Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
Reviewers who complained that Ira Levin had not delved deeply into technological fine points with his Stepford automatons, including the implications of cybernetics, may have overlooked his real intentions with this novel. In The Boys from Brazil (1976), which was made into a successful 1978 film starring Gregory Peck and...
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Reviewers who complained that Ira Levin had not delved deeply into technological fine points with his Stepford automatons, including the implications of cybernetics, may have overlooked his real intentions with this novel. In The Boys from Brazil (1976), which was made into a successful 1978 film starring Gregory Peck and Sir Laurence Olivier, Levin explores the more plausible field of genetic cloning. That novel is more than twice the length of The Stepford Wives, however, which is essentially a fast-paced novel of intrigue that includes a wry critique of the women’s liberation movement even as it assails the patriarchy.
Levin prefaces the novel with a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), in which she describes women’s endeavor to escape from a patriarchal “prison”; however, “it is with bad grace that the man lets her go.” The origins of The Stepford Wives may lie in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879) and Hedda Gabler (1890), both of which concern the plight of women incarcerated in male-dominated society. Nora Helmer succeeds in escaping her possessive and domineering husband before he can turn her into a “Stepford wife,” but the cost is high. The daughter of a general, Hedda Gabler attempts to deal with the patriarchy on its own terms, through power and manipulation, but she fails and is driven to suicide.
Levin does not create for Joanna Eberhart the depth of character encountered in Ibsen’s protagonists. She is an all-too-credible representative of the contemporary American middle-class woman, a college graduate married to a successful professional with “typical” children residing in a “comfortable” suburban community. Her political interests are no more serious than her love of tennis or her semiprofessional commitment to photography. A simple, intelligent, pleasant, and likable woman who is given to hobbies, Joanna is more than halfway to being a Stepford wife without even recognizing it.
At another extreme lies Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), also made into a successful film, in which women are reduced to stereotypical roles ranging from cook to childbearer. Love and romance are distant memories for Offred (“of” Fred), whose value to the Commander derives from her fertility in a society in which the birthrate has plummeted. Joanna Eberhart does not measure up to the protagonist of Atwood’s novel, but the authors’ intentions differ, as The Stepford Wives is a novella of about 140 pages, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale runs nearly 400 pages.
The themes of these works are similar. Levin’s novel mentions Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics (1970), which appeared only two years before The Stepford Wives. Millett’s ideas inform both The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale. The Stepford mentality is a product of what Millett calls the patriarchal “counterrevolution,” stressing that home and family values are threatened by feminist revolution. Levin’s novel may be regarded as a satire of patriarchal paranoia.