Narrative choices in The Stepford Wives

Born in 1929, Ira Levin was a very successful playwright and novelist. He published seven novels during his life, starting with A Kiss Before Dying in 1953, with his second novel Rosemary’s Baby not appearing until 1967. The last novel appeared in 1997. Meanwhile, his most successful play, Deathtrap, holds the record for the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway. It also won four Tony awards.

Levin’s work was often adapted for the screen, including Rosemary’s Baby, A Kiss Before Dying, Sliver, The Boys From Brazil, Deathtrap, and The Stepford Wives.

He often explored more sinister uses of technology and science in his work.

He said himself: I’m only intrigued by suspense situations that impinge on society at large as well as the individual characters involved – the backlash against feminism in The Stepford Wives, the computer-controlled society of This Perfect Day, cloning in The Boys from Brazil, and hidden surveillance cameras in Sliver. And of course the Antichrist of Rosemary’s Baby and Son of Rosemary. One of the benchmarks by which I measure a new idea – on the rare occasions when I get one – is, if it really happened would it rate at least a paragraph in the New York Times? I don’t think a writer should ask a reader’s attention for anything less.

Many other authors have admired Levin’s masterful plotting:

Every novel he has ever written has been a marvel of plotting. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; he makes what the rest of us do look like those five-dollar watches you can buy in the discount drug stores.

Stephen King

Levin’s writing process

In one interview (at the New York Public Library Digital Collections), Ira Levin said he was one of those people who can’t ‘go onto the next page until I’m satisfied that this page is perfect, so I rewrite a lot as I’m going along‘. He regarded two pages a day as good for him.

When he reached the end of a chapter, he’d go back over the chapter. At the end of the next chapter, he’d then go over both chapters. He did not write new drafts.

This is relevant to the precision of his writing. Everything he writes, every reference, is there because it’s meant to be.

Levin also mentioned that his working day got longer and longer as a writing project went on, moving to fifteen or sixteen hour days as he became more absorbed in the work. He would also be thinking about the writing when he woke up.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Stepford Wives

Published in 1972, The Stepford Wives is a slim novel whose very title has entered the English language as a way of describing a particular kind of traditional domesticated woman. Someone opposed to feminism and whose life revolves around looking nice and attending to housework and her husband and kids. Published during the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ira Levin’s novel represents a kind of feminist horror.

His writing notebooks showed him exploring various similar or related plot ideas over the previous years, but what really gave birth to The Stepford Wives was the coming together of two particular elements. First a passage in Future Shock by Alvin Toffler about domestic robots, and secondly a National Geographic article about animatronic presidential figures at Disneyland (which appear briefly in the novel). Levin said he read both around the same time and it was a light bulb moment.

The novel Levin wrote previous to The Stepford Wives was This Perfect Day, which featured a supercomputer overseeing the entire global community, keeping tabs on people who in turn were drugged into compliance.

Themes

Today the combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put man in a prison, woman endeavors to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence. Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go.

Simone de Beauvoir

The Stepford Wives main theme is an anti-feminist backlash by men organising together. The book opens with the above quote. Levin originally had another quote in mind by Betty Friedan, a feminist writer who is a catalyst in the book’s backstory,

Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

The novel’s plot opens with main character Joanna welcomed to Stepford by the Welcome Wagon lady who also collects biographical information about newcomers for the town newspaper. When the Welcome lady is surprised to hear that Joanna’s husband is also interested in Women’s Liberation, it foreshadows attitudes in the town. But so far Joanna has only noticed that her immediate neighbours are obsessed with cleaning. Walter’s support for women’s rights unravels during the book to the point where it seems highly likely he may have moved his family here knowing perfectly well what the outcome would be.

As Joanna discovers, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, once held an author event in Stepford. It was attended by the very women who are now obsessed with cleaning and looking after their husbands and kids. Over the course of the novel, Joanna and new friend Bobbie learn there was a women’s group with over fifty members. But the group broke up as women left. The Men’s Association, by contrast, only grew in size and power.

Objectification is another theme. The men of the town reduce their wives to objects designed to look more sexualised. When some of the association men visit Joanna, they act strangely while the illustrator Ike Mazzard draws her image over and over. But he changes it enough to make her look better. Dale Coba (Diz) comments on the portraits. It’s only later that a reader will realise these drawings are part of the designs for Joanna’s replacement, designed to look even better than the real Joanna. Walter thinks Joanna should look more like post-transition Bobbie who has suddenly started looking more glamorous. Even Joanna objectifies other people through her camera lens – including a young black man in New York she photographed when a taxi driver refused to stop for him.

