Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country is a novel full of marriages and divorces. Over the course of the book, the main character, Undine Spragg, gets divorced three times and married four times, and along the way, she considers even more marriage options. While Undine is perhaps an extreme example when it comes to quick marriages and divorces (her first marriage lasted just two weeks), her character illustrates how the conventions of marriage transformed rapidly in the early-20th century, even while other marriage traditions remained relevant.
Undine, along with her friends like Indiana Rusk and Mabel Lipscomb, is a modern woman who puts more emphasis on her own happiness than on meekly submitting to her husband. But while the novel shows how divorce offers new freedoms, particularly to women, it also comes with consequences, restrictions, and exceptions. For example, the novel shows the potential consequences of a messy divorce when Undine manipulates marriage law for selfish reasons, using her custody over her son (Paul Marvell) to try to extort money from her ex-husband’s (Ralph Marvell) family. But even with Undine’s freedom to get out of marriages quickly with divorce, she still finds herself catering to the whims of male characters. For instance, she spends months trying to get a proposal out of Peter Van Degen, only for him to abruptly drop and forget her. Undine’s move to Europe introduces her to yet another set of attitudes and customs surrounding marriage and divorce; there, she’s forced to follow the more traditional, Catholic beliefs of her second husband, Raymond de Chelles, whose old-fashioned ways can make even Undine defer to him. The many marriages and divorces of The Custom of the Country explore how despite the conventional idea that marriage is based on love, it often functions more as a business transaction, a means of social climbing, or a way to control people.
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Marriage and Divorce Quotes in The Custom of the Country
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.”
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.
“Sell it? Sell Saint Desert?”
The suggestion seemed to strike him as something monstrously, almost fiendishly significant: as if her random word had at last thrust into his hand the clue to their whole unhappy difference. Without understanding this, she guessed it from the change in his face: it was as if a deadly solvent had suddenly decomposed its familiar lines.
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.