She wished: that they would be happy in Stepford. That Pete and Kim would do well in school, and that she and Walter would find good friends and fulfillment. That he wouldn’t mind the commuting – though the whole idea of moving had been his in the first place. That the lives of all four of them would be enriched, rather than diminished, as she had feared, by leaving the city – the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city.
Joanna Eberhart, the protagonist of The Stepford Wives, an occasional tennis player/ semi-professional photographer, is new to Stepford, a thriving suburb in Connecticut, just having moved in a few days back with her lawyer husband Walter and two kids, Pete and Kim. She is looking forward to make new friends in this new town, but her neighborly wives albeit being nice, seem to be completely taken by their household duties to her much disappointment. Walter, on the other hand, seems to have better luck finding friends when he joins Stepford Men’s Association, although he strongly agrees with Joanna that the association’s policy to close its gates to women is archaic, at least at first.
Thanks to ‘Notes on Newcomers’ at the Chronicle; a local newspaper Joanna finds a friend named Bobbie who is also a new resident in town. Bobbie, wife of Dave – another member of Men’s Association, and mother of three sons, is a lively woman and the two of them hit it off instantly. It turns out Bobbie keeps a messier household than Joanna and their bond tightens over their incomprehension of other Stepford wives. Believing these hausfraus can’t be content with just housework, the pair attempts to get a group of Stepford wives together, but their task appears to be much tougher than they had anticipated. Carol, Joanna’s neighbor, turns down Joanna saying she doesn’t have time for a get together with all her chores. When asked if it doesn’t bother her that she is excluded from all the community projects, Carol replies she thinks her husband, Ted is better equipped to manage those tasks, and adds that she imagines Men’s Association provides a place for their husbands to relax after all the hard work they do. Quite ironically Carol doesn’t seem to be generous in awarding herself a break every now and then, and it turns out she is not alone on that account in this quirky suburb. Barbara, Marge, Kim, Donna, Mary, Yvonne, and Jill; all these women unequivocally accept their place to be in the house doing yet another dull task, and when resigned Bobbie calls Stepford the “Town That Time Forgot”, it is not far from the truth.
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.
I won’t give away any more of the plot summary as I believe The Stepford Wives to be a book everyone should read. Joanna, the narrator of this novella for a good part of the book, is an absolute delight. Her dorky comments cracked me up more than once! Her best photograph, a shot of a well dressed young African-American venomously glaring at an empty cab that didn’t stop for him possibly because of his color at a time of racial tensions, speaks of her capabilities; that she is more than a mere housewife. Yes, she doesn’t spend all her waking hours cleaning and maintaining the house, and yes, she is very passionate about the Women’s Liberation Movement, but it doesn’t mean she ignores her house, husband, or children. Wouldn’t any man be lucky to have such an intelligent, beautiful wife?
Also, I saw a bit of myself in Joanna! Noting how Carol, an “asking-to-be-exploited-patsy” in Joanna’s opinion, doesn’t even want to take a coffee break from all the domestic drudgery, specially when Ted is having a merry time at the Men’s Association, adamant Joanna decides not to touch chores on principle when Walter is away at Men’s Association meetings, at least not more than he would do when she is away, which I think is very fair! 😀
Moving on to the themes and writing, The Stepford Wives was published in 1972, 52 years after women in the US won their right to vote, and at a time they were fighting workplace and educational rights inequality (On a side note, knowledge of these struggles makes me immensely proud of Sri Lanka, my home country. Sri Lanka elected their first female prime minister in 1960 – 12 years after its independence, and even long before that Sri Lankan men and women had been on equal footing). Through this novella, Ira Levin tells a tale of a bunch of men who feel threatened by notions of female liberation, who would cook up a plan seeking retribution because they feel there is nothing evil like a woman of her own mind with her own interests! It is a harrowing story; with lengths some husbands would go to make sure they come to a spotless home everyday – never-mind their wives have no life outside the house – after all the wives are there to serve their masters looking all pretty and dolled up!
The simple writing style Ira Levin has used makes The Stepford Wives an easy read; I read the book in a single sitting. He doesn’t bore us with too much information, but keeps subtly hinting at what is going on in Stepford. Finally when Joanna gets a wind that something fishy is going on in this peculiar suburb, nonetheless hopes her suspicions will be proved unfounded and to be figments of her imagination, I found myself hoping the same, as the alternative would be lethal for her.