are fashionable, and Mrs. Heeny says yes, she’s... (full context)
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...finds this strange because Laura has never even seen her, but Mrs. Heeny says that Ralph has seen her and that often a young man will use his sister as an... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...public and see real people looking at her. She regrets not paying more attention to Ralph earlier, focusing instead on Claud Popple. (full context)
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...of Mrs. Spragg. Mrs. Heeny lingers, telling Undine she looks stunning. She reassures Undine that Ralph is indeed at the top of New York society, along with the rest of his... (full context)
Chapter 3
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Undine sits next to Ralph and finds him friendly but even more timid than the last time she met him.... (full context)
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...realizes they are making fun of him. Clare is dismayed by this reaction and asks Ralph why he recommended Claud to do her portrait. Ralph assures her that Claud will do... (full context)
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As everyone goes to leave, Clare puts a hand on Ralph’s arm and says she hopes he’ll go to dinner and an opera with her next... (full context)
Chapter 4
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...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,... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...crowd. She notices that just one box is open—Clare’s (since she is still dining with Ralph). Just then, Undine begins to feel that she herself is being watched and notices Peter’s... (full context)
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Just then, Clare and Ralph arrive to take their box, seemingly alone. Mabel Lipscomb asks Undine if they should call... (full context)
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Just then, Ralph appears at the back of the box to see Undine. She is disappointed, however, that... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Ralph goes home and sits in an armchair by the fire. The Marvell family, which is... (full context)
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Ralph’s family wants him to marry a nice girl, but he has resisted so far. He... (full context)
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Ralph is used to women being attracted to him, but he rarely reciprocates the feeling, except... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...to her suitor. As it turns out, Undine is having dinner at the Dagonet place—because Ralph (a cousin of the Dagonets) is the one who gave Undine the ring. Undine ends... (full context)
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...the table, Undine feels like she must play the part of being in love with Ralph, even though she isn’t acting and feels that she really does love him. Mr. Dagonet... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...makes dinner a little tense, but Laura Fairford tries to smooth things over by escorting Ralph and Undine over to the theater for a show. Laura brings with her an older,... (full context)
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...she knows, including Clare in her box. Claud Popple comes over to visit Undine and Ralph, saying he’d love to paint Undine. Ralph seems opposed to it but doesn’t forbid her.... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...Mr. Spragg, and Mr. Spragg’s attempts to joke with him mostly fall flat. They discuss Ralph’s work in the law field, which Mr. Dagonet insists is a “profession,” not a “business.” (full context)
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It turns out that Ralph doesn’t like doing things that make money—he mostly just writes poetry and receives three thousand... (full context)
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Mr. Spragg finds that supporting Undine and Ralph will cost him so much money that he recommends that Undine break off the engagement.... (full context)
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...about how he just doesn’t think he can come up with the money to support Ralph. Mrs. Spragg brings up an even bigger concern: Undine recently ran into Elmer. Mr. Spragg... (full context)
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...him questions about his daughter’s wedding date. Mr. Spragg still seems reluctant, but just then Ralph shows up at the office. Ralph apologizes for interrupting, then he says he thinks he... (full context)
Chapter 11
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It’s a sunny day in July, and Ralph and Undine are in Italy on their honeymoon—they’ve been traveling throughout Italy for four months.... (full context)
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Ralph and Undine ride back in a carriage, and Ralph realizes that Undine’s real problem isn’t... (full context)
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That night, Undine’s silence makes Ralph nervous. He tells her he just saw something wonderful—a vision of a book he intends... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Ralph feels that he could have kept hold on his book vision near the quiet waterfalls... (full context)
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Ralph is a little annoyed to find a cavalry-officer they met in Siena, Italy at their... (full context)
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As if to challenge Ralph, Undine only spends more time over the next few days with her new acquaintances from... (full context)
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Undine asks Ralph if anyone in his family could help them out with money. Ralph is reluctant to... (full context)
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In Paris, Ralph happens to see Peter walking down the street, looking like someone who doesn’t have to... (full context)
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The delay in leaving Paris causes Undine to look into buying jewels. Ralph tries to pin down a date to sail back to New York. There’s a fast,... (full context)
Chapter 13
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After going out to see a play on his own, Ralph gets back to the hotel, expecting to see Undine gone, but in fact, she is... (full context)