In addition to sexism, racism is another theme explored in the book. Joanna thinks her photograph of the young black man in New York will do well because ‘There were plenty of markets for pictures dramatizing racial tensions‘. Stepford is a very WASP town. When a black family – Royal, Ruthanne and their kids – moves to the town, the Welcome Wagon lady tentatively asks Joanna if she thinks it’s a good thing. Joanna thinks it is, but she is also conscious of her liberal white lady ideas, particularly when she first meets Ruthanne at the library. The librarian’s behaviour towards Ruthanne also seems somewhat ambiguous. On the surface she’s polite, but tonally she seems a bit standoffish.

The book also touches on household consumerism and the kind of lifestyle beloved of old washing-up ads. Levin has just given a new and darkly humorous take on it. Women gliding around supermarkets with their shopping items perfectly packed in their trolleys. Housewives running sponges over blinds and squeezing out the water before going back to wipe once more. A world whose men think waxing floors is more important to their ‘wives’ than speaking with other women.

Genre

The Stepford Wives straddles science-fiction horror and social satire. It offers a dystopian (from a feminist perspective) view of Stepford and a utopian view for the fictional husbands who think women belong in the home. But the men of the novel are unimpressive specimens of their sex. Indeed, Walter seems to deteriorate in appearance as Joanna’s replacement period approaches. He complains she doesn’t make enough effort like the new version of Bobbie, yet he makes none himself.

Obviously, this is also a suspense novel with a mystery element. What happened to the feminist meetings? Why did the women all change? Are the men all in on it? Did Walter know before they moved to the town? Will Joanna discover what’s going on and escape from Stepford?

There are horror/gothic tropes, including the mysterious house on the hill – in this case, the Men’s Association building.

But where most horror novels have a dark atmosphere, The Stepford Wives includes a lot of humour and satire. The secret activities at the house on the hill include making toys – toys for needy children. The needy children are the men, creating robot wives for their new members. Indeed, the head of the Men’s Association, Dale Coba, used to work for Disney.

Because the novel never shows what actually happens to the women of the town, and the men are deceptively weak in nature, it’s easy to underestimate the true underlying horror. It’s no surprise then that when Joanna works it out, she can hardly stop laughing. On the surface it’s too ridiculous. Yet the men of the association are serial killers, because they’re all in on it as we see at the climax. They murder their wives, depriving their children of their real mother.

There are unanswered questions after the novel is finished, like:

  • Will the children ever wake up to what’s happened with their mothers?
  • Are the men happy to see this fate eventually inflicted on their own daughters?
  • What happens when everyone but the Stepford wives age? Someone is bound to notice, surely?!
  • Will this replacement program be rolled out beyond Stepford?

Narrative style

The story starts quickly, establishing the characters in their new setting. Jump cuts eliminate any unnecessary filler with only relevant scenes appearing. Levin has designed a plot that functions like clockwork. There is no filler at all in this novella.

Levin is also very precise about what he includes. Nothing is there by accident. He also doesn’t hit the reader over the head with clues. Foreshadowing and subtext are there, building up over the course of the story, but on a second or third read, an innocent line or description takes on new meaning.

By restricting the viewpoint over most of the story to Joanna, he also keeps the reader as much in the dark as the central character. He portrays her as a likeable character, a good mother and wife with a passion for photography and an interest in women’s rights. Isolated in the new town, she wants to make new friends. But over the course of the story, she loses the few friends she makes and becomes ever more paranoid and isolated. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Joanna is subject to the usual gaslighting – her husband even wants her to see a psychiatrist. It’s during that meeting that she finally makes an important connection that leads her to the truth. Levin nicely cranks up the stakes and tension as the novel reaches its climax.

If Levin had chosen multiple viewpoints – including Walter and Bobbie’s viewpoints, for example – the reader would discover the horrifying truth much earlier. Of course, they’d still wonder if Joanna will escape the same fate as the other women. But explicit horror would undermine the subtle understatement of the present version while also destroying the claustrophobia and paranoia enabled by the single viewpoint.

Using a female protagonist

Levin’s novels often use a female protagonist and The Stepford Wives is the most famous example along with Rosemary’s Baby.

In an interview with Levin published in Opera News in 1997, he addressed the advantages of using female protagonists. He believed male characters in a similar situation might come across as ‘wimpy’, leaving the reader impatient, and that readers, both male and female, connect better with a female protagonist in danger.

