The Stepford Wives

by

Ira Levin

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The Stepford Wives Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ira Levin

Born in 1929, Ira Levin grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx, where he attended the famous Horace Mann School. Upon graduating, he studied for two years at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa before returning to New York City to attend New York University. He double majored in English and Philosophy at NYU, where he participated in a television screenwriting competition during his senior year. The screenplay he wrote earned him second place in the contest, but he later sold it to NBC as an episode on the popular show “Lights Out,” which was a suspense series first made popular as a radio program. This early success hinted at Levin’s mastery when it came to writing suspenseful, unsettling stories—a skill that blossomed in his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, which was published in 1953 and won the Edgar Award for best novel. Levin was in his early twenties at the time and had begun to consistently write for television, though he spent 1953 through 1955 serving in the Army Signal Corps. In 1955, he adapted the Mac Hyman novel No Time for Sergeants into a teleplay that later ran on Broadway to great acclaim. He went on to write the famous novels Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), both of which have been adapted into well-known films. After a fruitful career, he died from a heart attack while living in Manhattan in 2007.
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Historical Context of The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives takes place at some point in the 1960s or the early 1970s, meaning that it’s set during the second-wave feminist movement. Second-wave feminism was an approach to feminism that began in the 1960s and lasted for roughly 20 years. It built on first-wave feminism, which primarily focused on suffrage (voting rights) and other legal issues. Second-wave feminism, on the other hand, broadened the movement’s scope to consider the many other ways in which society’s patriarchal, male-dominated power structures excluded and oppressed women. This meant looking at issues surrounding sexuality, the workplace, reproductive rights, and traditional familial or domestic expectations of women. In particular, second-wave feminism challenged the idea that married women should automatically devote themselves to domestic lifestyles that kept them from pursuing other interests or careers. Men had long taken it for granted that their wives would stay at home, care for their children, cook, and clean, but second-wave feminism empowered women to push back against these limiting expectations. This is exactly what Joanna Eberhart tries to do in The Stepford Wives, and the extreme resistance she encounters in the novel represents just how difficult it was to challenge gender norms in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Other Books Related to The Stepford Wives

Because The Stepford Wives features a community’s systematic oppression of women, it can be seen as something of a precursor to other dystopian feminist novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which is about a future in which a patriarchal society forces women into sexual servitude. Another well-known novel that combines feminism with dystopic magical realism (or science fiction) is Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, which—like The Stepford Wives—investigates ideas surrounding gender, power, and identity. It’s also worth considering The Stepford Wives alongside Levin’s other famous novel, Rosemary’s Baby. Although Rosemary’s Baby is more of a straightforward horror story than The Stepford Wives, both books feature young couples who move into new environments where something is seriously amiss. What’s more, both novels center around female protagonists tasked with saving themselves from horrific fates.
Key Facts about The Stepford Wives
  • Full Title: The Stepford Wives
  • When Published: September 1972
  • Literary Period: Postmodern  
  • Genre: Thriller, Suspense, Satire
  • Setting: The fictional suburban town of Stepford, which is based on Wilton, Connecticut
  • Climax: Realizing that the men in Stepford are planning to turn her into a robot, Joanna makes a mad dash for freedom through deep snow, only to be cornered by three men and coaxed into her friend’s house.
  • Antagonist: The men of Stepford and, more generally, society’s sexist expectations of women
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Stepford Wives

The Big Screen. The Stepford Wives has been made into a film two times. The first was in 1975, and it received mediocre reviews. Well-known feminists like Betty Friedan saw it as a cheap rip-off of the feminist movement. The second adaptation was in 2004 and starred Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Middler, Glenn Close, and Christopher Walken—despite its star-studded cast, most viewers and critics alike did not like it.

High Praise. The celebrated horror and suspense novelist Stephen King called Ira Levin the “Swiss watchmaker” of suspense novels, since all of Levin’s books feature such precise and impressive plots.