The Stepford Wives

by

Ira Levin

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The Stepford Wives: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Joanna Eberhart stands on the doorstep of her new home in Stepford. She impatiently answers questions from a “Welcome Wagon lady,” who always interviews new Stepford residents and writes a small article about them in the local paper. When the Welcome Wagon lady asks if she has any hobbies, Joanna is tempted to say no so she can end the conversation, but she realizes that an article about her interests might help attract like-minded women—women who aren’t like the neighbors she has met the last few days, all of whom seem completely fixated on housework and little else.
As soon as she moves to Stepford, Joanna makes a point of subverting the expectations that stereotypically male-dominated suburban communities have when it comes to women. She has already recognized that the majority of the women living in Stepford are preoccupied with housework, meaning that they fit the role of the traditional housewife in mid-20th century American society—a role that Joanna is clearly eager to evade.
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Joanna says that she plays tennis, is a semi-professional photographer, and is interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement. She adds that Walter—her husband, who works at a law firm—is also interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement, which surprises the Welcome Wagon lady. When the short interview is over, the Welcome Wagon lady leaves, and Joanna looks across the street. She sees a rag moving in tight patterns as her neighbor washes the windows. Joanna smiles, in case the neighbor is looking out, but she can only see the white rag moving methodically across the glass.
The Welcome Wagon Lady’s surprise about Walter’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement is a good indication that the men in Stepford aren’t very progressive or enlightened when it comes to gender equality. Joanna seems aware of this and is clearly proud of her husband’s open-mindedness. It remains to be seen, however, just how much Walter’s supposed feminist advocacy will matter in a place like Stepford, where there are constant reminders of American society’s sexism—reminders like the ominous vision of a white rag moving almost robotically across a window across the street, as if the woman holding that rag has no other choice but to clean.
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That night, it’s Walter’s turn to do the dishes. Joanna has spent the day with the kids, Pete and Kim, who fought by the TV about what to watch. Now, when Joanna enters the kitchen, she sees Walter craning his neck to look out the window toward the neighbors’ house. He jumps when he realizes she’s behind him, explaining that he was watching to see if the neighbors, the Van Sants, had finished eating dinner yet, since Ted Van Sant invited him over for a chat. Walter adds that he has changed his mind: he is going to join the Men’s Association, after all. Joanna talks about how antiquated an all-male institution is, but he insists that they’ll miss out on too many important things if he doesn’t join—plus, he insists that he’ll be able to change the organization from the inside.
It has already been made clear that Joanna sees Walter as a progressive, forward-thinking man who believes in gender equality. Now, though, it seems as if he’s already getting sucked into the sexist traditions that are still very much alive in Stepford. Although he claims that he will try to change the Men’s Association from the inside, it seems likely that he simply feels the allure of power and exclusivity emanating from the Association. In other words, he doesn’t want to miss out on anything, even if refusing to join the Association would align with his supposed values concerning gender equality.
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Joanna and Ted move to the backyard and continuing discussing the Men’s Association. Joanna is still skeptical. It’s possible, she tells Walter, to change organizations from the outside. But Walter thinks it’ll be easier to challenge the Men’s Association if he joins. He promises that if the organization isn’t co-ed within six months, he’ll quit and they can protest it together. But that probably won’t be necessary, he jokes: before Joanna knows it, the Men’s Association will be open to everyone and there will be “co-ed poker” and “sex on the pool table.”
Walter’s jokes about turning the Men’s Association into a co-ed organization are somewhat revealing. When he says that there will soon be “co-ed poker” and “sex on the pool table,” he makes light of the entire idea of gender equality. He also sexualizes the idea of women joining the Association. In doing so, he undermines the fact that Joanna wants the organization to be co-ed so that women can have just as much influence in the community as men do—not, of course, because she wants to have sex on a pool table.
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Ted goes back inside to get ready to leave. Meanwhile, Joanna thinks about her new life in Stepford, hoping that the move will enhance her life instead of “diminish[ing]” it, as she originally feared. As she thinks this way, she hears Carol Van Sant bringing out the garbage next door, so she calls out to her. Carol responds flatly, even though it seems like Joanna may have startled her. Joanna explains that Walter is going to be visiting Carol’s husband later that evening, and she suggests that Carol should come over for a drink while the men chat. Carol, however, insists that she couldn’t possibly do that—she has to wax the floors.
