How does Wharton switch the traditional roles of man and woman through the characters of Undine and Ralph ?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The traditional roles of men and females are switched in the characters of Undine and Ralph in Edith Wharton's novel The Custom of the Country. 

The character of Undine is a perfect representative of the "new money" New York heiress who comes into a world of ol'boys, specific last names, and family ties with which the only thing that she has in common is that they all have money. Yet, there is more to Undine than just that. She reunites qualities mostly expected of young men, than young women. This is, partly because Undine is the quintessential spoiled brat. 

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met.

It was an observation they had made in her earliest youth--Undine never wanted anything long, but she wanted it "right off." And until she got it the house was uninhabitable.

As a result, Undine's most important thing in life was to be the social superior of others. Her reckless hunger for power, and her ambition for having more than everybody else, leads her to pursue Ralph- a member of one of the most exclusive New York families, a lawyer, and a man of tremendous refinement. 

Unfortunately, Undine basically ruins the marriage. She is not the epitome of the submissive, pleasing wife who serves as the husband's anchor, and his shadow. On the contrary, Undine uses her husband's last name to make further social connections, to borrow things, and to elevate herself among her peers. She is the primary decision maker, the one who directs her husband as to how he should be making his money, and she also belittles him a lot, referring to him as "a little fellow". 

Furthermore, she starts an affair with another high society man of which she intends to obtain much grandiosity and benefit. 

Ralph is, literally, Undine's mascot. He provides the entertainment (with his money), and her status, with his name. He seems to have no control of Undine, being unable to judge her, or even make any suggestions as to how their marriage should be conducted. This is because Ralph's upbringing and classy background have rendered him a very amiable, understanding, and patient man. Nevertheless, he understands the frustrated efforts that he has bestowed upon keeping his marriage under control. Hence, this means that he accepts the fact that he is the weakest link between the two. In the end, Ralph dies, leaving Undine free to become married to Raymond. However, his death, like his life, is shown to have been lacking in most everything: Undine is the black hole that sucks Ralph's existence, money, and possibilities, until his death. 


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