Edith Wharton uses a variety of narrative techniques and conventions from multiple genres. The sudden shifts in language and style reflect an unstable society where the rules for polite behavior are constantly shifting.
The plot bears resemblance to a picaresque novel. In this literary tradition, a roguish male character has a series of adventures in which he must use his bravery and wit to overcome challenges. The characters he encounters are typically morally flawed and illustrate the seedier side of society.
The author adapts the picaresque narrative for a female character who is faced with challenges inherent to her gender and class. Because women could not earn money through a profession as men did, they had to marry well to avoid poverty, with little regard for love and happiness. Undine Spragg’s picaresque adventures, therefore, are a series of marriages and divorces. She uses her beauty to attract men who might give her the lavish lifestyle she desires. However, all of her husbands are flawed in some way, and none of them leave her fully satisfied.
The story also contains elements of a novel of manners, a genre that explores the customs and values of different social classes. Undine hopes to leave behind her humble prairie upbringing and gain access to the upper echelons of society. To do so, however, she must take extraordinary measures to hide her background and mimic the behavior of the upper classes even when her activities are not financially sustainable. The narrative is a series of illusions and revelations, as Undine’s husbands and lovers fall for her, then discover her true intentions.
Wharton’s language is largely satirical, ranging from melodramatic descriptions of personal tragedy to farcical accounts of Undine’s rapid-fire divorces and remarriages. Her outlandish behavior draws attention to subtler forms of social climbing.