Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Suspense master Ira Levin actually got his start as a playwright; in fact, his play Deathtrap holds the record for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway. But he is perhaps best known for his chilling suspense novels. Today, let’s take a closer look at his fourth novel, The Stepford Wives.
As the novel begins, photographer Joanna Eberhart and her attorney husband Walter have just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut with their two children Pete and Kim. They’ve found a nice home in a pleasant, quiet neighbourhood and are settling in well. Walter’s joined Stepford’s Men’s Association, and although Joanna thinks it’s sexist and antiquated, she is glad that Walter’s found some local buddies. Pete and Kim have made new friends, too, and Joanna is looking forward to spending more time with her photography once the school year begins.
Soon after the move to Stepford, Joanna meets down-to-earth Bobbie Markowe and the two women soon become good friends. Like Joanna, Bobbie is a feminist who doesn’t feel that her identity should revolve around whether or not the house is clean. Both women are perplexed and somewhat put off by the provincial attitudes of many people in the town. Still, they like the area and they and their husbands are hoping that they’ll be able to help change the local mindset.
Then, Bobbie begins to believe that beneath its peaceful, postcard-perfect surface, something nasty is going on in Stepford. Her suspicion takes real form when one of the two womens’ friends suddenly seems to change drastically. Bobbie puts these changes together with some other facts of life in Stepford and is convinced that something is very, very wrong. Joanna is soon convinced that Bobbie’s right, and the two women decide that the best thing to do is to look for new homes and move at the end of the school year. It seems that all might work out, but a frightening event shocks Joanna into realising that just how perilous her own situation is. Now, if she’s going to survive, Joanna’s going to have to convince Walter that she’s not crazy and that she herself is in imminent danger.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the growing suspense. That, more than anything else, keeps the reader turning pages. Levin builds the suspense in several ways, too. One of them is through the contrast between the beautiful small town the Eberharts have moved to, and the ugly reality beneath the surface. Stepford itself is a well-kept, peaceful town. Here, for instance, is a bit of the description of one of the Eberhardts’ first drives through down:
“The day was vivid and gem-edged, a sign of autumn. They drove to Stepford Centerd (white frame Colonial shopfront, postcard-pretty)…and the picnic grounds where a community pool was under construction.”
And yet, there’s also a sense, even from the beginning of the novel, that the town is too good to be true. And so it turns out to be.
Another way in which Levin builds the suspense is that for much of the novel, only Joanna Eberhart and Bobbie Markowe believe that anything is wrong. Nearly everyone else in town is perfectly happy with the way things are. That contentment makes Joanna even more anxious, since there’s no support for her beliefs. In fact, Joanna questions her own sanity at one point, and pays a visit to a psychiatrist. That tension builds even more when she has to convince herself, as you might say, that she’s right and that the danger is real.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of the suspense in this novel is that Levin keeps the reader turning pages eagerly with no violence. There are no ugly, gory scenes or bloody discoveries. It is (in my opinion, so feel free to disagree with me if you do) a highly, highly effective use of hints, clues and a character’s growing fears to build suspense. The question of whether Joanna is paranoid or whether she truly faces real danger runs tautly through the novel, too, and adds to the suspense.
Another element woven throughout the novel is the issue of men’s and women’s roles, and what the feminist movement means. This novel was published in 1972, when the Women’s Liberation movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had moved from smaller groups of people to spark a much larger social debate. The movement left many women with serious questions about what roles they should play personally and professionally. It left many men, too, with questions about where they fit in in the evolving social order. What’s truly effective about Levin’s treatment of the topic is that it’s brought to a very personal level. Joanna and Bobbie are not fulfilled by cleaning their homes, catering to their families and keeping up their physical appearances. They have other interests and want to be treated as intelligent, capable people with thoughts and ideas of their own. On the other hand, neither wants to neglect her family nor be selfish. They love their husbands and they have no desire to “put them in their places.” Especially in Joanna’s character we see the personal conflict that many women of the time felt (and many still do) about how to carve out roles for themselves. But again, this is done so effectively because Levin doesn’t discuss the feminist movement in the abstract. Instead, individual people wrestle with the issues.
The same might be said of the treatment of racial issues in the novel. This is addressed when Ruthanne Hendry, an African-American author and illustrator of children’s books, moves to Stepford with her husband Royal and their children. There aren’t institutionalised race-based restrictions on where they live and what they do. But we do see some tension as the Hendrys settle in. Ruthanne wonders whether there was local opposition to their presence and is quick to sense what she feels is racism, and it’s interesting to see how she gradually becomes aware that race is less of an issue than she thought. That said, though, there are a few hints of racial unease. For instance, at one point, the local Welcome Wagon representative tells Joanna about the Hendrys, saying,
“A black family is moving in on Gwendolyn Lane. But I think it’s good, don’t you?”
Joanna herself thinks about the whole race issue when she meets Ruthanne and wonders if introducing herself would be condescending and a sign of “White Liberal guilt.” This question of how the various races should relate to each other in the wake of the Civil Rights movement is also treated in a very human, personalised way. This adds interesting depths to the characters and prevents the book from sounding preachy about feminism and race.
A tense and suspenseful “suburban thriller,” The Stepford Wives uses the appealing characters of Joanna Eberhart and Bobbie Markowe to tell a truly chilling story. It also addresses some very important social issues. But what’s your view? Have you read The Stepford Wives? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 6 June/Tuesday 7 June – Still Life – Louise Penny
Monday 13 June/Tuesday 14 June – A Case of Need – Michael Crichton (writing as Jeffrey Hudson)
Monday 20 June/Tuesday 21 June – Random Violence – Jassy Mackenzie