Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Undine Spragg, who moves to New York from Apex City with her parents, is in the city for two years without being accepted into society. Her opportunity comes at last when she is invited to a dinner given by Laura Fairford, whose brother, Ralph Marvell, takes an interest in her. Although his family is socially prominent, Ralph has little money. He is an independent thinker who dislikes the superficiality of such important people as Peter Van Degen, the wealthy husband of Ralph’s cousin, Clare Dagonet, with whom Ralph was once in love.
About two months after their meeting, Undine and Ralph become engaged. One night, they go to see a play, where Undine is shocked to find herself sitting next to Elmer Moffatt, someone who knows about her past. She promises to meet him privately in Central Park the next day. When they meet, Moffatt, a blunt, vulgar man, tells Undine that she must help him in his business deals after she marries Ralph. Moffatt also goes to see Undine’s father and, threatening to reveal Undine’s past if Mr. Spragg refuses, asks him to join in a business deal.
Mr. Spragg is fortunate in his business deal with Moffatt and is able to give Undine a big wedding. After Ralph and Undine are married, Ralph gradually realizes that Undine cares less for him than for the social world. He also becomes aware of Undine’s ruthless desire for money. Her unhappiness and resentment increase when she learns that she is pregnant.
(The entire section is 905 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
In praising the protagonist in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, British critic Margaret Drabble, writing for the Guardian, describes her as one who “dares, risks, exceeds, rises, falls, and rises again.” The protagonist’s name is Undine Spragg, whom Drabble goes on to call “one of the most appalling and fascinating heroines ever created.” The Custom of the Country was first published in 1913 and was Wharton’s ninth novel.
The novel opens in an elegant hotel suite that is decorated with lush materials and portraits of European royalty. This is the current residence of the Spraggs—husband and wife and their adult daughter, Undine. There had been a party the night before at the hotel, at which Undine had been introduced to several society figures. She is currently standing at the window, perplexed by a note she has just received. Her mother is visiting with Mrs. Heeny, a stout masseuse who has frequent appointments with Mrs. Spragg, as prescribed by Mrs. Spragg’s doctor. Mrs. Heeny serves people in high society and keeps newspaper clippings in her purse that detail the activities of the most important and influential among them.
At the previous night’s party, Undine had met Claud Popple, a man who showed a lot of interest in her. He had mentioned that he wanted to paint her portrait. When Undine receives the note the next day, she assumes it is from Popple. When she discovers it is not, she crumples the letter and throws it into her mother’s lap in disappointment.
Curious about what the note contains and why Undine appears to be provoked, Mrs. Heeny joins the conversation between Mrs. Spragg and Undine. In the course of the discussion, Mrs. Heeny discovers that the note Undine has received is from Laura Fairford. Mrs. Heeny asks if Ralph Marvell was at the party the night before whether Undine met him. Undine claims she did, referring to Ralph as “a little fellow.” Undine is unimpressed with this man until Mrs. Heeny explains that Ralph Marvell is highly esteemed in New York society; then Undine becomes very fascinated. Undine does not understand why Ralph Marvell did not write the note himself. Mrs. Heely attempts to explain New York society etiquette to Undine. People are not very direct, she tells Undine. Men invite women to dinner parties through their sisters or married relations. Although Undine finds this custom very strange, she now...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
While in her room, Undine decides to respond to Mrs. Fairford’s note. First she has difficulty deciding what type of stationery to use. She read somewhere that the most fashionable paper at the moment is almost blood red. To write on this paper, one must use white ink. After having discovered this, Undine had persuaded her parents to buy her the red stationery, but now as she stares at Mrs. Fairford’s letter, she questions why Mrs. Fairford did not use red paper. Mrs. Fairford’s note is written on white paper. Finally Undine decides to use the white hotel stationery. She does not want to be considered common, but she also does not want to make a mistake in fashion.
Next, because she is responding to the note as if her mother were writing it, Undine cannot decide how to sign her mother’s name. Mrs. Fairford has signed in a casual way, using “Laura Fairford” for a signature. It takes several versions of a response before Undine concludes that it probably would be most appropriate to close the letter with “Yours sincerely, Mrs. Leota B. Spragg.”
Undine’s indecisiveness is indicative of her lack of confidence in high society. She was raised in very modest circumstances before her father came into money. She has little training in what is considered appropriate. Furthermore, she likes to think of herself as a rebel, but she also likes to model herself after other people she admires. She is not grounded in a strong sense of her own identity.
After sending off the note, Undine has her maid pull out all her evening dresses. As she looks them over, Undine feels disappointed with them. Most of them look too simple or plain. Some even look old, though they have never been worn. Undine’s favorite is the gown she wore the evening before. She may not be attuned to all the rules of society, but she knows for certain that she cannot go to dinner in a dress in which she has recently been seen.
Before Mrs. Heely leaves the Spraggs’ apartment, Undine grabs her by the arm and pulls her into her bedroom. Undine tells Mrs. Heely that she needs reassurance that the man she met at the party, Ralph Marvell, is indeed well established in society. Mrs. Heely assures her that he is. She tells Undine that she knows people from very powerful families, such as the Driscolls and the Van Degens, who would die to be invited to the Marvells’ home. They have tried every angle but have not been successful. Yet...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Undine is disappointed with the dinner at Mrs. Fairford’s house. First of all, the house itself is far from elegant. It is small and, to Undine’s eye, even shabby. The walls are decorated with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books rather than fanciful, gilded wallpaper. There is an old-fashioned fireplace that uses real wood; it is in constant need of rearranging, and Mrs. Fairford actually attends to it personally. Even the meal is less than astonishing. Undine had expected “pretty-coloured entrees” wrapped in fancy papers and an exotic bouquet of flowers. Instead, a common fern is used as a centerpiece, and Undine is served ordinary foods that she can easily identify.
Of the eight people sitting around the table, only a few are notable. There are the Fairfords, Ralph Marvell, and Mrs. Peter Van Degen, about whom Undine had read in the society pages. Mr. Fairfield, who is bald and has a gray mustache, holds no interest at all for Undine. However, she does like Mrs. Fairford, a small woman whose frequent smiles reveal her good teeth. Mrs. Fairford is not stylish but has a comfortable manner that reminds Undine of her father when he is in his most relaxed state. Although Mrs. Fairford uses a very small vocabulary, Undine appreciates the way she keeps the conversation going at the table. She does not monopolize the discourse; rather, she orchestrates it as if she were conducting a choir. Mrs. Fairford makes sure everyone has a chance to add something to the discussion.
Undine takes an interest in the table talk when the conversation turns to briefly discuss Mr. Popple, the artist. Undine had hoped he would be at the dinner party. Mrs. Peter Van Degen comments that Mr. Popple is painting her portrait. Mrs. Van Degen adds that Mr. Popple is “doing” everyone that year. Someone else adds that Mr. Popple paints just as he speaks—which is to say that Mr. Popple’s paintings are a statement of how much a gentleman he thinks he is. His works reflect his goal of wanting to make an impression on people. Mrs. Fairford comments that Mr. Popple makes her feel like he is the only gentleman she has ever met. At least, that is what he often tells her. During this discourse, Undine feels most relaxed. She senses that she is being included in the sharing of societal secrets.
As for Ralph Marvell, Undine finds him very quiet and reserved. He might even be shy. Throughout the evening, he barely talks to her. When...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Undine insists that her father rent a box for the opera on Friday. She has decided that going to the opera will give her an opportunity to see and meet more people of the upper-class New York society. Mr. Spragg, who does not enjoy the nervous tension he feels when his daughter wants something but does not get it, makes excuses, such as a lack of funds for such an extravagant request. Then he promptly leaves for his office to avoid any further confrontation. This angers Undine. To release her agitation, she goes out for a horse ride. However, she expects a call from her father as soon as she returns home, stating that he has given in to her wishes. When Mrs. Spragg declares that she has heard nothing from Mr. Spragg, Undine dresses to go out again, this time to an art museum—another place where she hopes to meet influential people. It had been mentioned during the Fairfords’ dinner party.
At the museum, Undine notices that many of the people look at her with obvious admiration of her beauty, but she is not content. She wants more. She wants to know these people by name. She wants them to recognize her as someone of equal worth. When she notices a tall girl dressed in furs taking notes as she gazes at the paintings, Undine mimics her by scribbling in the catalog she was given upon entering the museum. Minutes later, when she see a woman examining a picture through tortoise-shell eyeglasses adorned with diamonds, Undine wants to purchase a similar pair of glasses for the next time she visits the museum.
Undine is so absorbed in trying to be like the other women she sees around her that she accidentally bumps into an overweight man. The impact knocks the catalog out of her hand, and the young man retrieves it for her. Undine stares at the young man’s face in an attempt to identify who he is. He has bulging eyes with thick lids, and she feels sure she has seen his photograph in the newspapers. It is not until Undine hears a woman calling to the young man that she guesses his full name. He must be Peter Van Degen, the son of the “great banker.” Upon recognizing this member of high society, Undine smiles. The man had been clearly been distracted by Undine’s beauty, even though his wife had completely ignored her.
When Undine returns home, she is not overly enthused to learn that Ralph Marvell had called. Undine thinks it was impolite of him to have called without previously making an appointment with her...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Undine attends the opera with her friend Mabel Lipscomb. Undine had met Mabel at a boarding school. Mabel is a New York native and is now married to a stockbroker. Upon arriving in the city, Mabel had taken Undine “under her wing” and introduced her to members of society. It was at Mabel’s party that Undine met the artist Mr. Popple as well as Ralph Marvell.
Undine had thought Mabel would be an asset for her first appearance at the opera. However, she soon discovers that Mabel is loud and very demonstrative, rudely pointing at everyone as she notices people in the audience. Once the house lights are lowered, Undine, who had been uncomfortable with the stares coming from people because of Mabel’s strange behavior, finally relaxes. In the dark, she takes out her opera glasses and searches the audience for anyone with whom she can claim an acquaintance. She recognizes some faces from having seen their photographs, but she sees no one she knows. More specifically, she finds no one who knows her.
All but one of the opera boxes is filled. Upon checking with the listing of names on the back of the opera program, she finds that the empty box belongs to the Van Degens. She also recalls having heard at the Fairfords’ dinner that Ralph Marvell was to have supper with Mrs. Van Degen that night. When Undine imagines what that scene might look like, with Ralph sipping champagne and leaning in to light Mrs. Van Degen’s cigarette, she thinks of herself as a fool to believe Ralph Marvell would want to have anything to do with her. She wonders how she had come to the conclusion that any of these society people would want her in their midst. She is nothing more than an intruder, one of the uninitiated.
Undine’s thoughts are interrupted when Mabel says in a loud voice, “Undie, do look—there’s Mr. Marvell!” When Undine looks up, she sees Mrs. Van Degen enter the box opposite to hers. Ralph Marvell is behind Mrs. Van Degen. When Mabel asks why Undine is not signaling to Ralph Marvell, Undine finally insinuates that perhaps Mabel should not be so physically expressive. No one else is “beckoning,” Undine points out.