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After Peter leaves, Undine teases Ralph by saying she didn’t shop too long while he was out—in fact, she saved them... (full context)
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Ralph starts to get angry with Undine. He says Peter has been manipulating her, but Undine... (full context)
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Shortly before their departure, Ralph goes to visit Clare at her hotel. They have a pleasant meeting, but at the... (full context)
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Back at his own hotel, Ralph finds Undine crying on the couch. He asks what’s wrong, but Undine says that anyone... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...keeps a very neat studio, but he tosses off paintings less neatly. Sometime long after Ralph and Undine’s honeymoon, Peter comes by to watch Claud painting Undine. Peter jokes around about... (full context)
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...a snowy night, so he offers to take her. Undine agrees, even though she knows Ralph doesn’t like her being seen out and about with Peter. Eventually she settles in for... (full context)
Chapter 15
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...simply forgotten. She talks with Charles Bowen about how Undine is always late, particularly since Ralph has started working in the office and spending long hours there. Charles Bowen seems to... (full context)
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Just then, Ralph’s late arrival interrupts Laura Fairford and Charles Bowen’s conversation about American marriages. Ralph thinks that... (full context)
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While talking with Ralph, Clare happens to bring up Elmer, who has been making a name for himself on... (full context)
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Ralph sits down and reads the paper until eight thirty, but then he starts to get... (full context)
Chapter 16
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Ralph ponders his life and how there were signs that he should’ve noticed long ago. He... (full context)
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Undine, meanwhile, is surprised at how well Ralph took her missing Paul’s birthday. She still likes some aspects of Ralph, but their money... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...tells him she needs to go because she’s unhappy at home. Her father protests that Ralph treats her well, but Undine says she’s been unhappy since the very beginning—his family hates... (full context)
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Undine found the right way to upset Mr. Spragg. He says that Ralph barely works at all. Undine adds that the Dagonets and Marvells are ashamed to associate... (full context)
Chapter 18
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...Mr. Spragg doesn’t oppose divorce, he is shocked when Undine suggests that she’d consider divorcing Ralph because she’d much rather be with Peter. After talking with her father, she takes the... (full context)
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...with Elmer to his office. At the office Elmer explains everything: He wants to meet Ralph, since Ralph could be useful for business and years ago Undine promised to introduce Elmer... (full context)
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Undine invites Elmer to a dinner with Ralph, Laura Fairford, Clare, and Charles Bowen. Ralph is impressed with Elmer and the others are... (full context)
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Undine asks Ralph what he and Elmer discussed earlier when they were smoking. Ralph mentions a business proposal... (full context)
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...next morning, Undine is too weak to get out of bed. Her doctor explains to Ralph that she needs several days of rest, followed perhaps by a change of scenery. As... (full context)
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Elmer shows up two days later to see Ralph at his West End Avenue residence, since the meeting is too sensitive to take place... (full context)
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Mr. Spragg tells Ralph that he doesn’t see the trouble with the arrangement, as long as no one involved... (full context)
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On his way out of Elmer’s office, Ralph runs into Mr. Spragg. Mr. Spragg asks how Ralph knows Elmer, and Ralph mentions the... (full context)
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...likes how tall Elmer is, since that means he can carry him even higher than Ralph. (full context)
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Elmer says that Ralph really helped him make a fresh start and thinks he helped Ralph make a fresh... (full context)
Chapter 20
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...boring, even her honeymoon in Europe. She has just received two letters. One is from Ralph, telling her that, while he hoped she’d enjoy his money, he also hoped she’d enjoy... (full context)
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...of Undine, but Undine replies that it doesn’t matter what she does in Paris, since Ralph has ordered her home next week anyway. (full context)
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...about this. Just then, a telegram from Laura Fairford, interrupts their conversation, informing Undine that Ralph has pneumonia and that Undine should head back at once. (full context)
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...She just crumples the telegram up and says that Laura Fairford is telling her that Ralph wants her back at once. Peter says he’ll do something to make Undine stay, but... (full context)
Chapter 21
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It’s June in New York after a spring of chaotic weather, and Ralph is exhausted. For a while, he received weekly letters from Undine in Europe, which he... (full context)
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At first, Undine’s absence felt freeing to Ralph, but soon he realizes that even when she’s gone, he can’t fully escape her influence.... (full context)