In this scene, Joanna has trouble connecting with her new neighbor. Carol seems somewhat lifeless and unengaged, as if she’s only interested in various domestic chores (like taking out the trash or waxing the floors). Joanna, on the other hand, wants to establish a sense of camaraderie over some drinks, ultimately hoping to lead a life that is just as full and entertaining as Walter’s. For Joanna, life is about more than taking care of the kids and the house, but Carol doesn’t seem to feel the same way.
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Joanna is confused: why can’t Carol wax the floors later, perhaps when school starts in three days and everyone is out of the house. Carol simply says she can’t wait that long, so she’s going to take advantage of Ted leaving later that night to visit the Men’s Association. When Joanna asks if he goes there every night, Carol says, “Just about.” She then says goodnight and goes back inside, leaving Joanna alone and thinking about how she herself will never care that much about housework.
It’s not just that Carol declines Joanna’s invitation to do housework—it’s that she declines the invitation to wax the floors, a task that is pretty arduous and involved, especially considering that Carol has decided to do it in the middle of the night. She’s so dedicated to cleaning her house that her behavior comes off as a little strange, prompting Joanna to wonder how somebody could possibly be so committed to such a mundane existence.
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In the coming days, the family familiarizes itself with Stepford, driving around and looking at the various buildings. The Men’s Association is a big building on top of a hill, lurking over the rest of Stepford. During this period, Joanna makes a point of not doing housework, even though there are a few things she’d like to do. Instead, though, she devotes herself to starting work on creating a small darkroom in the basement, where she’ll be able to expose her own film.
Joanna intentionally goes against the sexist and outdated societal expectation that women should spend all of their time doing housework. In fact, she makes a point of not doing the few things there are to do, not necessarily because she doesn’t want to do them, but because she wants to prove her autonomy. Unlike the other women living in the neighborhood, she refuses to unquestioningly prioritize housework above all else. With this in mind, she focuses on her own ambitions by working on her photography career.
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That weekend, Walter goes to the Men’s Association for the first time. He doesn’t come home until quite late—so late, in fact, that Joanna begins to worry. But she forces herself not to be paranoid, eventually going to bed. When she wakes up in the middle of the night, the bed is shaking. She whips around and sees the whites of Walter’s eyes. He abruptly turns away. Joanna realizes he was masturbating. He’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to talk, but she eventually gets him to admit that he didn’t want to wake her. She tells him that he should have woken her. And since she’s awake now, she says, they might as well have sex. Still embarrassed, he reluctantly agrees. The sex they have ends up being notably better than usual, at least for Joanna.
The description of the whites of Walter’s eyes makes him seem almost inhuman and unrecognizable, perhaps hinting at the possibility that Joanna doesn’t know him as well as she thinks she does. But then she realizes he’s only masturbating, and although the book doesn’t necessarily frame masturbation as shameful, it’s possible to read this scene as an indication that Walter is more interested in servicing his own needs and pleasures than he is in engaging in his relationship with Joanna. This is an important detail, given the novel’s exploration of what men living in a patriarchal society want out of marriage.
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After Joanna and Walter have sex, he tells her about his evening at the Men’s Association. He insists that many of the men are in favor of letting women into the Association. But he didn’t want to press the issue too much on his first night.
The fact that Walter is open with Joanna about his time at the Men’s Association perhaps suggests that he truly wants to change it from the inside. And yet, there’s no real sign that he has good reason to be optimistic about changing the organization. What’s more, the fact that he’s hesitant to start shaking things up right away makes it seem likely that he'll end up getting sucked into the Men’s Association without ever managing to improve its gender politics.
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The next day, Joanna is introduced on the phone to a woman named Bobbie Markowe. Bobbie moved to Stepford just five weeks ago and is eager to meet Joanna after having read in the local paper that she’s an “avid shutterbug with a keen interest in politics and the Women’s Lib movement.” It’s instantly clear that Bobbie, like her, is uninterested in devoting her life to housekeeping. The two women decide to meet up at Joanna’s.