All during the opera, Undine waits for someone to open the door to her box, but no one does. Not until the opera is almost ended do two gentlemen enter—Mr. Popple and Peter Van Degen, the man Undine had bumped into at the art museum. As the men talk to Undine, she positions herself to...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Ralph Marvell walks to his Union Square home after the opera. As he sits before the fireplace, he reflects on his past. He received a good education; he went to Harvard and then Oxford, and he finished with a degree in law. Like other gentlemen of his day, after graduating he was not expected to do much with his law degree and was especially not pressed to make money. The general custom, in cases such as his, was to “lapse into more or less cultivated inaction” as his life’s path. Following the rules of his society, he should actually cultivate a disdain for “mere money-getting.”
It is not that the Marvells have a lot of money, but Ralph would be allotted enough to live on for his entire life if he is frugal. All he wants for the extra expenses in his life is the ability to buy all the books he desires and to go on occasional vacations.
Ralph is a very solitary figure. He reflects on this aspect of his personality and compares it to a chance discovery he made as a child when he found a special cave at the shore. It was a sometimes-inaccessible place that could only be reached between tides. He never told anyone about it, fearing that it would not be the same if anyone else shared it. His inner world is similar to this cave, he finds. Like the cave, his inner world is also difficult to access and he seldom shares it. He had come close to sharing it once, with his cousin Clare Dagonet. However, just as she was about to near the entrance of his “cave,” he left the States for Spain. When he returned, Clare was married to Peter Van Degen. Clare’s turning away from him left his cave very dark. After this, he swore he would never marry.
Now, instead of pursuing women, Ralph seeks knowledge. He wants to know what the great thinkers of the world know. He also would like to write or paint. He dabbles in the arts, but so far he has given up before finishing any project.
He had all but forgotten about his boyhood cave and the way it had made him feel until he met Undine Spragg. He classifies Undine as one of the invaders of New York Society, someone who is not corrupted by all the social customs. He is attracted to her frankness and simplicity, which is rarely found in the women of his social circle. He worries, though, about the influences of Popple and Van Degen. He saw them at the opera attempting to influence Undine. Then Ralph wonders if his main mission should be to save Undine from those...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Two months have passed, and Undine is engaged to be married to Ralph Marvell. Mrs. Heeny is at the Spragg hotel suite, giving Undine a manicure. Mrs. Heeny talks about the ring Undine is wearing, the ring Ralph has given her as a mark of their engagement. When Mrs. Heeny mentions how old the jeweled ring is, Mrs. Spragg expresses disappointment that Ralph did not buy Undine a new ring. Mrs. Heeny has to explain that this is an old European tradition—and it signifies quite an honor to be given a family heirloom such as this ring. Mrs. Heeny is helping Undine prepare to meet the patriarch of Ralph’s family, Mr. Dagonet, Ralph’s grandfather.
According to New York custom among the rich old families, Undine is forced to take her mother with her during the ceremonial rounds of both families becoming acquainted. However, for this night’s dinner, at which Undine will meet Mr. Dagonet, Undine is glad to be rid of her mother and facing Ralph’s family alone. She will not have to worry about what her mother might say or do that might offend the family. Instead, Undine will rely on her beauty to charm everyone—especially, she hopes, Mr. Dagonet.
The dinner meeting is less formidable than Undine had imagined it might be. She also feels more confident than at previous meetings, due in part on the power of Ralph’s love. His feelings for and acceptance of her gives her a sense of power. At the table, Undine sits to Mr. Dagonet’s right and senses that this position is reflective of her ascendancy in the family. Mr. Dagonet is a small, frail old man who easily succumbs to Undine’s beauty. Mrs. Marvell, Ralph’s mother, is not quite as easy to win over as Mr. Dagonet has been. Undine has heard that there was some family opposition to Ralph’s marrying her, and Undine feels sure the source of opposition is from Mrs. Marvell. Ralph’s mother speaks in a voice that is low but has an impressive strength behind it. Although she might have been against the marriage, she appears to have relinquished her fight. It does surprise Undine, though, that on Mrs. Marvell’s part, there seems to be no reprisals. Mrs. Marvell’s manner does not suggest complete subjugation; nonetheless, she appears to want to dispel any doubts that she will support the young couple.
The other guest who impresses Undine is Mrs. Fairford, Ralph’s married sister. Undine can tell that Mrs. Fairford loves her brother. Undine concludes that this...
(The entire section is 621 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
After dinner with Ralph’s family, Laura Fairford, Ralph’s sister, takes her brother and Undine to the theater. Accompanying them is Charles Bowen, an elderly man whom Undine suspects is an old friend of Laura’s who escorts her to events when her husband is indisposed.
Undine’s engagement was only made public a couple of days earlier, so Undine enjoys a lot of attention upon arriving at the theater. Since their seats are toward the stage, Undine hears many comments as she passes through the crowd. One gentleman remarks that he is surprised Ralph was able to find such a beauty. When Undine recognizes Clare Van Degen, who is sitting with Harriet Ray (the woman Ralph’s mother favored as a wife for her son), Undine cannot help but imagine that these two women are at the theater specifically so they can see the woman Ralph has asked to marry him.
As Undine settles into her chair, she remembers her first night at the opera and how different her station in life has become. On that previous night, she was barely tolerated or even completely ignored. Now all eyes are on her, and many of the people she sees are either jealous of her or of her intended husband. Undine asks Ralph if he has told Clare about their engagement. He responds that he has and that Clare plans to visit Undine the next day. Then Undine waves to someone and Ralph looks to see who it is. He is disappointed when Mr. Popple comes by. Popple asks Undine to sit for him so he can paint her portrait. He teases that Undine can do what she wants without Ralph’s approval, at least until they are married. Undine is a little surprised that Ralph has some objections to her sitting for Popple. To demonstrate that she disapproves of his attempt to control her, Undine turns at an angle toward the stage so that Ralph appears to be sitting behind her. In a rebuff to her action, Ralph gets up to go visit Clare.
While Ralph is gone, a man sits down beside Undine. When she recognizes him, she recoils. Her face turns white. The man comments that he is glad Undine knows who he is. Undine tells the man not to speak to her. If he agrees, she promises to meet with him on another date at a different place. The man gives his word and tells Undine how to find him.
Meanwhile, Clare asks Ralph who the man is, the one who is talking to Undine. When Ralph looks across the room, it does not appear that Undine is talking to anyone. Clare tells him that Undine had...
(The entire section is 590 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Undine goes to the west side of Central Park, where she has promised to meet Elmer Moffatt, a ruddy complexioned “middle-sized” young man. As she watches him approach, Undine thinks how crude he looks, though she admits to herself that there was a time when she thought otherwise. In the circle of New York society people with whom she is now associated, Elmer would be judged as “not a gentleman.”
Elmer is surprised Undine has come. She reminds him that she had told him she would. When he begins with small talk, Undine discourages him. She wants to get down to the real reason they are meeting. She wonders what he wants. Undine has a thick veil pulled down over her face. Elmer dislikes not being able to fully see her, so he asks her to remove it. When Undine does, Elmer comments on her beauty, saying there are few women who look as well as she does. Undine attempts to match his enthusiasm by emphasizing that she is “REALLY” glad to see him. Elmer questions this, wondering if it is true why she tried to get rid of him at the theater. Undine responds that he took her by surprise. She had thought that he was in Alaska and never expected to see him in New York. Elmer asks why Undine’s father did not tell her he had seen him. He adds that her father is still very much afraid of him.
Undine tells Elmer that she never wanted to be mean to him, as her father had. She had merely been too young. Her father had wanted to protect her. Elmer then recalls Undine’s experience, commenting that her engagement to Millard Binch for two years probably was not enough preparation for her to understand what life and romance was all about. Undine responds by stating that she was only a child when she became involved with Millard. Elmer mentions an Apex newspaper article that referred to Undine as a “child-bride.” Undine’s history seems to be rich with romantic adventures, but she is extremely reluctant for any of this information to infiltrate the circle of her New York friends, especially Ralph and his family. She tries to explain to Elmer that life in New York is much different from that in Apex. If Ralph’s family were to discover that she was previously engaged, they would not allow Ralph to marry her. Undine then begins to cry, pleading with Elmer to not spoil her one chance. If Elmer promises to do this favor for her by never saying a word about her past, she will help him in other ways, such as providing business...
(The entire section is 491 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Mr. Spragg is under a financial strain. Mr. Dagonet has come to visit him at his office after Undine and Ralph’s engagement is announced. Mr. Dagonet explains the nature of Ralph’s position in society. Mr. Dagonet tells Mr. Spragg that Ralph does not have a job and will never have one. Mr. Dagonet will pay his grandson a stipend, but the amount is minimal—barely enough to cover the cost of two or more of Undine’s dresses. By the time Mr. Dagonet leaves the office, Mr. Spragg understands that he will have to continue supporting his daughter even after her marriage.
On top of this burden, Mr. Spragg learns that Undine wants to move her wedding date forward, meaning that instead of having months to prepare for the exorbitant affair, he has just a few weeks. Spragg thinks maybe he can suggest to Undine that she has chosen the wrong man once he tells her how little money Ralph has.
Spragg goes home and finds that despite the lack of income her future husband will have, Undine is unprepared to give up her plans. She wants to be married quickly and she wants Ralph and no one else. She says her father is accusing her of marrying for money. He does not understand, Undine says, that she is marrying Ralph for the people her marriage will allow her to associate with. The customs in New York are different from those in Apex, she tells him. If she breaks her engagement, she will be banned from New York society forever. If that were to happen, there would be no point in their having left Apex in the first place. She announces that if she is forced to break her engagement, she might as well be dead.
Mr. Spragg knows that his wife and his daughter always get what they want, no matter the circumstances. At the moment, he does not know how he will be able to afford the wedding as well as the allowance he will have to pay Undine, but he will try to find a way. Before Spragg goes back to his office, his wife tells him that Undine has seen Elmer Moffatt in town. Undine is afraid Moffatt might ruin her chances of marrying Ralph. At this, Spragg tells his wife his standard response: he will see what he can do.
As Spragg walks into his office building, Elmer Moffatt greets him. Without being invited, Moffatt follows Spragg up to his office. Once there, Moffatt proposes a business deal. Spragg used to be in the water business in Apex. In that role, he was involved with a politician named James J. Rolliver. Moffatt’s...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
It is July, and Ralph and Undine are in Italy on their honeymoon. Ralph loves everything about his surroundings—the heat of summer, the southern mountains, the orange groves, and especially his new wife. Undine, on the other hand, is feeling restless. The heat bothers her, and she complains of not having the proper clothes. Ralph believes Undine is not used to abandoning herself to the whimsy of the country setting. However, Ralph thinks she is beautiful, maybe even more beautiful than before. He tells her that she looks “as cool as a wave” and then takes her hand and scrutinizes it as if he were examining a precious piece of porcelain. His world, he realizes, has shrunken to size of her fingers.
“I don’t FEEL cool,” Undine says. She reminds him that he had promised there would be a breeze on the hill where they lie. When Ralph asks her if it was this hot in Apex, Undine tells him that it was, but she did not marry him so she could return to Apex. Undine wants to go to Switzerland. Ralph ignores this request. He loves it in Italy. He suggests that they go down and sit in the cathedral, but Undine complains that they have sat in the cathedral every day for the past week.
