No 467 The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

The Stepford Wives needs no introduction. Thanks to not one, but two movie adaptations, it has a plot so famous as to have entered cultural discourse – everyone knows what a Stepford Wife is now, but the novel upon which the films are based is a much more interesting and ambiguous affair.

It is in part thanks to the film adaptation that The Stepford Wives has become a modern horror classic, but even if you know the plot, the novel is well worth reading.

If you don’t know the plot, then be warned, this post contains spoilers, so you might want to stop reading now!

Joanna Eberhart, along with her husband Walter and their two children have moved from New York City to the suburban Connecticut town of Stepford. Stepford has what the family has been looking for; a different pace of life, a larger home and safer streets, but what Joanna hasn’t expected is the lifestyle of the women. All are beautiful, well-dressed and obsessed with doing housework and looking after their family.

“These things came out nice and white, didn’t they?” Kit put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling. Like an actress in a commercial. That’s what she was, Joanna felt suddenly. That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.

Joanna, a photographer and feminist who follows the work of Friedan and Steinem, and shares the chores with Walter, finds their perfection jarring – ‘they even fill their shopping carts neatly!’ – but she finds solace in friendships with the free-spirited Bobbie and with Charmaine, who loves tennis, astrology and turning down her husband’s sexual advances.

Joanna also has reservations when Walter declares his intention to join the local Men’s Association, which is steeped in secrecy. Her attempts to start up a Woman’s Association are met with apathy, all the women are too busy with housework to attend. Her frustration soon turns to fear, when, like clockwork, four months after their arrival in Stepford, first Charmaine and then Bobbie morph overnight into glamourous homemakers. Joanna starts to believe something sinister is going on in Stepford and she only has one month left to find proof.

Is it really possible that the Men’s Association is murdering the town’s women and replacing them with beautiful compliant robots? And if it is, and Walter is in on it, who is going to believe Joanna and how can she save herself from the same fate?

Ira Levin’s short novel is a masterclass in pacing and structure. Like the pristinely organised kitchens of the wives, the book is a tightly plotted jigsaw, ominously ordered to build a sense of tension and threat. As with Rosemary’s Baby, Levin presents a vulnerable female who has been dropped into a new world, where seemingly innocuous incidents take on sinister overtones.

When Joanna tries to photograph the Men’s Association building, she is just happens to be stopped by a local policeman before she can click the shutter. Ike Mazzard, a local artist, sketches Joanna without her knowledge. One of the Association’s members asks her to take part in a project he is compiling whereby she has to record herself saying common words. Walter no longer seems to want to have sex but masturbates beside her when he thinks she is asleep. Taken individually, there is nothing untoward with any of these things, but as each piece is set into place, the novel takes on a nightmarish atmosphere of dread.

The Stepford Wives is at heart a satire on the male backlash to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, but unlike the film adaptation, which confirmed that the women in Stepford had been swapped for robots, Levin creates a narrative that is much more ambiguous than that.

A still from the 1975 adaptation of The Stepford Wives, starring Katherine Ross as Joanna

The singular precision of the novel’s structure calls into question where Levin’s sympathies lie.

Everything that happens here could be one thing, but could also be another.

Although told from Joanna’s point of view and as such is the focus of sympathy for most of the book, but Levin is careful to introduce an air of scepticism about her beliefs and her motives. She photographs a black man looking angrily at a cab that has refused to pick him up, emphasising her anti-racist tendencies, but is also very aware that the image could make her money because “there were plenty of markets for pictures dramatizing racial tensions”.

Another skilful touch is Levin’s refusal to interrogate the motives of the men in the town. If there was a plot to murder all their wives and replace them with robots, would Walter really capitulate so easily? And do all men really want an automaton wife who cooks, cleans and looks good, but no longer has any opinions, thoughts or interests?

As Joanna’s attempts to uncover what is happening and leave Stepford become increasingly frantic, the true horror of The Stepford Wives is revealed in its very ambiguity. Either these women are robots, or they have realised that their happiness lies in subsuming their personalities, hopes and dreams to the needs of their husbands. Either option is, in its own way, terrifying.

“What are you doing then, besides your housework?” Ruthanne asked her.

“Nothing really,” Joanna said. “Housework’s enough for me. I used to feel I had to have other interests, but I’m more at ease with myself now. I’m much happier too, and so is my family. That’s what counts, isn’t it?”

Levin deftly manages to make both of these possible readings true at the same time. He has created a narrative that is both feminist and patriarchal simultaneously. It’s a fantastic and horrifying accomplishment.

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nUMBER rEAD: 279
nUMBER REMAINING: 467

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37 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I read all of Levin’s books back in the day except Stepford Wives. That one seemed to get more into the land of horror, imo, but I really liked the others (except Son of Rosemary’s Baby). Thanks for the review and your thoughts on this book because I had only even heard about the movie – I didn’t even see it. The movie of Rosemary’s Baby followed the book almost word-for-word.

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  2. I’m glad the novel is more subtle and ambiguous about what exactly is going on in Stepford as so much was discussed around one film or the other that I felt I almost didn’t need to watch them! But if the writing is as good as you suggest I maybe won’t pass this up.

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  3. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of reading this, along with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Brief Encounter, that I also only know as films. This sounds a brilliant, if horrifying and angry read!

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      • Truman Capote’s original Breakfast at Tiffany’s is NOT like the movie. The movie is very much of 1961 and I cried all through it- I was 13 – such a romance. The book is beautifully and sensitively written story of an older man’s memory of a hillbilly social-climber/hustler whom he met and became friends with in New York. Capote knew a lot of women like Holly Golightly.
        Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is a fantastic novel – a classic. The movie is straight 1965 romance set in pretty Spanish scenery. The directors changed some of the the *somewhat* pro-Bolshevik ideas to pro-capitalist sentiments and it had been already banned by the Russians. I watched the movie only to say I’d seen it – that was in 2012 (?). I read the book 3 times. Parts are true-ish.
        Sorry for all this – it just came out!

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  4. Oddly enough, even though I’ve never read this book, I feel I know because of the way it has seeped into the cultural consciousnesses over the years. Some books are just like that, I guess. (Dracula is another that springs to mind.) Anyway, the book sounds very strong, especially in terms of its grip and pace.

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  5. Great review. I read this many years ago and still remember it fondly. As you pointed out, the ambiguity is what makes it so unnerving. It’s such a ripping premise that, even today, feels timely and incisive. Levin sure had his finger on the cultural pulse.

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