Stepford Wives, The by Levin, Ira, 1972
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.
As with his 1966 novel Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin's 1972 novel The Stepford Wives is about the gradual, modulated violation and ultimate sacrifice of a strong woman upon the alter of a twisted form of domestic bliss, only instead of being used as the vessel for the birth of the Anti-Christ, this book si about robotic doppelgangers. This book - and the film that sprung from it - were so powerful and so well received that the term "Stepford wife" has been adopted to describe any American woman who lives willingly under the yoke of her husband's rule, or even a woman who regales in the humdrum of domestic life. The concept is so deeply ingrained in us that even those who have neither seen the film nor read the book can use the term properly.
The Stepford Wives chiefly concerns the family of Joanna and Walter Eberhart, and to a much lesser degree their two children Pete and Kim. As the story begins we learn that the Eberharts have recently moved from New York City to the well-to-do suburb of Stepford. While not a bedroom community - Stepford had a large number of high tech firms - Walter continued at his law firm in the city while Joanna stayed home and adjusted to the pastoral life of the suburbs. The village is beautiful, but Joanna is having some trouble adjusting. Joanna is, like Rosemary Woodhouse before her, a modern woman of her times. She is a member of NOW. She has a fledgling career as a photographer. She is opinionated, a good mother, has a loving and fair relationship with her husband, and has priorities much bigger those of a hausfrau. Housework and domestic duties are not anathema to her, but she does her fair share grudgingly, with her husband at her side doing his own fair share. Unfortunately Joanna is starting to think that there must be something in the water in Stepford, because she can hardly find another woman who is interested in anything but housework and chores. Not one of the women she meets in her neighborhood ever go out or have fun; all they want to do is take care of their kids and clean. Joanna finds it all pretty maddening, until she meets Bobbie, and then Charmaine, two women who like to have pastimes, hang out and drink wine, and who are vivacious and independent.
Soon after the Eberhart family moves in the other men in the neighborhood convince Walter to join the local Men's Association. Both Joanna and Walter considered it to be sexist and outdated, but Walter told Joanna that he would operate from within to end the segregation and open up the group. Soon enough though Walter was spending all of his free time there with the men who ran the high-tech companies in town. Joanna wondered what was happening, but with her good friends Bobbie and Charmaine around, she didn't wonder too much. One day Charmaine announced that she and her husband, Ed were going away to rekindle their romance. She left on their romantic trip full of hope, happiness and a genuine desire to explore the possibilities for the rest of her life with her husband, Ed. When she came back, Charmaine seemed to have drunk the Stepford Kool-Aid.
"I did the kitchen and the dining room yesterday, but I've still got all the other rooms. Ed shouldn't have to live with dirt."
Joanna, looking at her, said, "Okay, funny joke."
"I'm not joking," Charmaine said. Ed's a pretty wonderful guy, and I've been lazy and selfish. I'm through playing tennis, and I'm through reading those astrology books. From now on I'm going to do right by Ed, and by Merrill too. I'm lucky to have such a wonderful husband and son."
Like in Levin's other books, every scene and every occurrence have a purpose, though sometimes that purpose is visible only in hindsight. Levin seems to love to fool the reader as badly as he fools his characters. Personally I liked the almost teasing way that Levin told this story, but I have to ask myself, "Self. Is this Science Fiction?" It certainly feels like it is. The Stepford Wives could be an updated (for the 1960s) version of worker's fears of technological replacement, or a story of the destruction of self upon the alter of technological advancement. So Levin got the tech, somewhat, and he got the great use of theme, but he definitely missed the detailed descriptions that we in the genre love so much. For example, while Levin was not shy about the topic of sex, there was absolutely nothing about the men's sexual use of the robots. Given that the purpose of the robot plot was to eliminate the need to force the women into subservience I guess we can assume that they were fully functional sexually. And even considering that, the whole story was told from Joanna's point of view, and she would probably never have been privy to those facts, but still, the lack of detail about the robot's technical sophistication and functionality hurt the SF credibility of the story. More, Levin really said nothing - beyond vague allegations that they were either pumping something into the air or water, or making robots, and the fact that various CEOs are part of the Men's Association - about the high tech company's involvement.
There were also some big gaps in the story. At one point Walter told Joanna that he had to work long hours in the city because the firm's senior partner had died, leaving behind a lot of mistakes in valuable client's files. I have a feeling that Walter really spent his time at the Men's Association, working on the robot to replace Joanna, but Levin never got around to saying one way or the other.
Walter's motivation was also unclear. It was obvious that he was happy and in love with Joana, and it was never made clear that he had misogynistic tendencies, or that he thought that the other guys - the ones with the boobsy, docile wives - had it easier than he did. He was also already successful, and probably on his way to partnership in his firm. Why would he agree to the murder of someone he loved so that she could be replaced with a soulless, boring thing? Levin vaguely alluded to boredom and a change in priority, but he never really said what those changes were, and why this solution was the best one for Walter.
Finally, there is practically no confrontation in this book. There was apparently an enormous ring of men who were killing their wives and replacing them with robots, but Joanna never got a chance to confront them. She tried to run, and she was chased down, but the men who caught her and brought her to the Men's Association house were just the stooges of those in charge. In that way, the book was anticlimactic. Despite all this, however, Levin did an admirable job of having his characters explore every avenue of inquiry that they did go down. He may have missed some things that I would have liked to have seen, but the story, as it is, is well done.
- The really big criticism that I have is that the plot of The Stepford Wives is a complete rewrite of Rosemary's Baby with a different story. Consider:
- Both stories are about women whom tragedy befalls after a big move to a new location;
- As a result of a move to a new place, both women are physically separated from friends and their support network;
- Both women are lied to by people in their new homes;
- Both have friends who try to help them, but are killed for butting their noses in;
- Both Rosemary's and Joanna's husbands are involved in the plots against them. Neither wife suspects this at first, and they are both confused by their husband's constant excuse making;
- Once they realize that something big is going on and that they are in danger, both Rosemary and Joanna run to a doctor for help;
- Both doctors (in Joanna's case, another woman) convince are convinced that the women are hysterical;
- Both women are returned to their husbands, who continue to lie to them;
- Both women are undone in the end.
I think that this book is about the victimization of women, and an easy - albeit criminal - way men design to deal with their own changing needs. If that's what it is then it also shares that with Rosemary's Baby; Guy wanted to be a successful author, and Walter probably wanted to be the master of his own destiny. I think it also says loads about the typical male view of femininity. It says that it is probably easier to invent docile sex-bots to replace them then try to change their nature. All this, and it still becomes a cultural icon. I guess this is why I am so terrible at guessing which books will go on to achieve that status. I would have said that this one is way, way too sexist.