They begin talking about a handsome cavalry officer, whom Ralph has noticed has been paying a lot of attention to Undine. Suddenly brightened in mood, Undine says the man is a marquis with a palace in Rome that is listed in the tourist guidebooks. According to Undine, the waiters at their hotel always provide the marquis with the best dinner and give them only what food is left over. For this, Ralph teases, maybe they should hurry back to their hotel so they might fight for the tastiest morsels.
When Undine complains again about the heat, Ralph concedes that maybe they could go to Switzerland. Ralph has come to Italy in the hot off-season because he does not like crowds, whereas Switzerland is where a lot of tourists are gathering. However, he senses that Undine wants the crowds. She is obviously tired of being with him alone. When he reflects on this idea, Ralph begins to see how different he and Undine are. His imagination is so filled with delights that he could be anywhere in the world and feel that he is in the right place. Undine’s mind, however, is “as destitute of beauty and mystery” as the desert-like prairie on which she was raised. Her ideals are as mundane as corks. However, he does not lack patience. He will try to...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Ralph takes Undine to Switzerland. Although they are running out of money as he anxiously awaits the arrival of their monthly stipend from Undine’s father, Ralph is afraid to discuss money with his wife. Undine has a way of cutting him out, looking at him as if she does not know him, whenever he brings up their lack of money. He abhors the feeling that comes over him when she acts this way, so he is often afraid to bring up the subject. He believes Undine has been raised to think money is flexible—forever ready to stretch to her needs.
They learn, from a letter that Undine’s mother has sent, that Mr. Spragg has lost a great deal of money on a speculative investment. Rather than empathize with her father, Undine only feels sorry for herself. She asks Ralph to ask his grandfather or his mother for more money. Her father gives them more money than Ralph’s family does, Undine argues. When Ralph tells her that he cannot asks his family for more, Undine tells him to ask his sister. In the end, desperate to have more funds so they can make it back to New York, Ralph does request help from his sister. Laura’s response is generous.
Although they are forced to cut short their stay in Switzerland, Undine irritates Ralph further by making friends with some women who have good money but bad reputations. One day, Undine tells her husband that she is going out on a hike with these women. Included in the group are several young men. Undine does not invite Ralph to go along. Ralph feels somewhat thankful for the chance for some solitude, but he is too distracted thinking about Undine while she is gone that he does not accomplish anything in the time given to him. He had thought he would start the novel he recently felt inspired to write but his mind is too restless. Writing a novel, he had thought, might be a way to make some money so he could give Undine everything she wanted.
When they finally arrive in Paris, Ralph thinks they will book passage immediately to return to New York. However, Undine insists that she is too tired to make that long voyage just yet. She begs for a little more time in Paris. Ralph again gives in, but he notices that Undine’s energy is quickly renewed as soon as she hears his consent. She spends most of the next days shopping. She rationalizes that she will save a lot of money by having her dresses made in Paris rather than buying them in New York. Unfortunately, the longer they stay in...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
After having gone to the theater by himself, Ralph arrives at his Paris suite one night to find Undine with Peter Van Degen. Undine is sitting at a coffee table with Peter on the other side. Peter is stretched out a little too casually in his chair, Ralph notes, as if the man were in his own home. The scene looks very intimate to Ralph, and he is immediately on guard. When Ralph enters the room, Peter does not move to greet Ralph but merely says hello. When Ralph looks to Undine for a reaction to the laxness in Peter’s manner, he finds none. But Ralph sees that his wife’s face appears illuminated, which look Ralph finds disagreeable because the source of her excitement is Peter Van Degen, a man Ralph finds a bore and a nuisance.
As Ralph stands there, his wife and Peter mock him for the type of theater he prefers. Ralph goes to watch intellectual dramas, whereas Peter and Undine prefer the more entertaining Folies Bergere, a dance revue. Peter suggests that Ralph should take Peter’s wife to the theater because she likes the intellectual. Meanwhile, Peter will entertain Undine. Peter emphasizes his suggested marital switch by stating that the trick is for a man to marry a woman who does not like to do what he finds enjoyable, so then he will be free to go out and find a woman who loves everything he likes and then he can make love to her.
After Peter leaves, Undine tells Ralph that she has come up with a scheme so that it will not cost them any money to travel home: she has talked Peter into sailing them home for free on his yacht. Ralph is so much against this idea he finally stands up to Undine and all her demands and insists that she write a note to decline Peter’s offer. Later, when Ralph goes out to visit with his cousin Clare, who is married to Peter, Clare warns Ralph not to allow Peter to “make a goose” of Undine. Ralph claims that Undine is well equipped to defend herself. Clare insists that her husband is out to capture Undine in some way; she senses that Undine loves to be amused, and Peter is a master of fascinating entertainment.
As the time for their departure from Paris nears, Ralph is amazed at how many purchases arrive at the suite, delivered in boxes by porters. The packages take up most of the room in the apartment. One day when he returns, Ralph finds Undine lying on the couch, completely exhausted. When he asks if the packing of all her dresses has worn her out, Undine...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Two years have gone by, and Undine is in Mr. Popple’s studio for the last sitting for the portrait he is doing of her. After the sitting, Popple invites special visitors for tea. This group will be the first to see the painting and will comment on it.
As Undine listens to the critiques of her portrait, she reflects on the men in her life. She refers to her husband as the purveyor of the dowdy and exclusive. In contrast, she believes Popple completely understands her inner soul and her desires. Peter Van Degen exhibits another type of exclusiveness, one that Undine can relate to: it is the exclusiveness that expresses Peter’s contempt for everything he does not understand or cannot buy. She also looks at New York society differently than she did before marrying Ralph. Now she sees most of the old moneyed class basking in the leisure that the new working millionaires afford them. Because Undine is incapable of blaming herself for any of her difficulties, she finds Ralph at fault for their failing marriage. Ralph should have known that Undine was too young to understand all the implications of his inability to afford her, she thinks. Whenever Undine talks to any other man, she always gains his sympathy. Each man states that had she chosen him, he would have known how to take better care of her.
By the time Undine excuses herself from the crowd, it is very late and she knows she will have difficulty finding a cab. When Peter Van Degen joins her on the street (he had been among the people viewing the portrait), he offers Undine a ride home in his car. During the ride, Undine complains of the house in which she and Ralph are living. It is small, old, and too far out of town. She knows she should be grateful their families have given them the house, but she wants so much more. She believes it is unfashionable to live so far away from the city’s high society.
Undine also allows Peter to pry into a personal problem of hers having to do with her lack of money. She has ordered a special dress for a costume party but now cannot find the money to pay for it. Peter suggests that he can loan her the money, insinuating that she might find a way (besides money) to pay him back. Details of their arrangement are not discussed, but Undine feels so much better after this discussion. She wants to make a great impression on the people who will be attending the ball.
As Peter continues to drive her home, Undine has a...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
In Laura Fairford’s home, there is a birthday cake sitting on the table, but all the guests have either retired or gone home. Ralph arrives late from the office. He has been “forced,” Laura had told one of her guests, to take a job due to Undine’s extravagant manner of living. Ralph now works in a real estate office, a position that does not suit his personality.
Ralph apologizes for being so tardy as he searches the family home for his son. Laura finally insists that Ralph sit down and drink some tea as she tells him what happened. Undine was scheduled to bring their son to the home, but she never showed up, Laura tells him. As Ralph is about to leave, his cousin Clare shows up with a present for Paul. She pretends she put no thought or sentiment into buying the present; she teases that all she thought of was how much could she spend. The present, however, is a family heirloom, and she has put a lot of thought and feeling into giving it. Afterward, Clare offers to drive Ralph home in her car, which is ironic because Clare’s husband, Peter, is driving Undine home.
When Ralph arrives home, his son’s nursemaid informs him that the child has finally gone to bed. The boy suffered from fits of crying all afternoon because of his disappointment at missing his birthday celebration. The nursemaid begs Ralph not to disturb the boy because she just recently managed to get him to sleep.
Ralph reflects on his marriage. He realizes that his affections for his wife have greatly decreased. He knows when the turning point came: when Undine lied about having her engagement ring reset. Ralph had given her a family heirloom, a ring handed down for many generations in its old-fashioned setting, appreciated by most for its history. Undine not only lied about having it put in a more modern setting but also was completely insensitive to the assault she caused on the family’s history. This gave Ralph a clue to the true nature of his wife’s personality. Undine was, Ralph realized, completely unconscious of feelings on which most of his own inner life depended.
Hours later, as Ralph is standing at the front window, looking out at the empty streets, he sees Peter Van Degen’s car pull up to the curb. Undine jumps out and enters the home. She tells Ralph that Peter was at the art studio, so he offered her a ride home. Ralph had noticed, however, that the car arrived at the house from the opposite direction of...
(The entire section is 442 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
During the next few days, Ralph continues to reflect on his marriage. He realizes that it was three years ago, in Italy, that he felt his happiness had “brimmed over.” Now he believes that in brimming over, his gladness spilled out and now his cup is left completely empty. His marriage, he feels, is only being kept alive through his constant measures to resuscitate it, as if it were a drowned body into which he continues to force breath. He refuses to give up his marriage for dead. He has been afraid of facing the truth that his marriage is a failure.
Undine is also aware of a drastic change in her husband. After she missed their son’s birthday, she has noticed a silence in Ralph, as if he has given up the fight to save their marriage. Whereas Ralph continues to view Undine as his wife no matter how loveless their marriage has proven to be, Undine begins thinking of divorce.
For now, though, Undine is enjoying her social position. She has finally become the beautiful woman with whom New York society “must reckon.” If she could only find the means with which to live as fully as she wants, she would be completely content. Ralph is “sweet,” she concludes, though she is often bored with his advice on how to be more frugal and how to keep herself safe from characters such as Peter Van Degen. The issue of money has been the biggest point of contention between Undine and Ralph. Now that this is temporarily allayed by Peter’s generous offer, Undine relaxes her feelings for her husband. However, Ralph’s recent silence has unnerved her.
As the winter draws on, Undine again becomes restless. Although she buys no new clothes because the money from Peter has dwindled down to almost nothing, she turns to her house. If she cannot move, she can at least redecorate. With her usual extravagance, Undine orders new curtains, rugs, and furniture, and the resulting bills aggravate her husband’s nerves. In consequence, Undine has a “nervous breakdown,” which adds to the budget deficit because she requires doctors and special care.
After she is feeling better, Undine meets with Peter Van Degen. He complains that she has not made any payments on any of the loans he has given her. This is an insinuation that Undine has not shared with Peter any sexual favors. To add pressure to the situation, Peter announces that he is going to Paris on the first of April. Undine senses that she is losing her...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Undine reflects on her past in order to redirect her future. She admits having made mistakes, and she does not want to repeat them. Asking for money from Van Degen was a mistake, she believes. It makes her feel like she is living hand-to-mouth, begging him for funds every time she needs them. What she wants in her future is a more sustainable plan.
Nonetheless, she is angry that Van Degen is leaving her behind. She feels him slipping away from her grasp. If she could find some way to get to Paris, she knows she could once again bring him under her influence. She is tired of New York. It has become like a desert to her. Everyone she wants to be with is now in Europe.
The only person she can think of turning to is her father. She goes to his office to talk with him without her mother’s interference. Upon seeing her father, Undine notices but does not empathize with her father’s physical changes. He has been under a lot of strain and it shows. However, this does not change her course of conversation. She tells him she needs to get away from New York. She uses her supposed failing health as a ploy to gain his sympathy. She tells him that she has not been healthy since she got pregnant.