Because she broadcasted her interests to the woman who interviewed her for a column on Stepford newcomers in the local paper, Joanna has managed to finally connect with a likeminded woman who’s interested in gender equality. Now that she has Bobbie, she will perhaps feel less isolated in Stepford, where seemingly all the other women have completely different values than her.
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Standing in the kitchen (which Bobbie praises for being dirty), Joanna is relieved to hear Bobbie talk about how dull all the women seem in Stepford. They also talk about how sexist it is for Stepford to have a Men’s Association without also having an equivalent organization for women. Bobbie’s husband, Dave, is in the Men’s Association, but—like Walter—he thinks it can be changed from the inside. Bobbie, however, doesn’t believe this. Together, Bobbie and Joanna decide to go around to the other women in Stepford to see if they can start a chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Bobbie’s skepticism regarding her husband’s ability to change the Men’s Association from within suggests that she’s realistic about how hard it is to improve fundamentally sexist power structures. It also suggests that she recognizes her own husband could get swept up in the exclusivity and power that the Men’s Association offers its members—something that is likely to happen to Walter, too.
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Both Bobbie and Joanna talk to as many women as they can in the next few days. All of them say the same thing: they’re either too busy to meet up with other women, or they have no interest in such a thing. All of their responses are similarly flat and polite. Bobbie thinks something odd is going on, as if Stepford is a place uninfluenced by time, since the women are all so uninterested in gender equality.
At this point in the novel, a somewhat unsettling feeling creeps into the narrative, as Joanna and Bobbie begin to wonder why, exactly, all of the women around them are so alike. Why do they all respond in the same way to the idea of creating a Women’s Club, and why are they completely uninfluenced by the push for gender equality that is otherwise sweeping through the nation? After all, the novel takes place in the 1960s or early 1970s, when feminism was gaining quite a bit of traction in mainstream American culture. It’s strange, then, that everyone in Stepford is so uninterested in gender equality.
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Walter goes to the Men’s Association for the third time. That evening, he calls Joanna and asks if he can bring some of the other men back with him—he has been appointed to the New Projects Committee, and because there’s construction going on at the Association’s building, they need a quiet place to talk. Joanna hesitatingly agrees, saying that she’s working on the darkroom, meaning that they can use the living room. But Walter tells her to join them: it could be a good opportunity to show the men the benefit of working with intelligent women. She jokes that he probably just wants a beautiful waitress to serve them, but she agrees.
Walter’s insistence that Joanna should join him and the other members of the Men’s Association suggests that he genuinely wants to change the organization. Until this point in the novel, his belief in the importance of gender equality has only been abstract and vague. Now, though, he seems to genuinely want to help change his peers’ minds about the value of letting women into the Association. However, Joanna also acknowledges—albeit jokingly—that her husband probably just wants her to wait on him and his friends. Although this is only a joke, it subtly invites readers to question Walter’s true intentions.
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Five men come home with Walter. One of them is Ike Mazzard, a magazine illustrator famous for his depictions of beautiful women. Joanna jokes that his work ruined her childhood because she could never measure up to the women in his illustrations. In response, he says that he’s sure she measured up just fine. There’s also a man named Dale Coba, the president of the Association. He gives Joanna a “disparag[ing]” look and thanks her for having them. She instantly dislikes him. The others, though, are quite friendly and respectful. Joanna feels awkward at first when she sits with them in the living room after serving snacks, but soon she starts proposing ideas for various projects, and everyone—except Dale Coba—seems impressed by what she has to say.
Joanna’s comment about Ike Mazzard’s illustrations of women highlights the fact that she has grown up in a society in which mainstream representations of women are tailored to unrealistic male expectations. The implication here is that Ike Mazzard draws skinny women with large breasts and flawless features that women like Joanna have often compared themselves to. That Ike Mazzard is now in Joanna’s living room is a good representation of how difficult it can be in American society for women to escape the expectations constantly forced on them.
