The characters in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country live in a society that adheres to a gender binary where men and women fulfill different roles and face different expectations. While Undine Spragg is willful and impulsive, she still lives in a patriarchal world where men hold most of the positions of authority in business, political, and religious matters. Because of this, men play a similarly authoritative role in her own life. Particularly in the upper-class circles that Undine wants to infiltrate, women rarely work, and so in order to fund her lifestyle, Undine needs to find male patrons, whether it’s her father (Mr. Spragg) or one of her past, present, or future husbands.
But while the gender binary often tips the scale against Undine, she also finds ways to use it to her advantage and even to manipulate the people around her. Undine’s ignorance of business, which other character accept because she’s a woman, allows her to spend money freely while letting other people sort out the consequences. Undine also flips “traditional” ideas of motherhood, largely ignoring her first child, Paul Marvell, and leaving his care to his father, Ralph, and then later, to her other husbands. Despite the novel’s feminist themes, Undine herself is no role model. On the other side of the gender binary, Ralph resists the “traditional” male role of providing income for his family. He takes on more of a caregiver role for Paul and only goes to work at an office when he has no other options to pay Undine’s high bills. These exceptions to standard gender roles hint at how fragile and perhaps arbitrary the roles can be, but as the title of the novel alludes, social “customs” are difficult to escape, regardless of their origins. The Custom of the Country demonstrates how all the characters wrestle with expectations that gender roles impose on them while also illustrating how it’s sometimes possible to contradict or transcend these expectations. In so doing, it depicts both the enduring power of tradition and the possibility for change.
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Gender Roles Quotes in The Custom of the Country
“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.
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.
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.”
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!
“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.”
Such a company was one to flatter the artist as much his sitter, so completely did it represent that unanimity of opinion which constitutes social strength. Not one the number was troubled by any personal theory of art: all they asked of a portrait was that the costume should be sufficiently “life-like,” and the face not too much so; and a long experience in idealizing flesh and realizing dress-fabrics had enabled Mr. Popple to meet both demands.
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.
Moffatt’s social gifts were hardly of a kind to please the two ladies: he would have shone more brightly in Peter Van Degen’s set than in his wife’s. But neither Clare nor Mrs. Fairford had expected a man of conventional cut, and Moffatt’s loud easiness was obviously less disturbing to them than to their hostess. Undine felt only his crudeness, and the tacit criticism passed on it by the mere presence of such men as her husband and Bowen; but Mrs. Fairford seemed to enjoy provoking him to fresh excesses of slang and hyperbole.
“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.”
“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!”
Undine, without answering, caught up the pearls and thrust them into
Mrs. Heeny’s hands.
“Good land alive!” The masseuse dropped into a chair and let the twist slip through her fat flexible fingers. “Well, you got a fortune right round your neck whenever you wear them, Undine Spragg.”
Undine murmured something indistinguishable. “I want you to take them—” she began.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
In a window of the long gallery of the chateau de Saint Desert the new Marquise de Chelles stood looking down the poplar avenue into the November rain. It had been raining heavily and persistently for a longer time than she could remember. Day after day the hills beyond the park had been curtained by motionless clouds, the gutters of the long steep roofs had gurgled with a perpetual overflow, the opaque surface of the moat been peppered by a continuous pelting of big drops.
It was of no consequence that the details and the technicalities escaped her: she knew their meaningless syllables stood for success, and what that meant was as clear as day to her. Every Wall Street term had its equivalent in the language of Fifth Avenue, and while he talked of building up railways she was building up palaces, and picturing all the multiple lives he would lead in them. To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence, and as she listened to him the vision of the things he could have unrolled itself before her like the long triumph of an Asiatic conqueror.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed, surprised; and as he stood aside to let her enter she saw him draw out his watch and glance at it surreptitiously. He was expecting someone, or he had an engagement elsewhere—something claimed him from which she was excluded. The thought flushed her with sudden resolution. She knew now what she had come for—to keep him from every one else, to keep him for herself alone.
“Don’t send me away!” she said, and laid her hand on his beseechingly.
But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.