Ira Levin’s dark suburban tale remains as compelling—and frighteningly relevant—as ever. Psychological suspense mixes with elements of science fiction to create an extraordinary thriller tinted with Levin’s sly, satirical wit.
Few novels have enshrined themselves in the collective consciousness to the degree The Stepford Wives has. Levin’s biting critique has been spun off into countless film and television adaptations, from 1975’s original Katharine Ross filming to 2004’s Nicole Kidman offering—and its influence can be felt in later works from The Handmaid’s Tale to Get Out. Its title alone has become part of our common lexicon.
Joanna Eberhart is a creative, self-possessed wife and mother, newly arrived in seemingly idyllic Stepford, Connecticut. But as she and her family begin settling in, she’s jarred by the unaccountable sameness of the local wives: all flawlessly attractive, with perfectly maintained homes—and little seeming interest in anything else. As curiosity turns to concern, Joanna finds herself unraveling a web of malice that threatens her very existence.
Prepare to be captivated, unnerved, and utterly engrossed by Ira Levin’s dark and unforgettable modern classic, The Stepford Wives.
Release date: July 23, 2002
Publisher: HarperCollins e-books
Print pages: 144
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The Stepford Wives
by Peter Straub
THE STEPFORD WIVES, along with almost everything else written by the admirable Ira Levin, does honor to a demanding literary aesthetic that has gone generally unremarked due to its custom of concealing itself, like the Purloined Letter, in plain view. Polished and formal at its core, this aesthetic can be seen in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, the work of California Gothic writers like Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan, and in Brian Moore’s last, drastically underappreciated six novels. Clearly adaptable over a wide range of style, manner, and content, it emphasizes concision, efficiency, observation, accuracy, effect, speed, and the illusion of simplicity. Fiction of this kind rigorously suppresses authorial commentary and reflection in its direct progress from moment to moment. This emphasis on a drastic concision brings with it a certain necessary, if often underplayed, artificiality that always implies an underlying wit, although the individual works themselves may have no other connection to humor. Such fiction possesses the built-in appeal of appearing to be extremely easy to read, since the reader need do no more than float along on the current, moving from a paragraph centered around a sharp visual detail to a passage of dialogue, thence on to another telling detail followed by another brief bit of dialogue, and so on.
In fact, The Stepford Wives is so effortlessly readable that it has been persistently misread, which is to say misunderstood, over the thirty years since its original publication. As a novel that can be devoured nearly in one gulp, its very efficiency deflects attention from the controlled composure of its prose and the jewel-like perfection of its structure. (Readers of popular fiction tend anyhow to ignore the construction of the books that push their buttons and, even more noticeably, to disregard stylistic niceties; gripped by a compelling, or at least exciting, narrative, readers of popular fiction generally overlook the essential qualities of the actual writing that delivers the story, whether it shines or stinks.) Levin’s prose is clean, precise, and unfussy specifically in order to be as transparent as possible: he wishes to place no verbal static between the words on the page and the events they depict. One great difference between good writing, that readers overlook, and bad writing, that they fail to notice, has to do with the number of rewrites and revisions usually required by the former. It isn’t at
all easy to write clear, declarative prose—transparency evolves from ruthless cutting and trimming and is hard work—while lumpy, tangle-footed writing flows from the pen as if inspired by the Muse.
Reading The Stepford Wives, we gradually recognize that an inexorable internal timetable lies beneath its action, and that each of the novel’s hints, breakthroughs, and miniclimaxes—the stages of its heroine’s progress toward final knowledge—have been exquisitely timed against the imperatives of that underlying schedule. It is like a great clock, ticking away from September 4 to just before Christmas. After moving to the suburban village of Stepford, Joanna Eberhart soon befriends two women refreshingly unlike the house-proud, polite, but seemingly brainless women married to the local men. Bobbie Markowe, “short and heavy-bottomed,” with “small hands and dirty toes,” instantly suggests that they try to drum up interest in a local NOW chapter. The only woman in town to display any interest is Charmaine Wimperis, an avid tennis player, who babbles about astrology and her husband’s depraved sexual tastes, as evidenced by his recently having presented her with a heavily zippered, whole-body rubber garment. Charmaine moved to Stepford in July, Bobbie in August. Wives in Stepford become Stepford wives after the period of time necessary for their husbands to prepare the ground, or four months after arrival. In November, therefore, Charma
ine abruptly tears up her tennis court to install a putting green for her husband, now understood to be “a wonderful guy.” At this point we do not share the author’s awareness that Bobbie has one month left before the dread transformation, Joanna two. Like our heroine, we become aware of the timetable only after Bobbie Markowe returns from a brief marital vacation with enhanced breasts, a slimmer bottom, and a newfound passion for ironing.