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At one point, Joanna realizes that Ike Mazzard is drawing her. She suddenly feels self-conscious, as if she’s naked and Ike is staring at her to get every detail. She asks him to stop, but he tells her to relax. When she looks to Walter for reinforcement, he just awkwardly laughs. The other men seem uncomfortable and try to keep talking about various community projects. Eventually, though, Dale Coba—who has been resignedly staring at the ceiling for the whole conversation—looks down and compliments Ike’s drawing. Ike then shows Joanna the sketch, and she’s actually quite flattered. He signs it and gives it to her. She feels a little starstruck, finding it hard to believe that the famous Ike Mazzard actually drew her.
Even though Joanna originally seems to have resented Ike Mazzard for the way he draws women, she can’t help but feel flattered by the final result of her own portrait. This, however, is most likely because Ike has made the kind of unrealistic exaggerations that he always makes with his drawings. In other words, Joanna is most likely flattered because Ike has drawn an unrealistically beautiful version of her. Though she might not agree with his tendency to create art that makes other women feel inferior, it’s undoubtedly hard for her to feel mad at somebody who has just portrayed her in such a becoming manner.
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When Joanna goes into the kitchen, Dale Coba follows her in. She asks why his friends call him “Diz,” and he explains that he used to work at Disneyland. She doesn’t believe him, but he says it’s true, though he wants to know why she can’t picture him working there. Eventually, she admits that he doesn’t look like somebody who would enjoy making people happy. Later that night, after everyone has left, Joanna tells Walter that she doesn’t like Dale, and he says that hopefully Dale will lose reelection as the Association’s president in the coming year.
It’s clear that Dale Coba is a rather sinister character, and Joanna’s dislike of him predisposes readers against him. Plus, he’s condescending in a sexist way and, as president of the Men’s Association, he represents the male privilege and power that Joanna wants to challenge in Stepford.
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The next day, Joanna learns that Bobbie finally found a woman living in Stepford who doesn’t care about housekeeping. Her name is Charmaine, and she lives in a huge house that Joanna and Bobbie visit later that week. Joanna plays Charmaine in tennis while Bobbie watches, and then the three of them sit on a terrace and chat while a housekeeper brings them drinks. Charmaine spends most of the time talking about astrology and sex—her husband can’t get enough of her, she says. He also has very particular sexual preferences; he recently bought her a full rubber suit, but she categorically refuses to wear it for him. When Joanna and Bobbie leave, they agree that, while Charmaine might not be “NOW material,” it’s still significant that she doesn’t care about housework.
Joanna and Bobbie are simply happy to have found a woman in Stepford who is unique and who thinks for herself. Of course, they note that Charmaine isn’t exactly the kind of cutting-edge feminist they’d expect to find in the National Organization for Women (NOW), but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she refuses to unquestioningly submit to sexist societal expectations. She doesn’t necessarily have grand feminist ambitions to change society, but it’s enough that she simply refuses to do housework or do whatever her husband wants her to do. In and of itself, this refusal is significant to Joanna and Bobbie, since the other women in Stepford are seemingly so unwilling to live on their own terms.
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One day, Joanna is sorting through some old things left behind by the previous owners of the house. The family before she and Walter moved in only lived there for two months before leaving for Canada. The family before that, though, was here for quite a long time, and they left behind some random objects. Finally finding time to organize these things, Joanna finds a paintbrush wrapped in some old newspaper. Just as she’s about to put the brush back, something on the old newspaper catches her eye: it’s an article about a Women’s Club in Stepford hosting a well-known feminist author. Joanna guesses that the article is about six years old.
The sense of uncertainty and mystery at play in Stepford deepens when Joanna finds this article about a former Women’s Club. Not only does this club no longer exist, but nobody she spoke to about forming an equivalent of the Men’s Association mentioned anything about it ever existing. Either the women she spoke to are hiding something, then, or there are factors at play forcing them into silence.
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Joanna pays a visit to Kit Sundersen, the former president of the Stepford Women’s Club. She already spoke to Kit when she was initially trying to drum up interest in an all-female organization, but Kit said she was too busy—and she said nothing about the Women’s Club. Now, Kit invites Joanna into the kitchen and offers her coffee, insisting that she have a cup. As Joanna asks her about the Women’s Club, Kit periodically interrupts to make comments about the coffee or about the laundry she’s currently folding as they talk, explaining that she’s doing laundry for a friend because the friend got sick. But she also answers Joanna’s questions about the Women’s Club, saying that it just became boring and that everyone lost interest in it.