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Sometimes, when Ralph visits Mr. Spragg and Mrs. Spragg with Paul, Mrs. Heeny is also visiting. She often... (full context)
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One afternoon near the end of June, Ralph begins to wonder if Clare is still in town. He goes to visit her in... (full context)
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When Ralph gets home, he finds a letter that was sent to him from Paris, apparently forwarded... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Ralph wakes up with a memory of having been recently crying. He tells himself he must... (full context)
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Ralph eventually feels well enough to meet Mr. Spragg in his office. Ralph is shocked to... (full context)
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Ralph says he intends to make the divorce as difficult as he can. He asks Mr.... (full context)
Chapter 23
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In the Adirondacks, Ralph sits on the balcony of a lake house and looks out at the clouds on... (full context)
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Ralph begins replacing photos of Undine around the house. He feels both angry and ashamed of... (full context)
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One day, Ralph is on the subway and happens to see his own name in a newspaper someone... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...She says that Peter has turned against Undine in part because of how she ignored Ralph when he was sick. Undine insists the story is exaggerated. (full context)
Chapter 31
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Almost two years have passed since Ralph first learned that he was getting divorced. He has tried to adapt his life to... (full context)
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Since his divorce, Ralph hasn’t gone to see Clare at her home, although he occasionally sees her when they... (full context)
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Ralph spends the night at Laura Fairford’s place, feeling pleased about where his book is at,... (full context)
Chapter 32
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As more days pass, Ralph begins to feel that Clare is right and that if Undine remarries, he really will... (full context)
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One day, when Ralph is in a good mood, he gets a message from his mother that Mrs. Spragg... (full context)
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Full of rage, Ralph goes to see his old divorce lawyer. When the lawyer arrives, he informs Ralph that... (full context)
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Ralph goes to see Mr. Spragg and Mrs. Spragg while they’re at dinner. Ralph asks what’s... (full context)
Chapter 33
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Over the course of Ralph’s visit, he manages to convince Mr. Spragg to talk with Undine’s lawyers to try to... (full context)
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As Ralph leaves Mr. Spragg’s office, he recalls that Mr. Spragg’s office is where he first met... (full context)
Chapter 34
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For several weeks, Ralph frets over how to raise enough money to buy back Paul—his lawyers confirm that Clare’s... (full context)
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Elmer’s office looks much nicer than it did the last time Ralph was there. Elmer listens but says that everyone is looking to make fast money lately,... (full context)
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Ralph goes to Clare to tell her about his meeting with Elmer. He says it seems... (full context)
Chapter 35
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Ralph manages to get Elmer the money within 48 hours. He feels happy to have resolved... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Ralph hears more rumors about Elmer. Apparently, Elmer was supposed to testify against Harmon B. Driscoll,... (full context)
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Ralph reads the papers for news from Apex that Elmer’s scheme has gone through. But the... (full context)
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Ralph’s lawyers get an extension from Undine’s about the payment, but more time passes and still... (full context)
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Elmer confirms for Ralph that the Apex deal hasn’t gone through. He says not all hope is lost—perhaps it’ll... (full context)
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Elmer’s confession shocks Ralph. Elmer talks about how he promised to stay quiet so that Undine’s past wouldn’t offend... (full context)
Chapter 36
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Ralph walks down Wall Street, noticing cracks in the pavement and trash in the gutters. He... (full context)
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 A servant’s knock at the door disturbs Ralph’s thoughts. The servant asks Ralph to help resolve a dispute she’s having with another servant.... (full context)
Chapter 37
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...Heeny enjoyed getting a peek at European aristocracy. But when Mrs. Heeny accidentally almost mentioned Ralph, it brought down the mood, since Ralph remained a painful subject for Undine. (full context)
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About three months after Ralph’s death, Undine got news from her lawyers that Marvell’s estate had received $100,000 from the... (full context)
Chapter 38
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...particularly care about managing her expenses. But she finds that Raymond is more logical than Ralph, and this makes it harder for her to get her way with him. (full context)
Chapter 39
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...passes, Undine is surprised and disappointed to see that Raymond is not as different from Ralph as he seems. He also spends his time reading or dabbling in creative pursuits like... (full context)
Chapter 46
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...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... (full context)