The Spraggs, a family of midwesterners from the fictional city of Apex who have made money through somewhat shady financial dealings, arrive in New York City at the prompting of their beautiful, ambitious, but socially naive daughter, Undine. She marries Ralph Marvell, a would-be poet and member of an old New York family that has social status but no longer enjoys significant wealth. Before her wedding, Undine encounters an acquaintance from Apex named Elmer Moffatt, an ambitious and somewhat unpleasant character with "a genuine disdain for religious piety and social cant", as the scholar Elaine Showalter observes. Undine, who appears to have had a relationship with Moffatt that might prove embarrassing to her, begs him not to do anything that will endanger her wedding to Ralph. Elmer agrees.