Mr. Spragg, in response, points out her lack of understanding, stating that she always has plenty of excuses but never seems to understand other people’s. When Undine hears this, she knows that she must attempt a different tactic. This time she tells him she wants to leave not only for health reasons but because her marriage is disintegrating. When this statement does not affect her father in the way she has hoped, Undine adds another element, confessing that her marriage was a mistake from the beginning.
Undine sees that she is having some effect on her father, so she intensifies her story, adding that she thinks it is wrong of Ralph’s family to expect her father to support her and her baby. This tact really works. Undine can see from the way the muscles in her father’s jaw tighten that she has made a point to which her father can relate. She insists that Ralph’s family is using her father, yet they do not respect him. Undine reminds her father that Ralph’s family rarely invites him and her mother to their house, and yet they give dinner parties every week. They do not like her, either, and they never have.
Then Undine drops the line that makes the deepest impression on her father. She tells him...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Upon leaving her father’s office, Undine feels defeated. Only once before had she pleaded a case before her father and lost. That other case involved Elmer Moffatt. She had wanted to marry him but her father had insisted that Moffatt was not good enough for her. Now she finds it a strange coincidence that the reason she has just left her father’s office is due to Elmer Moffatt’s sudden appearance. It feels as if seeing Moffatt reminded her father of that earlier incident, and he suddenly resolved once again not to give in to his daughter’s far-flung request. In the end, her stories of need and suffering had not moved her father. It is not that her father is against the idea of divorce if the reasons for it are justified. For instance, if Ralph were abusive, her father would have approved of her request. However, Undine had told her father that the reason she wanted to be free was because she wanted another man. She had also confessed that this particular man already had a wife, and this was too shocking to her father. He knows these things happen, Undine supposes, but her father would never allow his daughter to be involved in such an affair.
As Undine leaves her father’s building, she hears someone call her name. When she turns, she sees Elmer Moffatt. He tells her it is time for her to pay her debt to him; he needs a favor. Undine braces herself, but Elmer’s request is not as difficult as Undine had imagined. The only thing Elmer wants is for Undine to introduce him to Ralph. He wants to talk with him about a real estate deal and he would prefer to meet him socially.
Undine decides to have a dinner party, which is held a few nights later. She invites Clare Van Degen, Laura Fairford, and Laura’s friend, Charles Bowen. She also includes Elmer Moffatt. Moffatt had played a role in notoriously defying Harmon Driscoll, Moffatt’s uncle. The story had been all over the news. One night, Undine had heard Clare and Laura discussing Moffatt as the brave man who went up against Driscoll. The women had expressed a desire to meet Moffatt, whom they admired as a “nobody” who was not afraid to stand up to a corporate giant. Upon hearing the women mention his name, Undine suddenly admits that she knew Moffatt in Apex, though she does not declare all the details of their relationship. After all, the only thing Moffatt has requested is that Undine give him a chance to meet and talk to Ralph. The dinner party provides...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Charles Bowen, Laura Fairford’s friend, is in Paris and is dining with an acquaintance, the Comte Raymond de Chelles. Chelles comes from a comfortably rich, French family. For most of the year, Chelles lives on his father’s estate in Burgundy, but he comes to Paris for the summer to study “human nature.” Bowen finds the man charming and intelligent. Currently, Chelles tells Bowen, his family is pressuring him to marry. Just as he says this, Chelles notices a woman walk into the room and asks Bowen her name. Bowen recognizes her as Undine. She is about to seat herself at a table that includes Peter Van Degen and several other people from New York. Once Undine sits down, she sees Bowen and smiles. Bowen notices that her dress and her beauty appear more natural and, to him, more appealing.
When Bowen refers to Undine as Mrs. Marvell, Chelles is surprised that Undine is married. To him, she looks so young and so “unmarried.” To this, Bowen comments that many women in this day are both married and unmarried due to the popularity of divorce. Chelles’s spirits pick up when he hears this. He wants to know if this woman is divorced. However, Bowen assures him that this is not true in Undine’s case. She is happily married, Bowen says. Chelles cannot believe that a husband would allow such a beautiful wife to travel on her own.
Bowen watches the expressions on Chelles’s face as his friend examines Undine from afar. Bowen also sees that Undine has noticed the attention she is receiving. She has positioned herself in such a way that she both communicates with the people at her table but and sends subtle, expressive messages to Chelles.
Bowen is surprised that Undine is in Van Degen’s presence. He believes she would rather not have him know this fact because he might report it back to Laura. However, when Bowen stands to leave the room, he hears Van Degen call to him, suggesting that he stop by their table. Van Degen tells Bowen that Undine is “dying for the latest news” of the people back at home. Undine asks when Bowen was last in New York and then lists several questions to him, seeking information about her son, her husband, and Laura. As Bowen answers her, he watches Undine’s attention move between him and Chelles, who is still seated at the other table. When all her questions are answered, Undine stands to take coffee in the garden section of the restaurant and suggests that Bowen invite his...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
Six weeks later, Undine is in her room, looking down on the streets of Paris. As she does so, she senses that she has finally found the life she always wanted. She looks on all the years prior to this moment as a waste of time. Those years were “meagre and starved” in comparison to now. All her previous summers were nothing more than a “pale monotony.” The worst summer, she recalls, was that of her honeymoon. It was her first trip to Europe but she had wasted the time in the stifling heat of Italy with Ralph. She had been free then (at least free of motherhood responsibilities) yet Ralph had made her squander that freedom on “ill-smelling” Italy. Now as then, Ralph is again threatening to interfere in her life by demanding that she come home.
Undine received two letters that morning. One of them was from Ralph, complaining that she is spending too much money. He writes that he wanted her to enjoy the sum of money he earned through his deal with Moffatt. However, he had not anticipated that she would go through that money so quickly. He adds that he wants her to come home without bringing too many more bills with her. Undine’s reaction to Ralph’s letter is that his conversations with her have always been the same—always about money and how much she spends.
The second letter irritates Undine even more. This one is from Laura, Ralph’s sister. She writes that Ralph’s health has deteriorated. Laura believes Ralph is working too hard. She begs Undine to return home at once and take care of her husband. Undine feels angered by Laura’s demand. She does not think Laura has a right to be so deeply involved in her marriage or in her life.
Undine turns her thoughts to Chelles. She is excited that Chelles was able to make Van Degen jealous. Undine wants Van Degen to leave his wife and marry her. In recent weeks, she has sensed that Van Degen has become complacent, feeling too secure that Undine will stay with him without any promises for the future. It is possible, she believes, that if she flirts with Chelles, Van Degen might become more serious about making a proposition concerning their future together.
Later, when Van Degen arrives, he criticizes Undine for having snuck away without telling him where she was going. Undine had gone to Chelles’s family estate in Burgundy for a few days, and she now tells Van Degen this in a matter-of-fact tone. When Van Degen reprimands her for being...
(The entire section is 627 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
Ralph’s life is deteriorating, though he does not fully acknowledge this fact. His health is so poor that his mother and sister do not ask questions about what is happening with his wife. They do not criticize her either, as if Ralph is to frail to handle this. Instead they look after him and his son.
When she first left, Undine wrote to Ralph once a week. This gave Ralph pleasure and he looked forward to receiving the letters, although the letters themselves were not very informative. Rather it was the idea of receiving them that provided Ralph with some hope. In her letters, Undine talked of the weather or with whom she dined. She asked very little of her son’s and none of Ralph’s well-being. Ralph’s mother consoled him, stating that of course Undine was not worried. She knew that with her and Laura available to take care of them, Undine had no need to worry about her family.
With time, the frequency of the letters decreases. After two months, no letters appear at all. Ralph realizes that his feelings for Undine have changed. When she first went away, he felt a return to freedom. However, as the time increases, Ralph knows Undine will always be with him no matter where she goes or how much distance is between them. His emotional attachment to Undine will always rule his life.
Ralph reflects on his marriage and blames himself for possibly driving Undine away from him. Perhaps, he thinks, he expected too much from Undine. Maybe he has loved her too much and this has retarded her growth. However, in the past year, due to all the challenges he has faced, he believes he has matured. He has become a man. Upon her return, he will know how to “lift her” to his level. These feelings collapse on themselves, though, when he returns home from work and finds that no letter has come from Undine. His moods rise and fall between his hope for her return and the lack of her correspondence. He tries to tell himself that he must face the fact that Undine has no intention of ever writing again. Neither he nor their son has any meaning in her life. She has tasted the pleasures of a new life. Even if she does come home, Ralph finally concludes, nothing between them will have changed. She will still desire to be somewhere else.
Ralph attempts to distract himself. He takes his son to visit Undine’s parents. The encounters are awkward because it seems that the Spraggs know something about Undine that Ralph...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
Ralph is delirious. He has no idea where he is or who is around him. He feels lost in a bad dream. He tries to get up because he senses it must be time to go to work, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot open his eyes. When he reaches out for something to grab onto so he might pull himself up, he feels a warm hand grasp his. This sensation helps him relax, and he lies back down. However, the distinction between thought and action are so vague that he has no idea if he is really doing anything or if he is merely thinking about doing it.
Slowly, he regains sensation in his body. Most of it is intense pain. His only respite is sleep, which comes to him in intermittent fits. He dreams of being on a beach filled with stones. Then he is a leaf on a tree. Another time, his hands and feet are tied together with ropes. He feels the pillow under his head but it is too hot. When he has this thought, someone turns the pillow to a cooler side. When he is thirsty, someone gives him a drink.
In time, he remembers details of his life. Someone tells him that his son is with Clare. No one mentions Undine except to say that she will be there “next week.” He does not know how far away “next week” is. He sees his sister sitting next to his bed. It has been her hand that he has been holding. He asks Laura about a nurse he remembers, a nurse who is now gone. Laura tells him the nurse’s name was Miss Hicks. She has been gone for three weeks, having had to take another case. Ralph is able to do the math. If Miss Hicks has been gone that long, then where is Undine? He was told she was due “next week” before Miss Hicks was there to treat him. Ralph becomes angry with his sister. He demands to know why Laura has not called Undine. Laura finally tells him that Undine has not come.
One day Mr. Spragg comes to visit Ralph to see how he is doing. Before he leaves, Undine’s father suggests that Ralph come to visit him as soon as he is able. In the meantime, Clare invites Ralph to Long Island, where she suggests he can take his time to convalesce. Ralph decides not to accept the offer. He wants to see no one but his mother and grandfather until he is strong enough to go to the Adirondacks, where Laura is taking care of his son. He has one more visit to make before being reunited with Paul. He must go see Mr. Spragg.
When Ralph finally is strong enough to go to Spragg’s office, in the course of a brief...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
Ralph spends the summer in the Adirondacks with his sister, Laura. She tells him he is looking better than he has in years. No matter how much he heals, no one wants to talk about Undine. Ralph feels as if his family has thrown a veil of silence over the whole affair. He believes his mother is actually afraid of talking about Undine and the divorce. There is no language in her customary Washington Square society with which to describe the scandal or to comment on it. It is bad enough that it has been classified as a scandal; this word has never been connected to his family before.