Of course, given the subject matter of The Stepford Wives – an anti-feminist backlash – the female perspective is more horrifying.

Other Characters

Walter

When we first meet Walter, it’s his turn to do the dishes (something that will come to an end if Joanna ends up like the other wives). He’s planning to go over and talk to a neighbour about the Men’s Association. Joanna is disappointed. She thought Walter supported women’s rights. But he claims he spoke to some of the men on his commute home and they agreed the association should allow women. He says by joining he can work to change the association from the inside.

It was Walter’s idea to move to Stepford. Did he know what was going on in the town before he moved? Did he only pretend to go along with Joanna’s political beliefs until he found a solution – replacing her with a domesticated robot?

When he brought the men from the association over to the house, did he know why Joanna’s portrait was drawn? Something happened at the Men’s Association on his first night, owing to his behaviour after he returned. Did he meet a female robot that night? Certainly, something happened that made him turn away from Joanna sexually.

Early on, when Joanna appears after a shower, he says, ‘You look reborn‘. This takes on a more sinister air when you consider where the plot is heading.

By the end of the novel, Joanna accuses Walter of lying to her from her first photograph. Meaning that he never supported her goals, even when they lived in New York.

The film adaptation is more explicit in suggesting Walter is in cahoots with the men from the association from the start. The novel is more subtle, which builds the paranoia.

Bobbie

Bobbie is an important character in the book who becomes Joanna’s best friend in Stepford. She arrived not long before and has noticed the strange nature of most of the wives.

Bobbie first appears via a phone call. Her personality erupts on the page and clearly defines her as a woman full of vivacity and humour. Her speech quickly establishes her character. This is important because later there will be a change in her behaviour and it’s somewhat subtle to begin with. But the earlier character portrait should alert the reader to a potentially sinister change.

In the world of Stepford men, women cannot have alliances with one another and Bobbie’s doppelgänger is the one who ultimately destroys Joanna – Bobbie, the one person Joanna previously trusted.

Charmaine

Charmaine, an astrology fan and keen tennis player, is the first woman Joanna meets who later changes. When Joanna sees Charmaine’s clay tennis court dismantled for her husband’s benefit, she knows something is very wrong. Charmaine is happy to abandon her tennis and astrology.

Bobbie, realising that it’s four months since Charmaine moved to the area, freaks out. Four months does seem to be the point when new wives to the area change.

And it will not be long before she and Joanna have been there four months.

Ruthanne

The Welcome Wagon lady tells Joanna that a black family has moved into the town. Ruthanne and Royal are the new couple. Ruthanne is a children’s author and illustrator whose work pushes better role models for girls. This makes her a likely ally of Joanna and Bobbie. But she’s too busy on her next book and will hardly appear until the end.

Meeting Joanna, Ruthanne wonders whether there’s been any gossip about a black family moving in. She’s most worried for her daughters, but she’s also wondering about the strange behaviour of the town’s women. By contrast, the Men’s Association have already invited her husband to their meetings. Joanna tells Ruthanne that the Stepford women are less racist than obsessed with housework.

Like Joanna, Ruthanne is not willing to become a ‘hausfrau’, yet the book closes on her viewpoint. She sees Joanna in the supermarket, pushing a trolley around with perfectly packed items. Joanna has changed. By this point, Ruthanne is finishing her book. But there is an ominous endnote to her short section.

It’s worth noting that when Joanna first meets Ruthanne, the latter is holding three books: A Severed Head, I know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and The Magus.

At the end, Ruthanne’s husband Royal is reading Men in Groups. The Amazon description for this book says:

The power of Tiger’s book is its identification of the powerful links between men and the impact of females and families on essentially male groups. While the world has changed much, the argument of the book and its new introduction by the author suggest that a species-specific pattern of male bonding continues to be part of the human default system… The book was controversial when it first appeared, and often foolishly and unduly scorned.

Levin’s literary references in the novel are no accident.

The antagonistic forces

While it becomes clear over the course of the book that Walter is in cahoots with the Men’s Association, and intends to have Joanna replaced with a domesticated robot of his own, he is only part of the antagonistic forces. He is the enemy within Joanna’s own home and not the equal and supportive partner she believed him to be.

Looking at it from a hierarchical perspective, the biggest antagonistic force is the anti-feminist male backlash or patriarchal forces aiming to destroy women’s rights in the town. The Men’s Association are the physical manifestation of this, together with their building looming on the hill. A building that fulfils a classic trope in horror fiction – the creepy house on the hill where sinister forces live.

