In Edith Wharton's novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Custom of the Country (1913), both protagonists are subject to a great deal of gossip; only one, however, manages to learn how to manipulate that gossip to her benefit. With the character of Lily Bart, Wharton illustrates the danger of attempting to maintain one's scruples in a world of speculation; with Undine Spragg, she highlights the advantages of amorality in a society fascinated with publicity. If one examines the trajectory of gossip—both whispered and printed—in the two novels, a pattern of destruction and reconstruction emerges. Lily begins as a famous society belle, whose ultimate ejection from the upper echelons of society takes place in front of a society columnist. Wharton later presented a more ambitious and less ethical version of Lily with the character Undine Spragg-Moffatt-Marvell-de Chelles-Moffatt, who measures her own social progress, as well as the relative position of others, by counting citations in Town Talk. If Undine's beauty is not publicly discussed, much less admired, to her it no longer holds its worth. By comparing Lily with Undine, a different Edith Wharton emerges—one less aligned with the values of old New York and one more dedicated to satirizing the aspirational culture that still dominates American society.

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