In part, the lack of discussion is because Ralph’s mother and sister cannot comprehend how the marriage fell apart; there was no mention of Undine’s flirtations, her need for constant attention and approval, and her inability to love. All they know is what they have heard through gossip. There is a rumor that the reason for the divorce is Ralph’s having ignored his wife, abandoning her in favor of his business. This is far from the truth, but Ralph does not clarify the situation. He finds no one in his family wants to hear any more about it than they have been forced to hear through the not-so-quiet murmurings. For his mother and his sister, anything having to do with divorce is considered an indelicate topic, one that needs to be avoided at all costs.
By winter, Ralph is back in New York, once again living in his grandfather’s house. The walls and tabletops of Ralph’s rooms are still covered in pictures of Undine. When he can no longer stand looking at them, he attempts to take them down and put them away. However, their frames are bulky and he has trouble finding places to store them out of sight. One day when he comes home from work, he notices a change in his rooms. It takes him a while to realize that all the pictures of Undine are gone. He suspects that his sister has caused this transformation. First he feels angry with her for being so aggressive in wanting to be rid of Undine's memory. However, soon Ralph concludes that it is a relief to be able to look around his private rooms and not see his wife’s face.
In January, Ralph receives the official papers of his divorce. He quickly throws them into a desk drawer, hoping to forget about everything. Then on his way home from work one day, he sees someone sitting across from him reading a newspaper. He reads the headlines of the story: “Society Leader Gets Decree.”...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Undine has returned to Paris. She is with one of her only remaining friends, Indiana Frusk. Undine had met Indiana while she was in school. They were not friends then, but now Undine has taken up company with her since learning that Indiana, who is married to a wealthy man named James J. Rolliver, is friends with Peter Van Degen. Peter has lost interest in Undine, and Undine wants him back.
Indiana is telling Undine that she should have come to her earlier. Indiana would have given her better advice concerning how to go about getting a divorce. She would have saved Undine from all the problems she is having now. Indiana would have told Undine to get her divorce long before Undine actually pursued that action.
Not only has the divorce caused a scandal among Undine’s American expatriates in Paris, but something has happened between Undine and Peter. Undine is not sure why Peter has pulled away from her. She was supposed to meet him in the States when she filed for the divorce, but Peter never appeared. To find out why Peter did not come to see her, Undine wants Indiana to invite Peter to dinner but not tell him she will be there. Undine believes if she has a chance to speak to Peter, she will win him back. She is certain that Clara and Laura have influenced Peter to stay away from her.
Indiana agrees to have the dinner, but she waits for the proper timing. Meanwhile, Undine has promised to introduce Indiana to some of her European friends. Undine’s European friends are not as scandalized by her divorce as her American friends are, or so Undine believes. The two women are seen around Paris at restaurants and nightclubs as they distract themselves with entertainment.
By the time Indiana finally invites Peter to dinner, the word has gotten out that Undine is back in the city and has been seen with Indiana. This is enough to warn Peter about accepting Indiana’s dinner invitation. He senses a trap. When Indiana tells Undine that Peter has refused the invitation, Undine wants to know his reason. Indiana tells her that he is sure Undine will be there, but Undine does not comprehend why this would make Peter stay away. Indiana is reluctant to give Undine the full reason for Peter’s reluctance. However, eventually Undine pulls it out of her.
Peter has told Indiana that he learned about the cable Undine received before the divorce—the one telling her Ralph was in the hospital. Ralph’s...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
Undine is not doing well. It is winter now, and she is in Paris while most of her acquaintances have moved on to other, warmer climates. Undine could have traveled with a group of them, but she did not feel like leaving Paris. However, when she begins to feel depressed, she consults a doctor; he suggests that she move closer to the sea. So Undine takes a room on the Riviera. To her disgust, the town she chooses is small and boring. The few people who are there do not appeal to her. They go to bed early and seem to have no energy during the day.
To not flee this sleepy location takes all of Undine’s resolve. Some days she merely stays in bed, orders a lot of different meals, and then returns the still-filled dishes to the kitchen with a complaint that the food is no good. Other days, she dresses herself in her best gowns and walks the dusty streets, looking for attention from anyone who might pass by. Often, on such occasions, she returns feeling worse than she felt before she left her room.
Have nothing to distract her, her mind often sorts through memories of the past few years. Unfortunately, a majority of these thoughts are not very pleasant. One such memory that haunts her is her affair with Peter Van Degen. Through her recall, readers are finally privy to the details of what happened between these two characters.
Undine had gone away with Peter and spent two months as his lover. To justify this extramarital affair (at the time, both Undine and Peter were still married to their respective spouses), Undine convinced herself that she was essentially Peter’s wife. At least, she hoped this would be true some day in the future. She often made it a point to mention matrimony to Peter in the course of their conversations. Peter listened to her but never commented on the subject of marriage.
When Undine thinks back to those two months, she is shocked by her own actions. She had previously thought of herself as a model of respectability. Yet she had sexual relations with a man who was not her husband. Undine refers to her actions as “bold,” but she had calculated every one of her decisions so carefully that she likens it to a business transaction. She was fully conscious of what she was doing. Each completed action was to propel her toward the goal of having Peter, in the end, become her well-financed husband.
After two months of living together, Undine felt that her relationship with...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary
Undine returns to New York for the first time in years. She notices that her parents have aged. What worries her more is that they have moved to a less fashionable hotel; she is concerned that someone might see her entering the less impressive abode.
As Undine stays with her parents, she reflects not only on their aging, exhaustion, and defeat but also on her own. The three of them have not had very successful recent years. As weeks pass, they find their conversations restricted by topics they do not wish to reopen. So they spend most of their time in silence. Undine is especially quiet when her mother attempts to talk about Paul, Undine’s son. Undine would rather forget the boy. Although Undine is vaguely aware that the courts gave her custodial rights, she does not feel that she can financially or emotionally find a place in her life for her son. She looks upon the boy as a burden. To rationalize her disregard, she convinces herself that Paul is better off with his father.
When she thinks of Ralph now, Undine often does so with greater empathy than she had in the past. Ralph was a rightfully proud man who truly loved her. She sees his quiet manner as a positive quality now, especially in contrast to the other men in her life. Undine even goes so far as to believe that her marriage to Ralph could have been a great success if their “poverty” and his family’s animosity had not ruined it. Undine and Ralph’s relationship could even have grown into a perfect union, Undine has made herself believe, if other people had not come between them.
In the beginning while in New York, Undine keeps to herself. She does not want to see the people who were previously in her life. She even tries to avoid the newspapers, especially the pages devoted to New York society. One day, though, Undine surprises her father by telling him that she wants him to take her to the opera. Undine has decided that she is tired of hiding. She wants to be seen. At first upon their arrival at the opera, Undine is very conscious of the people around her. However when she takes her seat in the general gallery (much different from the days when her father provided her with a private box), Undine notices that few people are paying any attention to her. This liberates her in a way. She feels free to more conspicuously look around her.
When she sees that no one is acknowledging her, Undine craves attention. When the opera is finished,...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
Undine returns to Paris. Upon arriving, she is pleasantly surprised to be befriended by the Princess Estradina, who has never met Undine but has heard a lot about her. Princess Estradina is well known in Paris society, and her mother, the Duchesse de Dordogne, is very influential. Undine could not be happier than to be included in their company.
The princess is about the same age as Undine is, and she feels pleased to now have a companion other than her mother. Undine cannot believe her luck in having someone so popular wanting to be her friend. She thinks of all the advantages that might come her way due to her connection with the princess and her mother. Undine listens to the princess for cues as to how the young woman might want Undine to behave. Undine is determined to shape her personality to the princess’s expectations. She will be whomever the princess wants her to be. Through the princess, Undine hopes to create a new life.
The princess and her mother are different from any other people Undine has known. Neither woman appears to be sensitive to fashion; for instance, they sometimes wear baggy clothes or dresses that look as if they needed ironing. Sometimes the princess dresses like a man. However, both the princess and the duchess are very curious, most amiable, and easily accessed. Undine thinks both women look like ruins, especially the duchess—but they are ruins of once-great things, like an old castle.
Undine eventually discovers that the princess is separated from her husband, so they have that in common. However, the princess has two daughters who live with her. The princess cannot understand how Undine can bear being away from her son. A mother should always be with her children, the princess tells Undine. This embarrasses Undine. She tries to explain that she does not have the funds to support her son, but the princess is not impressed with Undine’s justification.
As their friendship continues to build, Undine notices that the princess, who could have had high expectations of Undine before she met her, might now be slightly disappointed with the real Undine. The princess, Undine thinks, probably thought Undine would be funnier, cleverer, or more daring. These qualities are not natural for Undine, but she accepts the challenge to take the talents she does possess and push them as far as she can.
Nattie Wincher, an old acquaintance from Undine’s past, shows up. She...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
One day, the princess suggests to Undine that they travel by train to Nice. With Madame de Trezac entertaining her mother, the princess can slip away without her mother’s either noticing or caring. The trip would be refreshing, providing new scenery and a chance to do some shopping, the princess suggests.
Undine is delighted. She had made previous expeditions with the princess and they had all proven to be exciting. At Monte Carlo a few days earlier, the princess had introduced Undine to a music composer who played for them excerpts from his most recent opera. Undine might have worried about leaving Madame de Trezac alone with the duchess, afraid that she would fill in details of Undine’s past, but Undine had gained enough signals that the woman actually appeared to want to remain in Undine’s favor.
So Undine and the princess travel to Nice. They shop for a few hours, but then the princess says she must visit some friend who is ailing. She had almost forgotten about the previous arrangement and promises Undine she will return in a few hours. After the princess is gone, Undine becomes suspicious about the princess’s motives. She questions if the princess had dragged Undine along with her as a cover for some activity about which the princess did not want her mother to know. Undine distracts herself for a few hours and purposefully arrives late at the place where she is to be reunited with the princess.
While Undine waits, she happens to see a familiar face across the woman. It is Moffatt. Undine is surprised at her feelings upon seeing the man. She must be feeling very lonesome, she realizes, as she is about to gesture to Moffatt. Undine then sees Moffatt turn to another woman. The woman is dressed in what Undine refers to as a vulgar fashion. Everything about the woman looks cheap and gaudy. However, Moffatt appears to be very attracted to this woman. Moffatt sees Undine, but it is obvious that he does not want to come speak to her.
It is just then that Undine notices the princess walking toward her table. A young man is with her. Undine recognizes the man as Raymond de Chelles, a French nobleman who had once been attracted to Undine, back when Undine was involved with Peter Van Degen. Undine had used Chelles to make Peter jealous. Undine is happy to see that Chelles is still interested in her. Although the princess and Undine return to Nice several more times, Undine curiously informs the...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapter 29 Summary
Undine has become even more calculating as she matures. She wants to gain Chelles’s affection to the point of his desiring to marry her, but she wants to do this according to European custom. She will plan everything in a very respectable way. To this end, she will only see Chelles in Paris, under the view of the duchess and other society women. So Undine tells the princess that she is very attracted to her cousin (Chelles), but she is concerned that people will talk about her if it appears she is sneaking off to Nice to see him. She wants to be very careful about what she does. Undine adds that she is protecting her reputation, not so much for herself but for the sake of her son. After this, whenever Chelles comes to Paris to visit his cousin and aunt, Undine makes a point of being available. Over time, Undine finds Chelles’s attention refreshing, making her feel alive and young again.