Kit Sundersen seems to have undergone a total transformation. The fact that she was once president of the Women’s Club in Stepford suggests that she used to take an active role in the community instead of focusing exclusively on housework. It also indicates that she was possibly interested in gender equality and female empowerment. Now, though, she has no interest in such things whatsoever, hinting that something must have happened to change her outlook.
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As Kit speaks, Joanna realizes that she seems like an actress. In fact, all of the women in Stepford seem like actresses in commercials for various cleaning products. They’re all very pretty and have big breasts, too. Joanna tries to speak frankly to Kit, asking her if she’s really happy with her life. But Kit insists that she is, saying that she feels fulfilled because her husband’s work is important. If it weren’t for her, she says, her husband wouldn’t be able to devote so much to his job. 
Kit’s comments about her husband suggest that she has prioritized his life and ambition over her own—something Joanna herself doesn’t want to do. By moving to Stepford, though, it seems as if Joanna is now in a community that expects her to give everything up for her husband.
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That night, Joanna ventures out with her camera. She wants to take long exposures of Stepford at night, hoping to build up a body of work she can send to the photography agency, which has already given her money for a few of her pictures. After taking pictures of various buildings, she decides to venture up toward the Men’s Association, since it’s certainly the most interesting feature in town. From below, she can see light glowing from the large windows, and she can even make out a few figures milling about inside.
There’s an ominous and foreboding quality to the Men’s Association building. The fact that it stands on a hill overlooking the rest of Stepford highlights its domineering presence, as if everything that goes on in town is under the Association’s surveillance—which, of course, is quite possibly the case.
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Just as Joanna’s changing her lens, a police officer pulls up. He uses his radio for a moment and then starts talking to her. She’s nervous about his presence at first, but it becomes clear that he just wants to chat—he asks about her camera, how much it costs, and a number of other things. He then quickly brings the conversation to a close and drives away. When she turns back to the Men’s Association, she’s disappointed to see that all of the curtains have been drawn. She suddenly wonders if the police officer saw her taking pictures, radioed to tell the Men’s Association, and then distracted her until they closed the curtains. But then she thinks she’s being crazy and paranoid.
Joanna is beginning to feel suspicious about the Men’s Association and the strong influence it has over the town of Stepford. At the same time, though, she feels foolish for hatching far-fetched theories about the Association. This is a good representation of how women living in sexist, male-dominated societies are often made to feel crazy or unhinged for even thinking to challenge the patriarchal system. This kind of doubt makes it that much harder for women to speak out against gender inequality.
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In the coming weeks and months, Joanna spends time playing tennis at Charmaine’s house and seeing Bobbie almost every day. Walter, meanwhile, is forced to work late for a long period because of a disaster at work, but by October he’s back to coming home on time. Joanna and Walter throw a dinner party and hire a woman from out of town to help them serve the guests. The woman notes that she used to work very frequently in Stepford but that now nobody in the town seems to need her help. She blames it on the formation of the Men’s Association—ever since it started up, everyone in Stepford stopped entertaining. Joanna is confused by this, since she assumed the Association has been around forever. But the woman tells her that it’s only about six years old. 
It’s notable that the woman Joanna hired tells her that the Men’s Association is only about six years old, since the newspaper article she found about the Women’s Club was from roughly six years ago. It seems, then, that the Women’s Club disbanded at the same time that the Men’s Association was founded. If this is the case, then Stepford appears to have undergone a sudden shift, pivoting away from a more progressive community and becoming more outdated and patriarchal.
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In the end, the dinner party doesn’t go very well. Walter spends the whole time talking about work with one of the other men, and Joanna’s out-of-town male friends ogle Charmaine because she’s in a lowcut dress. Bobbie, for her part, isn’t talkative at the dinner party because she has laryngitis from recording her voice for a project that one of Dave’s friends is undertaking—she jokes that the man thinks he’s Henry Higgins, but Charmaine says she shouldn’t make fun of him. Charmaine also recorded her voice for this man, and she says that, because he’s a Capricorn, Bobbie shouldn’t mock him: after all, she says, Capricorns get things done.
