The premise of Levin's novella “The Stepford Wives” is well known to many people, through the film adaptation featuring Nicole Kidman and it's use to describe a subservient, possibly clone-like, person. Working on a book of my own, and an interest in what a Stepford Wife was in the mind of Ira Levin, led me to approach the book for the first time (I've been doing a lot of approaching for the first time, recently).
Levin's story follows photographer, and active feminist, Joanna Eberhart and her family, as they leave the big city and settle in the pristine New England town of Stepford. However, what the Estate Agent brochures do not say, is that the women of the town appear not to have discovered the 1960s. As Joanna, and her fellow Stepford-newbie friend Bobbie discover, all the women in the town are so obsessed with housework, that they have no social life or interests away from the kitchen sink and vacuum cleaner. The men of Stepford, including both Joanna and Bobbie's husbands, join the Men's Association shortly after they move to the town and spend the evenings there.
It doesn't take Joanna very long to find out that the Stepford women were, until about six or seven years prior to her moving to the town, very active in local politics and societies. When Joanna questions one of the former leaders of a society, Kit Sunderson, about the disappearance of the women's groups, she is informed that the intelligent women of Stepford “lost interest” in political activities. “'Some of the women moved away,' she[Kit] said – she closed the drawer and turned, putting a spoon on the saucer – 'and the rest of us just lost interest in it. At least I did.'” Even more disturbingly, the Men's Association – under that name, and president – did not exist at the time. The Men's Association formed in Stepford, as the women's groups disappeared. Later, she suspects that the two are somehow linked, a belief that Levin's open writing style allows his readers to share, and the men are exchanging their wives for animatronic robots. As the story progresses, her new friends change, regarding their previous lifestyles as “indulgent” or “selfish”, and whole-heartedly devoting themselves to housework. Her husband also changes, regarding her belief that she will soon become another Barbie Doll housewife, who is chained to the kitchen, as paranoid.
Levin guides the reader through the story by easing us into the mind of Joanna, and by describing her thought processes, enables us to see the world of Stepford as Joanna Eberhart. He allows the reader to become so much a part of Joanna, that it's very difficult to understand her husband's more pragmatic viewpoint. Instead Walter Eberhart is assumed to have been somehow changed by all his visits to the Men's Association.
As already mentioned, Levin leaves many aspects of the story open to the reader's imagination and interpretation. For example, he doesn't explicitly describe how the women change from radical free-thinkers to docile housewives. Actually, he doesn't describe that at all – because the story is told mostly from Joanna's perspective, the reader assumes that she would not know the details before the operation, and she wouldn't remember them afterwards. Instead, she would just describe her amazing transformation as a change of attitude. Therefore, all the reader can do is assume that Bobbie and all the other women have been replaced by a robot, designed by Men's Association President, Dale Coba. The motivation is as unclear as the method of transformation, but it will be very easy to suspect that Coba despises women's involvement in local politics, so he orchestrates a scheme to ensure they stay in the kitchen like good little wives.
An interesting point that sticks in ones head after reading the book, is the way political activism, being creative and career sit in direct opposition to the role of a housewife. As if the latter is totally bad, while the former is what all women should be. However, this is probably not Levin's point in writing the story, that is not easy to determine. It seems that his point is about a woman being compelled into carrying out a role. Non of the women in the story would have willingly accepted being forced into their positions, so devious means had to be employed to force them to accept those positions. A woman is compelled because someone other than her decides what she can do, what her role might be in life, what clothes she has to wear – even by another woman. Ira Levin's message in the story, is that no one should force a woman (or even a man) into doing some thing they don't want to do.