Although in longer works of fiction, time is always a besetting problem—a conundrum that demands constant attention—a narrative built atop a four-month clock must be even more careful in its handling than as is the case in other novels, and Levin manages with beautiful economy the business of moving us from September to November, when the noose tightens, by listing specific events that carry us through the days: “Pete took a fall on the school bus and knocked out his two front teeth. Joanna’s parents paid a short-notice three-day visit on their way to a Caribbean vacation. … The dishwasher broke down, and the pump; and Pete’s eighth birthday came. … She saw Bobbie almost every day. … By the end of October, Walter was getting home for dinner again. … They carved a huge pumpkin for Halloween, and Pete went trick-or-treating as a front-toothless Batman. … On the first Saturday in Nove
mber they gave a dinner party …”
And there we are again, located within a dinner-party scene bristling with apprehension that will come to a climax a mere 900 words later, with Charmaine blandly going on about cleaning her house, while workmen cut up the metal fence around her already demolished tennis court.
A wicked, deadpan humor lies at the heart of this tableau with Bobbie and Joanna staring ins mingled disbelief and horror at their former fellow-rebel, while the workers below deal the coup de grâce to what once had been a sign of grandiose over-privilege. (“It’s a clay court!” Joanna wails.) If The Stepford Wives were the easy satire on the banality of suburban housewives that it is commonly taken to be—a misconception that has installed its title in our language as shorthand for those homemakers who affect an uncanny perfection—this humor would seem wildly out of place. Yet it fits the moment so accurately that it slips by almost unnoticed, for it is the same subversive humor that shapes the entire book. This is a novel that satirizes its oppressors and their desires, not their victims, within a context that satirizes its very status as a thriller.
A coven of high-tech, randy suburban men conspire to replace their wives with compliant sex-robots dedicated to sparkling floors and clean grout in the bathrooms—whatever we are dealing with here,
it isn’t mimetic fiction. Levin created the same kind of deliberately genre-parodic, over-the-top exoskeleton for The Boys from Brazil, where Nazi scientists breed little Führer clones and adopt them out to families akin to Hitler’s. Oblivious to his satire, lots of heavy-footed thriller writers immediately began to imitate precisely what he had been lampooning. Similarly, not a single reviewer of Son of Rosemary, Levin’s most recent novel, understood that it, too, satirized the excesses of its own supposed genre.
Levin’s Olympian humor emerges primarily in his depiction of the Stepford husbands. Until the last fifteen pages, almost everything these men do is hilarious. At parties, Stepford husbands talk only to one other, like clueless boys. Like teenage boys, they yearn to translate their fantasies of sex with Playmate-style lollapaloozas into reality, so they spend as many evenings as possible in the steamy atmosphere of the Men’s Association, where groin and brain unite to whip up the latest walking, talking sex toy. (When not bent over the workbench, they goggle at porn flicks.) These men are so single-mindedly, comically lubricious that they barely attempt to disguise their intentions, drawing portraits of the new prospects and having them read endless lists of vowel-consonant combinations into a tape recorder. Actual women irritate and bore them, and the busty robots are useful only as concubines and maids.
The funniest revelation of wholehearted male piggery occurs very early in the book, when the Eberharts have been in town no more than a few weeks. At two in the morning, after Walter Eberhart has returned from his first visit to the Men’s Association, the shaking of the bed and the squeaking of bed-springs awaken his wife. Joanna quickly realizes that her husband is … masturbating! “Well next time wake me,” she says, and before long they are enjoying the best sex they’ve had in years. Something has ignited Walter’s fuse, and not until much later do we realize—as Joanna never does—that it was the world-class fantasy object described to him by the grinning lads up on the hill.
Without at all belaboring the point, Levin pinpoints the origins of the husbands’ scheme by having Joanna leaf back through old issues of the local paper to discover that the Men’s Association came into being shortly after Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, gave a well-attended talk to the Stepford Women’s Club. The same club soon suspended meetings—due to lack of attendance, no doubt.
In 1972, the year The Stepford Wives was published, Betty Friedan helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus, and The Feminine Mystique had been in print for nine years. That same year, Congress passed the (ultimately doomed) Equal Rights Amendment. To conservative-minded males, the feminist movement had just become something a great deal more than a minor nuisance. I don’t know if The Stepford Wives can properly be called a feminist satire, but Levin’s timing was impeccable, a thing of beauty all in itself. Like nearly everything else he has written, this book resembles a bird in flight, a haiku, a Chinese calligrapher’s brushstroke. With no wasted motion, it gets precisely where it wants to go.
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