Undine Spragg, who is staying at a luxurious hotel in New York called the Stentorian with her mother (Mrs. Leota B. Spragg) and a woman named Mrs. Heeny, receives a letter and takes it away so that she can read it on her own. Mrs. Spragg looks like a melting wax figure, but Mrs. Heeny looks solid and practical. When Undine is finished with the letter, she crumples it up and throws it away. Mrs. Spragg asks if the letter is from Mr. Claud Walsingham Popple (whom Undine met at a party the previous night), but Undine says it isn’t, it’s from Mr. Ralph Marvell’s sister (Laura Fairford), inviting her to a dinner party.
The opening lines of the story suggest that Undine is a member of upper-class society in New York City—or at least that’s what she aspires to be. The fancy hotel setting combined with the conversation about social engagements and dinner parties all suggest luxury. But instead of glamorizing this wealthy lifestyle, Wharton satirizes it by highlighting the shortcomings and absurdities of the characters. Mrs. Spragg, for example, might have money, but her disheveled appearance suggests that she doesn’t have sophistication. Similarly, the hotel is called the Stentorian, which means “loud” and also suggests that its residents aren’t sophisticated, just showy with their wealth.
Mrs. Heeny says she knows of a portrait painter named Claud Popple and that he’s “in it,” but that he is not quite “AS in it” as Ralph. Undine asks if this means the Marvells are fashionable, and Mrs. Heeny says yes, she’s already told her this many times—in fact, Ralph is even more fashionable than Claud. Hearing this, Undine goes back to the crumpled letter from Ralph’s sister (Laura Fairford) and reads it again.
Mrs. Heeny’s speech demonstrates that even within the upper echelons of New York society there were layers, with some people and families holding more sway than others in the social order. Undine wants to make sure she ends up at the very top of this order, and so she takes Mrs. Heeny’s advice seriously.
In her letter, Laura Fairford invites Undine to a dinner party. Undine finds this strange because Laura has never even seen her, but Mrs. Heeny says that Ralph has seen her and that often a young man will use his sister as an excuse to meet a young woman again. Mrs. Heeny advises Undine, however, that a girl should pretend she needs her mother’s permission to do anything. Undine goes to her room to consider her response.
As Laura Fairford’s letter shows, the social rules of the New York elite were complex. Undine, who is still a relatively new resident of New York, doesn’t yet understand all of these conventions. In fact, such rules seem to specifically exclude outsiders who don’t understand local customs.
Two years ago, Mrs. Spragg brought Undine to New York to enlarge her social circle, but so far, Undine has made little progress. Now, Mrs. Heeny advises Mrs. Spragg that Undine must get in with the right crowd because the wrong crowd can stick with a person and drag them down.
Mrs. Heeny understands the importance of social connections, not just how good connections can help with social climbing but also how bad connections can hurt a person’s rank in the reputation-based New York social circles.
Mr. Abner E. Spragg (Undine’s father) comes back to the Stentorian. Mrs. Spragg proudly tells her husband about the dinner party that Undine has been invited to. She tells him that they were right to come to New York after all. But Mr. Spragg doesn’t seem happy. In a low voice, he says that he saw Elmer Moffatt recently. Mrs. Spragg is concerned and makes her husband promise not to tell Undine about seeing Elmer.
Although Mr. Spragg doesn’t explain here who Elmer Moffatt is or why he’s significant, Mr. Spragg’s hushed tone conveys that Elmer may be a menacing figure. And so, the first chapter ends with the hint that beneath its glitzy exterior, New York City’s high society also has a dark side.