Henry Higgins is a fictional professor of phonetics (the study of speech sounds), so Bobbie’s comment suggests that the person who recorded her voice fancies himself some sort of speech specialist, though it’s not yet clear how this detail is relevant to the larger plot. On another note, the fact that Walter spends most of the dinner party talking to another man about work suggests that, despite his supposedly progressive and enlightened views about gender equality, he still has a tendency to exclude women.
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The next day, Charmaine calls to cancel her and Joanna’s weekly tennis game. Her husband, she explains, has gotten a “bee in his bonnet” and has decided that they need a weekend alone to “rediscover each other.” She laments that this means he’s just going to chase her around the bedroom, and when Joanna jokingly suggests that perhaps she should let him catch her, Charmaine says she doesn’t really like sex. She even suggests that no women like sex, but Joanna disagrees. All the same, Charmaine reschedules their tennis game for Thursday.
It’s clear that Charmaine doesn’t have a very good relationship with her husband, who seems unable to satisfy her. Therefore, spending an entire weekend alone with him isn’t something Charmaine is particularly looking forward to—a detail that will soon become rather important.
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On Thursday, Joanna shows up at Charmaine’s house, but Charmaine doesn’t remember making plans to play tennis. In fact, she surprises Joanna by saying that she’s done with tennis altogether—it has been taking up too much of her time, which she should be using to do housework. Joanna can’t believe her ears and reminds Charmaine that she has a housekeeper to do the cleaning, but Charmaine says they fired the housekeeper. She also says she needs to get back to cleaning the house, since her husband doesn’t deserve to live in such sloppy conditions. Joanna thinks she’s kidding, but Charmaine insists that her husband is actually pretty great. She says that she has been lazy and too preoccupied with herself, but now she’s going to “do right by” her husband.
Charmaine’s opinions about her husband—and, in fact, life in general—have changed rather drastically. Before spending some alone time with her husband, the mere idea of being with him for an entire weekend was upsetting to her. Now, though, she goes on at length about how he deserves to be treated well. And what this means, according to her, is that she should start making more of an effort to “do right by” him. Although she has never cared about housework before, she now seems fixated on the idea of making sure everything is perfect for her husband, which implies that something happened over the weekend that fundamentally changed her perspective.
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Again, Joanna thinks Charmaine is kidding, but then Charmaine tells her to look out the back window, where workers are tearing up the tennis court to make room for a putting green. Charmaine’s husband plays golf, so Charmaine is giving up tennis and letting him repurpose that area of the backyard. Joanna asks if Charmaine’s husband hypnotized her, but Charmaine just says that nothing happened and that she’s lucky to have him. Then she offers Joanna coffee and suggests that they can keep talking while she cleans. Horrified, Joanna backs away and says she’ll talk to Charmaine later.
It’s now overwhelmingly clear that something has happened to Charmaine. She has always loved tennis, but now she has not only decided to stop playing so much but also to rip up the court altogether—and to accommodate her husband’s interest in golf, no less. Whereas she previously didn’t care much about her husband, she now prioritizes his wants and needs above all else. What’s more, the fact that she asks if Joanna wants a cup of coffee while she cleans is noteworthy, since this is exactly what Kit Sundersen offered when Joanna went to see her. There is, then, an eerie similarity at play in the way Charmaine and Kit behave.
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A few days later, Joanna meets up with Bobbie, who has gone to see Charmaine’s transformation for herself (Walter, for his part, suggests that Charmaine’s husband simply must have “laid the law down to her”). At lunch, Bobbie makes Joanna promise not to call her crazy and then presents a theory: there must be some sort of chemical, she says, that has turned all of the women in Stepford into subservient, doting wives. She references a recent magazine article about a chemical leak in El Paso, Texas, where chemicals were tranquilizing the community and, as a result, causing a decrease in crime. Joanna isn’t so sure—it seems like a crazy theory, even if it’s true that something seems strange about the way the women in Stepford behave.
