Edith Whartonߣs satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century appeared in 1913; it both appalled and fascinated its first reviewers, and established her as a major novelist. The Saturday Review wrote that she had ߢassembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novelߣ, but concluded that the book was ߢbrilliantly writtenߣ, and ߢshould be read as a parableߣ.
It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her fatherߣs money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by dissullusion.
Wharton was recreating an environment she knew intimately, and Undineߣs education for social success is chronicled in meticulous detail. The novel superbly captures the world of post-Civil War America, as ruthless in its social ambitions as in its business and politics.