(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

During the next several years, Moffatt becomes a significant financial figure in New York. Ralph, in an attempt to support Undine’s extravagance, goes to work in a business to which he is ill-suited. Undine, meanwhile, keeps up a busy schedule of social engagements. She also accepts some expensive gifts from Peter Van Degen, who is interested in her, before Peter leaves to spend the season in Europe. One day, Undine sees Moffatt, who comes to propose a disreputable business deal to Ralph; the deal succeeds and Undine goes to Paris to meet Peter, where soon she spends all the money. She meets the Comte Raymond de Chelles, a French aristocrat, whom she thinks of marrying until Peter tells her that if she stays with him, he will give her everything she wants....

(The entire section is 905 words.)

The Custom of the Country Chapter Summaries

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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....

(The entire section is 523 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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 it is time to leave, though, she sees that Ralph Marvell has put on his hat and coat, as if he were planning to escort her home. She takes his arm as they traverse the icy steps outside. However, after placing her in a waiting carriage, Ralph closes the door and merely bids Undine goodnight.

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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....

(The entire section is 521 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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....

(The entire section is 611 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 627 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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.


(The entire section is 506 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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 entire section is 496 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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 entire section is 600 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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,...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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,...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

The Custom of the Country 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...

(The entire section is 700 words.)