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.)