One day, Madame de Trezac takes Undine aside and tells her that people are speculating that Undine has intentions of marrying Chelles. This, Trezac says, is impossible because Undine is divorced. A Catholic marriage is required in French noble families, and the Catholic church does not honor divorce. In the church’s point of view, Undine is still married to Ralph. Even if Chelles were to marry Undine in a civil ceremony (outside of the church), he would be ruined socially. Trezac tells Undine that it would be better, in European culture, if she were to become Trezac’s mistress.
Around this time, Undine receives a letter from her mother. Mrs. Spragg had been walking through a park when she saw Undine’s son, Paul, brought there by a nursemaid. The boy delighted Mrs. Spragg by recognizing her and calling her “Granny.” Undine’s mother goes on to provide many details about the boy, including how he looked and how he was dressed. After reading this letter several times, Undine feels a tightness in her throat and a few tears drop from her eyes. It is awful, she concludes, that her son lives so far away from her. Her mother also writes that she gained permission, after seeing Paul in the park, to have the child brought to her home to visit several times. During one visit, Paul saw a photograph of Undine. He asked his grandmother to identify the woman in the picture. When Mrs. Spragg explained it was his mother, Paul asked if she was ever going to come back.
Soon afterward, Raymond de Chelles mentions to Undine the...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Chapter 30 Summary
Undine runs into Elmer Moffatt again. This time both of them are alone and are not reluctant to speak to one another. Moffatt mentions Undine’s divorce. Undine confides in him that the marriage was a mistake from the beginning; it should never have taken place. In the course of their conversation, Undine invites Moffatt to come to her apartment with her so they can talk in private.
Undine finds Moffatt as unattractive as she had in the past, but something makes her glad he is there. As they continue to talk, Undine makes a point of saying that she often suffers from loneliness. She hopes this will soften Moffatt’s attitude toward her. She notices that Moffatt is pleased to be with her, but she also can tell that she has very little influence over him. He is distracted by something. So she encourages him more, suggesting a future relationship with him. Moffatt finds this alluring, but he tells Undine that he is leaving Paris in a few days to go back to the States. He had come to France to get away from some undisclosed business, but he has since learned that someone is willing to pay him a large sum of money if he returns to the States. Moffatt is not clear about the details of the matter, but, as usual, he is focused on gaining power through the accumulation of money.
Undine wastes no more time in asking for Moffatt’s help. She tells him about her wanting to be married and how her divorce is standing in her way. Moffatt believes that if Undine could collect a large sum of money, he might be able to present it to influential people who might help her gain an annulment of her marriage. Undine had hoped that Moffatt himself might be willing to invest in her, but says he has come into hard times and has no ready funds.
When this conversation comes to its conclusion, Moffatt brings up the subject of Undine’s son. He asks her who has legal custody of Paul. He makes Undine fully realize that Paul is hers, according to the court. Ralph might fight her, but Undine has the right to full custody of her son. Now that Undine has a prospect of marriage and could provide a father figure for Paul, the court would undoubtedly give her the boy. Then Moffatt points out that Ralph and his family would probably offer Undine a lot of money in the fight for Paul if Undine threatened to take the boy away from them.
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Chapter 31 Summary
Ralph Marvell is reflecting on the two years since his divorce from Undine. He has spent some of this time reflecting on his values, taking inventory of them and readjusting them. He wants to develop a sense of not having lost as much as he first thought. Two things he hopes might bring him through the crisis of having lost Undine are his son and the idea of writing a novel. Although he realizes that his son is the strongest value of his life, he often finds that his relationship with the boy is not enough to fill the void in his life. Feeding, dressing, and educating the child is not as fulfilling or absorbing as his grief over losing Undine.
The writing of the novel would, in some ways, fill the empty spaces of his life, but he is having trouble disciplining himself to sit down and do it. However, Ralph finds himself moving closer to it. He thinks about his novel and spends some time planning it; when he does, he feels good about everything. He even has some mornings when he awakens and feels glad to be alive. People often tell Ralph that he should write. Their assumptions sometimes annoy Ralph, though. He thinks they believe he should write merely because it would be good for him; they do not consider whether he is actually capable of doing it. Writing is not that easy, Ralph knows.
Clare is one of the people who have encouraged Ralph to write. Ralph has once again taken to visiting Clare, though not as often as he did before he married Undine. His visits have increased in number in the past year. He does not love her—not as she loves him—though he does have a great tenderness for her. She makes him happier than anyone else he knows. He feels peaceful when he is around her. She calms him and makes him relax. He wishes he could tell her how he feels about her, but not in the usual manner that a man tells a woman he has strong emotions for her. He has no real desire for her and suspects he never will share that kind of passion for any woman again. He blames the passion he felt for Undine for having ruined his life.
As the summer bears down on the city, Laura takes Paul to the mountains as she has done in the past. Clare often visits Laura there, which means that Ralph spends additional time with Clara. He finds himself talking more about writing when he is with Clara. Eventually he even feels inspired and begins to put words down on paper. Just as he starts to feel better about life, though, he happens to...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Chapter 32 Summary
As days pass, Ralph begins to grasp what Clare told him: Undine’s remarriage will make him freer. He will possess himself more completely with there being no chance of Undine coming back to him. Her new marriage will cut the last link between them.
Although Undine has not yet received the annulment for which she is pushing, Ralph knows that once Undine wants something, she does not stop until she gets it. One way or the other, she will eventually remarry. He remembers Undine’s failure with Van Degen. In that case, Ralph believes Undine was too immature and inexperienced to understand that Van Degen is not a typical man. He was constrained by social custom. Undine did not conceive of how deeply and compelling those customs were to Van Degen. From what he has heard, Ralph senses that Raymond de Chelles is a very different man. He is probably as emotionally wrapped around Undine as Ralph once was.
That he can think of Undine so rationally makes Ralph understand how far he has come in his own recovery. He has traveled a long distance from the broken man he had been when Undine first left him. But as Ralph once again begins to fully enjoy his life, something occurs that upsets his stability. One night his mother greets Ralph with the news of a strange message from a stranger on the phone. His mother was not accustomed to addressing problems she does not expect, and she is flustered and unclear. At first Ralph believes she did not understand the message properly. His mother thinks the caller may have been Mrs. Spragg, but it did not sound like her. The woman caller had said something about sending someone to “fetch” the boy so he could leave on a steamer. They should have his clothes packed.
Ralph is confused and promises to go to the Spraggs’ residence to straighten out the matter. On his way out the door, he sees that a letter has been delivered. It is from Undine’s lawyers. The letter states that Undine is now in a position to offer her son a home. It contains a statement that hits Ralph hard: a reminder that the courts awarded Undine sole custody of their son.
Ralph’s head spins as he reads the letter. He vaguely recalls the court proceedings during the divorce. He had not paid much attention to them. At the time, Undine had no inclination to take the boy with her. All she wanted was financial support, which Ralph was all too eager to give her. He had felt if he supported her, she might...
(The entire section is 548 words.)
Chapter 33 Summary
Mr. Spragg helps to ease some of Ralph’s frustration by telling Ralph that he will try to get Undine to agree not to take Paul until after the inevitable trial to contest custody. Mr. Spragg believes Undine can afford to wait until her marriage is settled. Ralph hopes Mr. Spragg’s request goes over well with Undine because he would be grateful for this extra time to think how he will fight Undine. However, Ralph is disappointed with Mrs. Spragg, whom he has learned encouraged her daughter to reclaim her son. Ralph had thought that in abandoning Paul, Undine had given up her rights. He believed he and Mrs. Spragg had an unspoken agreement on this matter.
Ever since the letter from Undine’s lawyers arrived, Ralph’s world has again fallen apart. He feels as if he has been watching his son playing in a field that has suddenly opened up and swallowed him. The Spraggs are turning more hostile toward him. Ralph’s mother appears to be suffering from even more stress than he is experiencing. Then Mr. Spragg informs Ralph that he has pleaded his case to Undine, but she refuses to allow Ralph the extra time. He is to ship the boy to Paris immediately.
Ralph feels he must talk to someone. He must ask someone to help him sort out his thoughts, and the only person to whom he can speak freely about this is Clare. When he arrives at her home, Clare listens intently to what has happened. Ralph tells her that he wants to fight Undine’s decision. It will take all the money he has to do it, but it will be worth it. Clare stops him. She asks him why he is bothering to take the case to the court—might he not use the money better by giving it directly to Undine?
These questions surprise Ralph. He does not fully understand what Clare is suggesting, so Clare clarifies her idea. She wants Ralph to consider why Undine suddenly wants to have Paul. Ralph thinks Undine is doing this because it will give her the appearance of respectability. If she has her son, everyone will think “all the rights” are on her side, which insinuates that everything that went wrong in her marriage was Ralph’s fault.
Clare thinks this over. She agrees that this is an obvious potential reason. However, she thinks there is more to it. Clare does not think this issue has anything to do with respectability. She has concluded that Undine is playing a game, and she is betting on Ralph fighting for his son. However, this does not involve...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Chapter 34 Summary
Ralph once again goes to his lawyer, who in turn communicates with Undine’s attorneys and discovers that Clare’s supposition about Undine is very near the truth. Undine will settle the issue of custody, giving Ralph the right to keep Paul, in exchange for a large sum of money. Undine states that she has reconsidered the situation and it might be more beneficial for her son to stay with his father.
For the next few days, all Ralph can think about is where to get that much money. Clare has offered to help him by giving him money she has been saving. Ralph’s mother and grandfather have also told him they will help support his efforts. However, this amount is still not enough. Ralph must find some way to double what he has gathered. This reminds Ralph of the investment he made with Moffatt years ago. He wonders if Moffatt might help him again.
Moffatt’s office had changed since the last time Ralph was there. The furniture and decorations are much more luxurious. It is obvious that the man has been doing well. Moffatt reiterates Ralph’s situation, asking if what Ralph wants is to make a large sum of money in a short time. Ralph acknowledges that this is exactly what he needs. Moffatt tries to make light of the situation, stating that there probably are many thousands of men who would like to do the same thing. When Ralph tells Moffatt that he believes he can come up with fifty thousand dollars, Moffatt assures him that he can double it, or at least he will try.
Afterward, Ralph returns to Clare’s. He is joyful because he believes he has solved all his problems. He will soon have the money to buy back his son. Undine will marry, and that will be the end of it. Ralph tells Clare the details of the investment, adding that Moffatt told him it was a “safe thing.” Clare is excited for him. She tells him she does not care about the details. She is only happy that he will have his son. When Ralph tells her where the money is coming from, Clare is glad that he has come up short, thus needing her help. She wants to be a part of the plan to save him. Although Ralph tries to refuse her money, in the end he gives in. She reassures him that the money belongs to her, not to her husband. Clare and Ralph are cousins, so the money really is coming from Ralph’s side of the family.
Once the financial weight of the speculation hits Ralph, he has a slight feeling of desperation. He asks Clare, what if the...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Chapter 35 Summary
After turning his money over to Moffatt, Ralph feels lightheaded with a sense of freedom from all delusions. He has his son, and that is all that matters for now. His son is growing more interesting each day, drawing Ralph more deeply into his life. Ralph’s book is also becoming a more important focus, and Ralph works on it feverishly each day when he has the time. For a short while, everything Ralph undertakes feels as easy as a dream.