Women and children are not allowed on the property – a point made in the opening pages of the book. The fence is high enough that one character makes a joke about it. When Joanna tries to take night-time photos of the house, a policeman distracts her until the blinds on the men’s building are pulled down. An odd chemical scent drifts to Joanna in the wind. The scent touches an early memory which she associates both with childhood toys and medicine.

Outside the town, there are high-tech companies including optics, robotics and other industries. The men of the association have science-related jobs at these companies.

Foreshadowing and symbolism

The novel is littered with foreshadowing and clues. The couple who previously owned Joanna and Walter’s house only lasted two months before moving to Canada. While it doesn’t necessarily seem too strange on a first reading, it takes on new meaning on a second round. Why did they move away after they’d just moved in? Bobbie is desperate to move too once she realises that something happens to the wives of the town four months after moving in. Joanna too wants to move – Walter agrees if they wait until the school break. Of course, Joanna will be dead by then which is why he agrees.

It’s possible that the previous couple met a more unfortunate end, but much more likely that they made their escape. Perhaps the husband didn’t like what he learned about the Men’s Association and moving to another part of the US wasn’t far enough away. Or maybe they moved because like Bobbie and Joanna, the wife insisted, but this time the husband listened.

Claude Axhelm, one of the association men, asks each wife to record a list of words into a tape recorder. He gives a false pretext, but one of the women refers to him as Henry Higgins, from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

All the robotic Stepford wives have larger breasts and nipped in waists – even those who change after Joanna has arrived. They’re all obsessed with housework and cleaning. They have no opinions of their own – which stands in stark contrast to what Joanna learns about their pasts as active members of a feminist organisation.

Diz (Dale Coba), the head of the Men’s Association, used to work for Disney. Animatronic replicas of historic presidents appear on television in a foreshadowing of what is actually happening in the town. The automatons belong to Disney. In the midst of a frustrating conversation with a psychiatrist who doesn’t believe her, Joanna suddenly makes the connection with the animatronic presidents and Diz’s past. The wives of the Men Association all act like robots.

From this realisation she is plunged into finding out the fate of the women’s organisation and finally confronts Walter, leading to the book’s chilling climax.

There is a lot of symbolism in the book too. On the first page the Welcome Wagon lady tells Joanna that the book of discount slips is good at twenty-two shops. Joanna stands at the door with both hands full of the items the lady has given her and when she tells her that’s enough, she repeats it. In a novel where a central plot twist involves doppelgängers there are early examples of twos, 22, both hands, repeated words. Even their new property is 2.2 acres. There are also two illustrators in the book – Ike Mazzard and Ruthanne. One draws idealised images of young women (that intimidated teenage Joanna when she first saw them), and the other draws active assertive girls for children’s fiction.

Given Levin’s habit of going over and over a scene and chapter until it’s just right, it’s not an accident he makes these choices. In what is essentially a novella, there are many clues, examples of foreshadowing, and symbols. He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary details.

Conclusion

Levin’s novella packs a great punch and is loaded with clues, foreshadowing, symbolism and subtext. In less than 150 pages, it manages to tell an iconic story that stands up well more than half a century later.

It’s a story where brevity and economy of language is key, where every scene counts and nothing is filler.

Levin’s agent, Roslyn Targ, described The Stepford Wives as a spellbinder after she first read it. The editorial fact sheet from Random House suggested that the book might do even better than Rosemary’s Baby, saying: There’s a kind of woman who from now on will be known as a Stepford Wife. In other words, this is potentially an enormous best seller. Scribbled in pencil at the bottom of this sheet is: a wife’s mounting terror in a seemingly idyllic suburb.

Levin himself had lived in a sleeper town like Stepford and understood them well. He successfully overturned their cosy all-American Dream facade into something more nightmarish. In doing so, he did indeed introduce the concept of Stepford Wives into the language. Fittingly, before publication, the novel was serialised in Ladies Home Journal. The first print run of the novel was 50,000. The review headlines included ‘Women’s Lib Gothic‘ and ‘Suburban Evil‘.

Today, as women’s rights are under threat again, The Stepford Wives seems just as relevant as it was in 1972.

Further Reading

Information in this post was derived from the book and the following resources:

Ira Levin’s Official Site has very useful resources, including background material from Levin’s notebooks for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. You can also check out various author interviews listed there.

Behind the book information on the two above novels – including Levin’s own notes. Recommended.

Interview with Ira Levin available in downloadable pdf format from New York Public Library.

Other blog posts of interest

How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby.

How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire.

Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.

How narrative devices support a novel’s theme – examining Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement.