THE STEPFORD WIVES
Old mass-market paperback, 1972
***As always, here there be spoilers***
Like many of my vintage paperbacks from the 60s and 70s, my copy of The Stepford Wives came from a collection of thousands of books and magazines taken from the ancestral family home in Sciotoville, Ohio. Most of them belonged to my Great-Aunt Catherine, who passed away in 1978. I come from a long line of readers, and Aunt Cat’s tastes ranged wider than most. I have long been in her debt.
Once upon a time, feminism raised scary questions and made people uneasy. Women were energized by the prospect of wider vistas. Truth be told, some were probably a bit nervous as they stepped forth and took on larger, more demanding roles in public life. Some, it can be assumed, suffered pangs of guilt as they left behind roles that had been dutifully performed by their mothers and grandmothers. And the men? The best of them caught on quickly, many of them struggled to understand the changing world, and the worst . . . well, the worst fumed and raged.
And some of them, it seems, built robots.
Ira Levin’s by-now classic novel, The Stepford Wives, was of course written in the midst of such an uneasy time: a time when women—even, it seems, a sizeable group of nice, suburban housewives—might get together to attend and applaud a lecture by Betty Friedan. Levin’s imaginative conceit was that a (former Disney!) animatronics expert could create passible wife-bots programmed with a hankering for housework. The idea was always a bit of a stretch, but its very improbability is part of what makes the story work: the real reason why these women act so strangely never dawns on Joanna Eberhart until it’s too late. What we get is a story of growing dread as the “normal” world around her seems increasing alien and sinister. Slowly revealing the weird and dangerous within the shell of the superficially normal is, of course, one of Levin’s strengths: remember Rosemary the expectant mother and that nice, older couple next door?
Of course, the real horror in Stepford isn’t the mechanized doppelgangers that Dale Coba builds in his workshop. His shoppelgangers are simply acting as they’re programmed to—just as, one supposes, Satan is meeting expectations when he impregnates Rosemary. The real evil in the worlds Levin constructs is betrayal, and the real horror is the moral bankruptcy of husbands who allow their wives to be used for brood mares by the neighborhood cultists or to be quietly removed so they can be replaced by subservient replicas. How do you explain the facile evil of men like Guy Woodhouse and Walter Eberhart? Are these portraits of selfish narcissism plausible, or is this where Levin overplays his hand?
On the whole, I think Guy is more convincing than Walter, if only because we see more of him and we have more of a sense of his motives. Still, The Stepford Wives and the domestic evil it presents remains convincing enough in a world where The President of the United States gives daily demonstrations on the powers of narcissism and where most murder victims know their killers.