Ralph begins to enjoy Clare as much as he had in his childhood. When Ralph can get away to the countryside, where Clare is spending the summer, they take long walks together, recalling their fantasies from when they were young. Ralph often reaches the limits of Clare’s intelligence, but this does not matter. If she cannot follow and further develop his thoughts, it is of no consequences. He enjoys her just as much for her intuitive silences.
The only tension in Ralph’s life is caused by the waiting period required by his investment with Moffatt. Every day Ralph reads the paper, hoping to find news of the deal into which Moffatt has placed Ralph’s money and that of his friends. Moffatt had hoped that the money would be returned before the end of June. As the last days of the month approach, Ralph phones Moffatt and finds the man to be somewhat evasive. On the same day, Ralph also receives a letter from his lawyer. Undine’s attorneys remind Ralph that she is expecting the cash at the end of the week. This makes Ralph nervous, so he applies for an extension from Undine. He is given another two weeks, but in the end, this does not help. Before those two weeks have ended, Ralph learns that Moffatt’s deal will not come through on time.
Ralph goes to Moffatt’s office in anger. He accuses Moffatt of misleading him. Moffatt reminds Ralph that he had told him the investment was speculative. It will go through, Moffatt states, but it might take more time. Ralph has no more time. He explains the whole story of his need to save his son. Moffatt feels sorry for him but cannot do anything else to help Ralph get the money he needs. When Ralph makes a comment about the difficulty in negotiating with Undine, Moffatt makes a comment about Undine that Ralph finds offensive. He tells Moffatt that he has no right to make such a statement about his wife. This is when Moffatt tells Ralph that he has just as much right as Ralph does: Undine was Moffatt’s wife first. This announcement...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
Chapter 36 Summary
Ralph walks along the streets of the city in a daze. He is having difficulty thinking, but his sensual perceptions seem to have intensified. He notices the dirt and sweat of the city. He feels the intense summer heat more so than he ever has before. He notices and feels every minute detail, but he sees them as if from a great distance. He is there and not there at the same time.
When he gets off the subway, he walks toward his home. Then he is distracted by a thought of his office; maybe he should go there. He pulls out his watch to check the time, but then he cannot remember why he had to know what hour it is. He stands on the corner, wondering which way to turn. Should he go home or go to work? Maybe, instead, he should go to his club for lunch.
Ralph ends up at his home. The house is empty except for an old maid. Ralph’s mother has gone to Maine with Ralph’s grandfather. When Ralph goes to his room, he feels as awkward as a stranger. Nothing in the room feels familiar. When finally he remembers all the items, recalling their individual histories, he wishes he were not there. He has an intense desire to be somewhere that he does not know. He then questions how he can go on living.
The room is hot, so Ralph walks over and opens the windows. The heat reminds him of the summer he and Undine were married and the time they spent in Italy for their honeymoon. Then all his memories of Undine rush back. Ralph ponders them in light of the information he has just learned from Moffatt. Undine lied to him. She was completely deceptive, right from the beginning. There had not been one moment in their relationship that had any truth in it.
Despite this revelation, the more pleasant memories of Undine also return. Ralph remembers the scent of her perfume, the beauty of her youth. These things return as if to mock him. He drops into a chair and lowers his head to his hands. When the maid comes to his room, she is worried that Ralph is not feeling well. He sends the maid away and locks the door in fear that she will return. He desperately wants to be left alone.
Then Ralph thinks about all the money he has lost. He cannot imagine how he will ever repay it. He cannot even remember why he wanted the money in the first place. All he can think about is the misery he is experiencing.
He hears the maid’s footsteps on the stairs. He does not want to be disturbed. He rushes to a drawer and...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Chapter 37 Summary
Paul is reunited with his mother, Undine, in France. He has just arrived and is in the process of meeting his new family. The boy is shy of the old figures, who look much like the stiff characters in the paintings that surround the hall in which the family has gathered. Undine encourages Paul to kiss his new grandmother. Then Chelles, Undine’s new husband, succeeds in putting the child at ease. Raymond de Chelles stoops to Paul’s height, their eyes meet, and Paul gives his stepfather a heartfelt smile.
Undine seems happy to be reunited with her child. He has grown into an impressive young boy. Undine had worried about Paul’s arrival into her life, but having seen the expression on her new husband’s face, all her concerns are dispelled. She could see that the boy has charmed her husband. Undine is somewhat disappointed, however, that her new father-in-law, the old Marquis, has ordered that Undine is to share her quarters with the boy. There is barely room enough for her as it is, Undine thinks, and now she must also squeeze in her son and his nursemaid. The members of her new family would not consider any other arrangement; they concluded that of course every mother wants to be near her child.
Undine had previously hoped that upon her marriage to Raymond, the family would have gotten rid of the people who rented the upstairs rooms of the family’s home. This, Undine soon discovers, is not in the family plans. Undine and now Paul must live in the same bachelor quarters in which Raymond has lived by himself. No other accommodations are available because the family needs the income from the people who rent the other rooms.
The first three months of her marriage, before Paul’s arrival, had been like a dream. Undine feels as if she has finally found a situation that suits her. Raymond appears to love her at least as much as Ralph had, and Raymond has more money. Raymond proves to be more jealous than Ralph had ever been, but this gives Undine a sense of recovered power. However, this is tempered with something else Undine has never felt before in her life—a loss of her independence. Raymond insists on enforcing many family customs, such as choosing Undine’s friends as well as where and when she can go out without him. Never, even in her childhood, has Undine been so constrained.
Only when Undine’s thoughts return to her days before Raymond came into her life does she truly appreciate how...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapter 38 Summary
At the house in Saint Desert, it has been raining for longer than Undine has ever remembered seeing continuous rain. Water is flowing everywhere—down the rain gutters, across the lawns, under the trees, and along the garden paths. In addition, to add to Undine’s dark mood, her husband has insisted that she wear the black of mourning because her father-in-law passed away. The family, because of the marquis’s death, has remained at the chateau de Saint Desert for almost a year. The customary trip to Paris for the spring months was cancelled.
Paul is happier, though. The countryside has helped him to forget how much he misses his Aunt Laura and his Grandmother Marvell. On the country estate, he has horses and rabbits to keep him company. He is allowed to roam the fields on his own, though, in the beginning of their stay, Undine often joined him. The fresh air had enlivened her, bringing back to her a sense of youth.
However, the longer she stays in the country, the moodier Undine becomes. She had enjoyed the family estate at first—as long as she thought they would be returning to Paris shortly. But with the rain, the melancholic atmosphere after the marquis’s death, and the lack of dinners and parties, Undine feels miserable again. Not only are her living conditions boring and cramped, she has learned that her husband, as the oldest son of the family, inherited the weight of the family debt in addition to a high rank and the family estate. Because of this debt, not only does Chelles’s money not increase, it actually declines. On top of this, Undine discovers that though he loves her as much as Ralph had, Raymond is much more resistant to Undine’s manipulative charms. She cannot coax or cajole Raymond out of his restrictions upon her. In particular, Raymond’s budget is tight, and he insists that Undine stick to it.
Raymond is called away on business one day. He must deal with yet another financial rescue in his family. The majority of the family debt is due to the careless spending of his younger brother, Hubert. When Raymond returns home this time, he tells Undine that this will be the last time he covers his brother’s loans. This statement has become a family joke because Raymond has often repeated this refrain upon settling his brother’s business dealings. However, this time Raymond has more resolve. He tells Undine that Hubert is engaged, and his future bride is an American who comes from a...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Chapter 39 Summary
Undine is disturbed by all the attention and money being lavished on her brother-in-law, Hubert. After an expensive wedding, the quarters where Hubert and his wife will be staying in the Chelles’s estate are remodeled with modern heating and lighting. The newlywed couple is even given permission to tear down walls, install new windows, and paint contemporary murals on the walls. New American bathtubs are installed, which become the talk of many of the distinguished guests, who enter the family home, walk past the rooms where Undine resides, and joyously visit Hubert and his wife.
Undine endures all of these changes in silence. This is not because she approves of them but rather because she has witnessed a new side of her husband. Raymond is unlike any other man with whom she has been involved. Although he acknowledges her as his wife, he has let her know that there are other aspects of his life that are just as important to him as she is. He has also inferred that there are places in his life in which she pulls absolutely no weight.
Outwardly, Undine and Raymond’s relationship has shown no transformation. However, Undine realizes that the marriage has changed. When she complained of various things that annoyed her, such as all the money Raymond used to free his brother from debt, Raymond barely reacted to her. Now Undine questions whether she has been giving her husband all that he expected from her. She comes to this conclusion upon reflecting that Raymond is giving an ever-decreasing amount of time to spend with her.
Undine’s brooding over these matters is subdued when Undine and Raymond resume their practice of going to Paris for the spring. The time for mourning Raymond’s father’s death has come to an end. While in Paris, with all the dinners and other social events she enjoys, Undine has less time to consider Raymond’s easy forgiveness of Hubert’s transgressions as well as her irritations over her son’s encroachments on her freedom.
In Paris, Undine is reacquainted with her friend Madame de Trezac. In a moment of intimacy, Undine confides to her friend that Raymond appears to be less demanding of her time and her behavior. Upon hearing this, Madame de Trezac questions whether that is as good a sign as Undine is implying. She suggests that Raymond may be straying from his marriage vows, and Undine’s not having become pregnant is a possible cause. If Undine were able to provide...
(The entire section is 632 words.)
Chapter 40 Summary
Undine feels bored with her life in the Chelles country estate, especially during the cold winters. She wants to find an outlet for her anger about her confinement and the deteriorating conditions of her marriage. Undine discovers that she is most successful in aggravating Raymond by irritating his mother. The winters are cold, and Undine is tired of lacking heat. According to the family tradition, which has never been adjusted in generations, only a small amount of wood is to be used to build the fires that heat the home. To make the best of this small allotment, the family has taken up the custom of heating Raymond’s mother’s large bedroom and then having the rest of the members of the family spend the day in her room. Undine rebels against this practice. She refuses to be confined to her mother-in-law’s apartment when there is so much more space in other portions of the house. So Undine has fires built in the gallery, her favorite place. Due to the additional fires, the amount of wood that is used has more than doubled the standard. When complaints by the other family members are registered, Undine suggests that rather than everyone spending their daylight hours in her mother-in-law’s room, they should extinguish that fire and come downstairs. Upon hearing this, Raymond’s mother complies—at least partially. She ceases to order a fire in her room, but she remains there, by herself in the cold room, rather than give in to Undine’s suggestion.
As the boredom of Undine’s life continues, it is as if dullness penetrates her mind as well as her body. The shine of hair decreases, as does the radiance that had once been so attractive in her complexion. She is also easily irritated, turning her into someone who reminds her of her mother. Undine’s son is another source of annoyance. This is especially true during the winter while Raymond is more frequently missing from the home. When Paul develops a persistent cold, Undine considers sending her son away to school, though he is still very young. The only thing that prevents this, in the end, is the cost of tuition.
The only thing that keeps Undine’s spirit alive is the thought of going to Paris and spending money on dresses, which in the end she has very few opportunities to wear. Even this hope of a spring excursion is dashed, however, when Raymond announces that they will not be going to Paris this year because of some business that demands his attention. Upon...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
Chapter 41 Summary
Undine can no longer allow her husband to have so much authority over her. She is determined to find a way to prove to him that she still knows how to get what she wants. While Raymond is away, Undine travels to Paris under the pretext of finding a new nursemaid for her son. While in the city, she pursues the first details of her scheme. When she returns home, she waits for Raymond to again be gone. Then while her mother-in-law takes her long afternoon nap, Undine waits in the gallery, with its long view of the roadway to the house. Finally she sees a black car and anticipates her visitor.
An older man exits the car and enters the Chelles house. When Undine escorts the man down the hallway, she begins to describe the history of the paintings and tapestries that are hung in the hallway. The man interrupts her, telling her that the descriptions and other memorable details of the works have all been catalogued and are well known to every important collector.
The man then looks at his watch and announces that a prospective collector, an American who is intent on buying old European heirlooms, should soon be arriving. To this, Undine protests. She has no right to sell any of the Chelleses’ belongings, she claims. She only wanted to know their worth. Although she does not confide her real purposes, Undine believes if she can tell Raymond how much the old tapestries are worth, he will better understand how he can accrue the money he needs to maintain the estate. This will allow more money in the budget for Undine and Raymond to continue their spring jaunts in Paris. However, the man says the American collector has only this one day to see the collection, so he has taken the liberty of inviting the man to the Chelles estate. Another car then arrives. When the American enters the house, Undine is surprised to see it is Elmer Moffatt.
Moffatt is as surprised as Undine is. He thought she was living in Paris. He comments on the social scene in the city and wonders why Undine is not there. After Undine tells her story, Moffatt says that it seems strange she has settled down to a country life. He adds that he hopes this is what she wanted. As he looks around, Moffatt comments that the estate is a great place to live. Undine counters this by saying it might be nice if she did not have to spend so much time there. Undine then explains that Raymond does not have enough money for her to go to Paris. Moffatt looks up at the...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Chapter 42 Summary
Raymond eventually gives in to Undine’s requests to spend time in Paris. However, he stipulates that they follow very strict rules, most of which involve sticking to his budget. There will be no extravagances. For example, they cannot afford to provide dinners for their friends. When Undine suggests that they invite only small groups of special friends, Raymond tells her this would be insulting to all the people they cannot afford to ask, so Undine must relinquish all plans to entertain in her home. This restriction does not prevent them from attending other people’s parties, Raymond informs her.
At first Undine is satisfied with this arrangement. In time, though, she realizes that the only dinners to which they are invited are the more public ones, where almost everyone is included. All invitations to the special parties, the ones given for groups of intimate friends, are not sent to Undine and Raymond. When Undine complains about this to Madame de Trezac, her friend suggests that this is not because they do not hold small parties of their own or because of Raymond’s lack of social contacts. Madame de Trezac is very forthcoming in confiding to Undine that the lack of invitations is because of Undine. People find her boring, Madame de Trezac says, because she cannot carry on a decent conversation. People are attracted to her because of her looks, but after watching Undine enter a room, the dinner guests lose interest in her.
To remedy this, Undine spends her afternoons in museums. She makes a decent effort to ponder the art and develop her impressions. Then when she finds herself in a conversation at a party, she divulges her new thoughts. Unfortunately, she finds that though her ideas are new to her, those around her have no interest in them, as if they have heard these thoughts expressed by many other people.
One day, Raymond comes to her with a letter in his hand. The correspondence is from the man who had come to see the tapestries at the Chelles home. When Raymond asks Undine if she knows anything about this matter, she admits that she invited the man to come out. She had grown tired of hearing about the costs of running the estate and thought Raymond would be interested in knowing how much money he could receive by selling the family’s heirlooms.
Raymond loses his temper. He makes harsh statements about Americans in general and their way of life, which includes having no understanding...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Chapter 43 Summary
Undine watches Raymond walk away from her as if he were in a trance. She knows he will always be courteous toward her as if nothing had happened between them. She also knows that nothing will ever change in her marriage or in her life. She will spend miserable winters in the old estate and there will be numerous battles between her and Raymond over money.
She wants to react as she has ever since childhood. She wants to get angry and lash out at Raymond to hurt and even possibly destroy him and everything that stands in her way. No matter how carefully she examines her situation, though, she can find no way out. Raymond will never give in to her. He may never even show that she has hurt him. Until this moment in her life, she had always believed she could conquer any situation and bring it about to her advantage, but now the world seems to be plotting against her.
Undine looks around the room where Raymond has left her. If she were bold enough to sell everything just in that one room alone, she would have more than enough money to escape from all her cares. This estate, as well as the house in Paris that her husband’s family owns, provides the kind of setting that Undine had always thought appropriate for a beautiful woman such as herself. Had she stayed with Moffatt, though, he would not only have given her houses such as these but he would also have encouraged her to develop her own power.
As Undine thinks about Moffatt, she reflects on how they met in Apex, so many years ago. Moffatt had arrived in the small town without anyone knowing where he came from. Nonetheless, he had impressed the local townspeople—all of them, from the preacher to the town drunks. Moffatt was an amiable man even in his youth. Although he was sometimes brash, he was also eloquent. He had a knack for making speeches that inspired people. This gift provided him with the only references he owned, and the only references he ever needed in Apex. He easily won people over to his side, and they responded with their friendship as well as good jobs and nice houses in which to live.
Moffatt quickly rose in esteem with the town’s elders until he made one fatal mistake. He had been asked to speak at a meeting whose organizers were rallying for the Temperance Movement, an effort to encourage people to eliminate their consumption of alcohol. At the meeting, while waiting to speak, Elmer sat with a group of friends at the back of...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Chapter 44 Summary
Undine and Raymond have come to an unspoken agreement—he goes his way and she goes hers. As long as they maintain the outward appearance of having a manageable marriage, everything will be all right. Thus Undine returns to her old friends, going to dinner with them on her own and inviting them over for tea. Raymond goes about his business, and sometimes they meet for family events.
The more significant change in Undine’s lifestyle is her almost constant companionship with Moffatt. Undine is pleased to see how easily incorporated and well-received Moffatt has become in her circle of friends. He is invited to most of the same parties she attends, and she takes advantage of this time to be with him. Knowing that he is interested in collecting precious art pieces, she finds ways of having him invited to private homes to which most collectors would not have access. She even studies the histories of the pieces she shows him so she can participate in conversations about the objects with him. Moffatt, who tells Undine that he is due to leave in a week, eventually delays his trip home more than once so he can linger in Undine’s company. They see one another almost on a daily basis. Raymond either does not notice or no longer cares what his wife does.
In the process of exerting her independence from her husband, Undine quickly depletes the allowance that her father has continued to provide for her. Most of this money is used to keep up appearances when dining with her rich friends. Undine knows Raymond will never extend his budget to cover her expenses, so she must provide for herself. She wishes she could go to her father as she had when she was younger and tell him of her need for more revenue, but a letter from her mother informs her that Mr. Spragg’s days of large increases in wealth are behind him. Undine’s parents have downgraded their style of living to keep themselves within their means, which is now much more limited than it was a few years ago. Undine worries about her parents’ income but only to the degree that she wishes they had more so they could enjoy the “happiness” of sending her the money she wants.
As Moffatt extends his time in Paris, Undine begins to suspect that she is becoming a less significant figure in his life. She witnesses his attention to her fade and senses that once she is out of sight he will completely forget about her. When Moffatt sets a definite date for his departure...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Chapter 45 Summary
Undine cries in Moffatt’s presence but her tears do not seem to affect him. She asks him not to leave her. She explains that in France all husbands have affairs, and their wives do the same. As long as everyone is discreet, not flaunting their extramarital partnerships in public, there is no shame brought upon the families. She proposes that they do the same. With a sense of sincerity that baffles her, she also tells Moffatt that she was wrong to have not fought against her parents and remained his wife. He is the only one for whom she ever had true feelings.
Moffatt walks away to the other side of the room. He reiterates what Undine has just proposed. He asks if what she wants is for them to sneak into one another’s rooms and have brief sexual encounters and then pretend they are merely casual friends. Undine tells him that is all she can do. She is married. She has converted to Catholicism, and the Catholic Church prohibits divorce.
When Moffatt remains on the other side of the room, the distance between them makes Undine wonder if Moffatt is still attracted to her. She asks him if there is another woman in his life. He says none of the women matter; that is not an issue in what they are discussing. He hesitates because he does not want Undine in the way she is proposing. He reminds her of how she had come to him when they lived in Apex. He mentions how she was not afraid to be seen in public with him then. She defied everyone and walked down Main Street with him, holding his hand, when everyone else in town had turned against him. He had felt disappointed with her, though, when she did not stand up and defy her father’s demand that she divorce him. In time, he learned to forgive her because she was so young. But she is not as youthful now. Some of her beauty has faded, he tells her. He still wants her, though, but only if she is strong enough to become his wife.
Undine cannot imagine what Moffatt is asking her to do. He does not understand how confined her life has become. It is not clear whether Undine is reluctant because she does not want to let her connections to the European society completely disintegrate or if she truly believes she has no choice but to remain in her unhappy marriage.
Moffatt does not seem to care what Undine is considering. He demands either that she come with him as his wife or that they shake hands and say good-bye forever. If she wants to be with him, he will be...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
Chapter 46 Summary
Paul Marvell, Undine’s son, is now nine years old. He is alone (with servants) in his mother’s new home in Paris. His mother is not yet there, as he had expected. His mother is hardly ever home. He attends boarding school and he and his mother rarely see one another. She writes to him but only in the form of telegrams, which minimally describe where she is at the moment or where she is going next.
His “French father” as Paul calls him, Raymond de Chelles, has disappeared from his life. Raymond was the closest to a father figure the young boy ever had, the only husband of his mother’s that he remembers or knows. Paul is aware of Mr. Moffatt, and though this man is friendly to him, Mr. Moffatt is also seldom around.
Paul roams through the rooms of the new house. It is too big for him to feel comfortable there. Every room is filled with things, the items that his mother and Mr. Moffatt collect. He is allowed to look at these things, but he is constantly told not to touch them. This includes all the books in the library, which the servants have informed him are too expensive and precious to be read. There are no toys or books with which Paul can pass his time.
As Paul awaits his mother’s arrival, Mrs. Heeny enters the house. Undine has sent for the old masseuse because Undine needs help in getting rid of the extra weight she has added to her figure. Paul had known Mrs. Heeny when he lived with his biological father, Ralph Marvell, but he no longer remembers her. Paul also has no memory of his real father.
When Mrs. Heeny takes Paul up to her room, she shares some newspaper articles with him. Mrs. Heeny has always collected articles about New York society, and she carries them around with her in her purse. When Paul asks questions about his mother, Mrs. Heeny refers him to the cuttings she has brought with her. It is through these stories that the readers gain a glimpse into what has happened with Undine. She had traveled to the States with Moffatt, where she received a very quick divorce. Immediately following this procedure, they were married just as swiftly in a simple ceremony. Since then, three years have passed and there are many news items about Moffatt’s riches; he has become one of America’s most famous collectors. Moffatt is also generous to his wife, the articles report, giving her million-dollar necklaces as well as lavish homes throughout the world.
When Paul is...
(The entire section is 700 words.)