Bobbie’s theory is somewhat far-fetched, but this just goes to show how bewildering it must feel to live in a community where all the women behave in the same subservient way. By suggesting that there’s some kind of chemical leak responsible for this behavior, Bobbie grasps for any possible way of understanding the otherwise perplexing situation around her. Meanwhile, though, Walter is hesitant to recognize that anything is amiss, which is a good illustration of how unfortunately common it is for men to overlook the effects of sexism because they don’t experience it firsthand.
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Bobbie points out that Charmaine used to play tennis with another woman who suddenly lost interest, which is why she was so happy when she found Joanna. Plus, there’s the fact that Kit Sundersen used to be the president of the Women’s Club and now has no interest in anything but housework. Bobbie insists that there must be something in the drinking water. And even if there isn’t, she asks if Joanna’s really happy in Stepford. Bobbie recently went to the neighboring town of Norwood and saw all sorts of independent, real women—women who were annoyed and stressed and frazzled. Now Bobbie wants to move to Norwood; she’s going to ask her husband what he thinks, and she suggests that Joanna should do the same.
Bobbie has recognized a pattern at play in Stepford—a pattern in which free-thinking, independent women suddenly lose interest in anything other than serving and pleasing their husbands. Even if chemicals in the drinking water aren’t responsible for this phenomenon, Bobbie wants to move. After all, it’s clear that Stepford isn’t a forward-thinking, progressive place that promotes gender equality. With or without a conspiracy theory, Bobbie can tell that the town is stuck in an outdated, sexist way of life.
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Quotes
That night, Walter asks Joanna what’s bothering her. She didn’t intend to bring it up, but she tells him about Bobbie’s theory about chemicals. She also says that Bobbie wants to move. Walter asks if Joanna wants to move, and though she doesn’t say yes, he can sense that there is part of her that does. She admits that she might be happier elsewhere, and he says that if that’s the case, she should continue to think about it. She’s surprised that he’s not immediately opposed to the idea, and he assures her that he just wants her to be happy. The only thing he wouldn’t want to do is move before the end of the school year. She agrees with this and says she’ll tell him if she ends up realizing she truly wants to leave.
Walter appears quite supportive in this moment. Instead of framing the idea of moving as crazy and unnecessary, he recognizes that it might be something Joanna wants to do. In other words, he acknowledges that moving out of Stepford could be a legitimate way for Joanna to respond to the town’s outdated, sexist environment. He thus lends Joanna some emotional support by agreeing to go along with whatever she decides—as long as they stay in Stepford through the end of the year.
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Dave had the same reaction as Walter: he isn’t opposed to moving but doesn’t want to do it before the end of the school year. In the meantime, Bobbie tells Joanna, she’s going to drink bottled water. They decide to write a letter to the Department of Health about their concerns regarding potential chemicals in the area.
Although their husbands support the idea of moving, Bobbie and Joanna don’t want to just sit around until the end of the year. They don’t, in other words, want to wait until things get worse. Therefore, they take action by writing to the Department of Health, demonstrating their unwillingness to be passive when it comes to their own well-being.
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Around this time, Claude Axhelm comes over to speak to Joanna. He’s the one who has been recording everyone’s voice for some kind of strange project involving speech patterns. He says that he records the men at the Men’s Association and the women in their homes. He will leave the tape recorder with Joanna, along with a binder full of pages she’s supposed to read aloud while taping herself. When she sits down to tape herself shortly after Thanksgiving, she sees a neighbor across the street busily cleaning the house. She thinks, “They never stop, these Stepford Wives.” Realizing this sounds like the first line of a poem, she adds: “They work like robots all their lives.” Then she starts taping herself while looking at the framed drawing that Ike Mazzard gave her. “Taker. Takes. Taking,” she reads into the microphone.
At this point in the novel, it’s still unclear what Claude Axhelm’s recording project has to do with anything. It is clear, however, that Joanna is increasingly aware of how subservient and passive the women in Stepford seem—so subservient and passive that it’s as if they “work like robots all their lives.” In many ways, then, Joanna’s attempt to preserve her individuality and autonomy is an attempt to resist the highly limited life of a robot designed to serve the needs of a male-dominated society.
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Female Ambition vs. Societal Expectations Theme Icon