The Stepford Wives

by

Ira Levin

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The Stepford Wives: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Joanna has decided that she’ll only move if she finds a perfect house. Bobbie, on the other hand, is pushing forward with the idea, spending almost every day looking at new houses. Joanna accompanies her and listens to a real estate agent talk about how much more “with-it” the neighboring town of Eastbridge is compared to Stepford—there’s even a National Organization for Women chapter. Around this time, Bobbie and Joanna receive a response from the Department of Health, which assures them that the area is free of any toxic chemicals. Still suspicious, Bobbie continues drinking bottled water.
The uncertainty about what, exactly, is going on in Stepford builds suspense. Bobbie and Joanna have a clear sense that something is amiss, but they can’t actually point to any sort of tangible proof, other than that Charmaine has undergone a sudden transformation—which, of course, could just be a coincidence, since people do sometimes change of their own volition. Without any proof that something sinister is going on, then, Joanna and Bobbie are forced to tensely wait to see what will happen next.
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Shortly before Christmas, Bobbie asks Joanna if she and Walter will watch one of her kids for the weekend. She explains that she and Dave have decided to spend a weekend all by themselves—a sort of second honeymoon. Joanna thinks this sounds nice and agrees to watch Bobbie’s son.
Bobbie’s request seems unremarkable—unless, that is, readers recall that Charmaine’s abrupt transformation into a passive and subservient wife took place right after she spent a weekend alone with her husband. But there’s nothing that directly links her transformation to the weekend she spent with her husband, which is most likely why it doesn’t even occur to Joanna to worry about Bobbie.
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Before the weekend comes, Joanna goes to the library and sits next to a Black woman who has recently moved to the area. She has already heard through the grapevine that a Black family bought a house in Stepford, and she’s eager to make the woman feel welcome, but she’s unsure how to start up a conversation—but then the woman starts talking about how long it’s taking the librarian to appear from behind the desk. She introduces herself as Ruthanne Henry, and Joanna recognizes her as the author of a children’s book she likes to read to Kim. The two women hit it off. Eventually, Ruthanne hints that the other women she has met in Stepford aren’t quite as warm and welcoming. Joanna quickly insists that it’s not because Stepford is racist but because of how strange the women are, going on to explain her and Bobbie’s theories.
Joanna shares her and Bobbie’s theories with Ruthanne, since Ruthanne will inevitably encounter the same kind of behavior that Joanna herself ran into when she first moved to Stepford. However, it’s rather naïve of Joanna to insist that Stepford isn’t a racist community—after all, it’s a wealthy, exclusive suburb that clings tightly to outdated ways of thinking, so it’s highly likely that Ruthanne will encounter some racism, even if it’s not particularly overt. Still, Joanna’s friendly support is most likely a welcome development in Ruthanne’s life, since Joanna offers Ruthanne the same kind of camaraderie that she herself yearned for when she first moved to Stepford.
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That weekend is complete chaos for Joanna as she tries to get her kids and Bobbie’s son to behave. By the end of the day on Sunday, she’s deeply relieved to see Bobbie and Dave coming up to the front door to pick up their son. They both look very good, prompting Joanna to conclude that they really needed the alone time. At one point, there’s a brief pause in the conversation where Bobbie would usually say something funny, but she doesn’t say anything. Joanna doesn’t think much of this and bids farewell to Bobbie and Dave.
Given that Charmaine underwent a huge change right after spending a weekend with her husband, it’s notable that Joanna senses something different about Bobbie when she comes to pick up her son. Joanna, however, doesn’t seem to think much of this, since it’s just a passing moment. It thus remains unclear whether or not Bobbie has changed.
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Quotes
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When Bobbie goes to kiss Walter goodbye on the cheek, Walter hesitates for a moment, as if he doesn’t want to kiss her. After they’re gone, Joanna asks Walter why he hesitated, and he claims it’s because he thinks kisses on the cheek are showy and pointless. Either way, they both agree that Bobbie looks better than they’ve ever seen her. In fact, Joanna is so impressed by how rejuvenated her friend seems that she says perhaps she and Walter should have their own weekend alone. Walter agrees. They plan to do so after the holidays.
At this point, it becomes quite clear that Joanna hasn’t made the connection between Charmaine’s transformation and the fact that she spent a weekend alone with her husband right before the abrupt change. In fact, she’s so unaware of this potential link that she suggests that she and Walter should spend a weekend alone. This development ratchets up the suspense, especially when Walter agrees to Joanna’s idea after having hesitated to kiss Bobbie, which is a possible sign that he knows something happened to her over the weekend.
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Two days pass. Joanna doesn’t hear from Bobbie, which is strange because she usually calls every day. Finally, Joanna calls her and is somewhat put off by the way her friend sounds: sort of “flat” and distracted. She asks if Bobbie went house-hunting, but Bobbie says she went shopping instead, prompting Joanna to wonder why she didn’t invite her. When they hang up, Joanna wonders if Bobbie and Dave smoked pot over the weekend—maybe that’s why Bobbie seems different. She brings it up with Walter, but he says she’s probably just tired from all the house hunting she has been doing. When Joanna suggests that Bobbie seemed strange on Sunday, he says he didn’t notice. “You’re not going to start in with that chemical business, are you?” he says.
It seems obvious that Bobbie has undergone the same transformation as Charmaine. Joanna is seemingly beginning to get suspicious of this, though she doesn’t appear ready to fully suggest that this is what happened. Still, when she hints at this change, Walter condescendingly writes off the possibility, making the entire notion of “that chemical business” seem absurd. Instead, he pins Bobbie’s potential change on the fact that she has been house hunting. In doing so, he subtly disparages her—and, in turn, his own wife—for wanting to move out of Stepford. 
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The next day, Joanna goes to Bobbie’s. Bobbie apologizes for forgetting that they planned to get together—she has been busy. She invites Joanna inside and offers her a sandwich. Joanna notices that her friend looks as fresh and presentable as she did on Sunday, and that she must be wearing a push-up bra. Bobbie acknowledges that she has changed, saying that she realized she was being “sloppy and self-indulgent.” She adds that there’s no shame in being a “good homemaker,” especially since doing this is like contributing to Dave’s career, too. She has also decided to pay more attention to the way she looks. Joanna tries to shake Bobbie out of her apparent trance by saying that whatever they were afraid of has finally gotten her, but Bobbie disagrees, saying that she was foolish earlier and that Stepford is a very healthy place to live. 
Joanna now sees that Bobbie has undoubtedly changed. After all, Bobbie says things that are eerily similar to what Charmaine said when Joanna last visited her. In particular, both women suggest that devoting themselves to housework is the least they can do for their hardworking husbands, who—they imply—deserve to be pampered by their wives. While it was certainly surprising that Charmaine adopted such ideas, it’s even more shocking that Bobbie has somehow been forced to make this change, since she was a devoted feminist who abhorred the idea of devoting her life to housework and little else. And if Bobbie can be made to change in this way, it’s clear that Joanna could, too.
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Joanna rushes home and calls Walter at the office. She’s determined to move out of Stepford as soon as possible, but she can’t find their banking information to figure out how much money they have. Walter tells her that he has the banking materials because he has been buying some stocks on Dave’s advice. He’s distressed by Joanna’s urgency and demands that she refrain from doing anything until he gets home—but she hangs up and calls the real estate agent, telling her to find out the lowest possible asking price for a house she recently saw with Bobbie. She also calls her old broker and says that she might want to relist their house.
Joanna has good reason to be frightened, now that she knows Bobbie changed after a weekend alone with her husband. She also has good reason to suspect Walter, though it’s unclear whether or not she’s suspicious of him. In fact, she still seems to trust him, given that she calls him and announces her intentions to move out of Stepford. He responds by trying to calm her down, and though it’s possible that he’s just trying to help her collect herself before doing anything, it’s also possible that he’s trying to make her feel crazy so that he can later pull the same trick on her that Dave pulled on Bobbie.
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Walter is angry when he gets home, thinking that Joanna is blowing things out of proportion. But Joanna insists that whatever happens to women in Stepford clearly takes four months to kick in—that’s what happened to both Charmaine and Bobbie. Joanna moved to Stepford one month after Bobbie, meaning that she only has a month before she’ll lose herself. But Walter says there’s nothing in Stepford that makes women change, arguing that Charmaine and Bobbie changed for other reasons: because they realized they had been lazy. What’s so wrong with Bobbie starting to care about her looks, anyway? Walter thinks it wouldn’t hurt Joanna to do the same.
In this scene, Walter starts to seem a lot less progressive and enlightened than Joanna previously thought he was. Not only does he suggest that Joanna should change her looks, but he also says that Charmaine and Bobbie were lazy because they didn’t devote themselves to housework. In other words, he thinks it’s reasonable for husbands to expect their wives to unquestioningly dedicate themselves to housework—a viewpoint that should make Joanna very worried, since it suggests that perhaps Walter wouldn’t mind if she underwent the same transformation as Bobbie and Charmaine.
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Joanna is taken aback by Walter’s comment about her looks, and she wonders if he wanted to move to Stepford because somebody told him she would change. Walter denies this accusation and instead says that he’s not moving, though he’s trying to understand things from Joanna’s perspective. Still, he thinks she’s being “irrational” and “a little hysterical,” so he wants her to see a psychiatrist. He’ll consider moving if Joanna visits a therapist to confirm she isn’t having a mental breakdown. Walter proposes a therapist, but Joanna refuses because he’s part of the Men’s Association and his wife is just like all the other women in Stepford.
When Walter calls Joanna “irrational” and “hysterical,” he treats her with complete condescension. Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of her concerns, he tries to make her feel crazy in an attempt to get her to doubt herself—a common technique known as “gaslighting,” which sexist men in positions of power often use to delegitimize women’s concerns about mistreatment and inequality.
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As she talks to Walter, Joanna realizes that both Charmaine and Bobbie changed after spending a weekend alone with their husbands. She now fears that this is what will happen to her, but Walter reminds her that she was the one to propose that they spend a weekend alone after the holidays. Still, she’s apprehensive. But she eventually agrees to see a psychiatrist of her own choosing.
Joanna is now suspicious of Walter but not so suspicious that she completely withdraws from him. Instead, she agrees to go along with his idea for her to see a therapist, perhaps thinking that she’ll be better able to convince him to move after playing along with his proposal. She also probably feels somewhat comforted by the fact that the sudden transformation seems to take place after a woman has lived in Stepford for four months, meaning that she has at least a few weeks of safety—a period she can use to make sure she’ll be able to avoid the same fate as Bobbie and Charmaine.
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Joanna books an appointment with Dr. Margaret Fancher, whose practice is several towns over. She leaves her children at Bobbie’s house when she goes to the appointment, briefly going inside and asking Bobbie what happened to her—but Bobbie says she has just started caring about her appearance a bit more, though it looks like she has lost about ten pounds in the course of a week. She also speaks appreciatively about Dave and a particular cleaning product, encouraging Joanna to hurry out of the house.
Again, Bobbie’s behavior makes it glaringly clear that something drastic has happened to her. Not only does she look different, but she even takes the time to speak admiringly about a cleaning product—something she would never have done before, since she always found such behavior abhorrent. Seeing Bobbie most likely motivates Joanna even more intensely in her quest to escape Stepford.
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Dr. Margaret Fancher is a kind, sympathetic woman who listens patiently to everything Joanna has to say. She doesn’t discount Joanna’s feelings, recognizing how unfulfilling it must feel to live in a town where all of the women are only interested in doing housework and pleasing their husbands. But she isn’t so sure about Joanna’s various theories—she doesn’t think there’s anything strange going on. Rather, she just thinks Joanna is having a difficult time adjusting to a more domestic lifestyle than the one she led in New York City. She suggests that Joanna is torn between “the old conventions on the one hand, and the new conventions of the liberated woman on the other.” Urging her not to move just yet, she prescribes her some tranquilizers.
It’s unsurprising that Dr. Fancher doesn’t think Joanna’s theories are realistic—after all, they aren’t realistic, even if they’re accurate. To her credit, Dr. Fancher ends up recognizing the difficulties of living in a community that has outdated expectations surrounding women leading domestic lives. Unfortunately, though, Joanna’s problem isn’t just that she has experienced something of a culture shock by moving from New York City to Stepford—it’s that there’s an imminent threat to the way she leads her life. Therefore, Dr. Fancher’s advice isn’t that helpful.
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Joanna goes straight from therapy to the library, where she goes into the basement to look through back issues of the local paper. She spends hours down there, flipping through the “Notes on Newcomers” section of each paper and also looking out for any mention of the Men’s Association or the (now disbanded) Women’s Club in Stepford. As she goes through the papers, she sees just how many of the women she now knows in Stepford were deeply involved in the Women’s Club.
Joanna seems to understand that her session with Dr. Margaret Fancher has done nothing that will help her convince Walter to move, so now she’s taking the situation into her own hands by going to the library to research what, exactly, has been happening in Stepford. What she needs, it seems, is more information about what has been going on—information that will perhaps help her decide what her next course of action should be.
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But the Stepford Women’s Club disbanded around the time Dale Coba and his wife moved to town from California, where—Joanna learns in a “Notes on Newcomers”—he used to work at Disneyland to help make the lifelike presidential robots, which are capable of moving and talking like humans. When she makes this discovery, Joanna starts uncontrollably laughing. She laughs so much that she attracts the librarian’s attention, who tells her the library is closing. Joanna walks out of the building still laughing.
Joanna’s discovery hints at the possibility that Dale Coba and the rest of the Men’s Association members have been turning the women of Stepford into lifelike robots. This would align with the fact that they all seem to behave the same way. It would also make sense of Claude Axhelm’s recording project, which could be the Association’s way of perfecting the robots’ voices. It’s also possible that Ike Mazzard’s drawings of the women serve as templates for their new bodies. The fact that this discovery makes Joanna uncontrollably laugh is noteworthy, as the novel subtly invites readers to question her sanity. In turn, the novel manages to maintain some suspense: is Joanna right in thinking that the men of Stepford have an elaborate plan to turn all of their wives into robots? Or is Joanna herself out of touch with reality, perhaps because of the stress of living in such a stifling community? By forcing readers to ask such questions, the novel manages to put them in the same position that many women are in when patriarchal systems of power force them to doubt themselves.
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When Joanna gets home, Walter is angry and worried because she didn’t call to say she was at the library. He thought she had gotten in a crash, but she brushes off his concern. She informs him that she will be taking the kids to the city right away—she won’t spend another minute in Stepford. She’ll call Walter in a couple days, or perhaps she’ll have a lawyer contact him. She then tells him that she knows what he and Dale Coba—and everyone else in the Men’s Association—are up to: they’re turning their wives into robots. Walter denies this, apparently finding the claim absurd. Still, Joanna calls out for the kids so she can take them away, but Walter informs her that he sent them away for the night.
The fact that Walter sent the children away for the night suggests that Joanna has good reason to be concerned—he wants to be alone with her, and though he insists that this is simply because she’s acting crazy, it’s also possible that he doesn’t want the kids to see what he and the other members of the Men’s Association are going to do to her. 
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Joanna feels as if Walter has moved up their weekend alone together. Terrified, she tries to leave the house, but Walter blocks her path, making it impossible for her to go downstairs. She asks him what Dale Coba and the other men do with their real wives once they create the robots—do they burn them or throw them in a pond? Her questions only make Walter all the more determined to get her to lie down, saying he won’t let her out of the house when she’s talking like this. Finally, she agrees and goes into the bedroom, though she locks the door and refuses to let him in, saying that she wants some time to rest on her own. He agrees to leave her be and goes downstairs.
Again, Walter treats Joanna like she’s crazy, and though his concern could be genuine, it also might be a way for him to get her to doubt herself. If this is the case, then he’s employing a common technique used by sexist men in positions of power to discount legitimate concerns that women might raise about gender inequality and mistreatment. It’s possible, in other words, that Walter is gaslighting Joanna. But Joanna remains steadfast in her conviction, agreeing to play along with Walter’s suggestions only because this is clearly the only way she’ll have a chance of getting away from him.
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Joanna dresses in the warmest clothes she can find and then opens the window, planning to slip out and make a break for it. But the storm window won’t budge. As she tries to figure out how to leave, she hears Walter dialing the phone downstairs and fears that he’s calling Dale Coba. She creeps to the top of the stairs and hears him say, “…not sure I can handle her myself…” While he’s preoccupied, she dashes down the hall and out the door, sprinting toward the dark woods.
Joanna manages to escape the house by tricking Walter into thinking she’s doing what he wants. Whereas he (possibly) deceives her by trying to make her feel crazy, she ends up deceiving him by putting him at ease. And yet, it’s still not necessarily clear to readers whether or not Joanna’s theory about robots is actually accurate. This tension makes the plot that much more suspenseful, as readers are encouraged to doubt Joanna in the same way that women are often forced to doubt their own misgivings about sexist circumstances.
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Joanna’s plan is to make her way to Ruthanne Henry’s house, since she’s the only other woman in Stepford who hasn’t been turned into a robot. But getting there will take a long time on foot, especially in the snow. Plus, she has to hide every time a car goes by, as she suspects that Walter and the other men will be looking for her. Sure enough, when one car goes by, Joanna realizes that somebody is shining a flashlight out of the window. As she makes her way through the neighborhood, she eventually gets cornered by three men with flashlights, who chase her into a dead-end. She has a broken branch in her hand and threatens to hit them if they approach, but they insist—with kind voices—that they’re only there to help her.
Joanna ultimately fails to escape the men of Stepford, which is a good illustration of how difficult it is for women to break out of male-dominated power structures. In the same way that she is unable to run away from the dangers of living in Stepford, many women living in patriarchal societies are hard-pressed to escape sexist cultural norms.
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The three men sound very sympathetic. They say that Walter told them what Joanna thinks is going on—they’re there to assure her that nobody’s making robots out of women! They note that Joanna must think they’re all a lot smarter than they are, but she points out that many of them work in advanced technical fields; they’re the people who put a man on the moon, she says. But they just chuckle, asking each other if any of them put a man on the moon. None of them have. Plus, if they knew how to make such realistic robots, they point out, they surely would have found some way to profit from the idea by now. But Joanna thinks that maybe turning their wives into robots is just a test run.
The men respond to Joanna’s theory as if it’s far-fetched and ridiculous—which, of course, it is. But that’s not to say it isn’t accurate. At this point in the novel, it’s not really clear whether or not Joanna is onto something legitimate, and this uncertainty reflects the doubt women are often made to feel after challenging sexist cultural norms.
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Finally, one of the men asks if it would help Joanna to see one of these supposed “robots” bleed. Would she change her mind if one of the women nicked their finger and blood came out? Joanna thinks for a moment and then admits that this would help dispel her fears. She thus agrees to follow the men at a distance—while shining her flashlight on them so they know she’s still there—until they get to Bobbie’s house. One of the men runs ahead to make sure Bobbie is home and to ask if she’d be willing to lightly cut her finger.
It’s still unclear whether or not Joanna’s theory is accurate. The novel thus sustains the level of suspense, as Joanna goes to further investigate her theory—but under the supervision of three members of the Men’s Association, meaning that she has to remain on guard.
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On the walk to Bobbie’s, Joanna realizes she has been wrong all along. She can just tell that Bobbie will bleed. If the men had wanted to kill her, they already would have. She just feels cold and tired now, and she thinks about how it’s clearly a coincidence that Dale Coba worked on the robots at Disneyland. She feels slightly embarrassed for descending into “madness,” and she plans to follow up with Dr. Margaret Fancher when all of this is over. She feels guilty for distrusting Walter, too.
The members of the Men’s Association have successfully disarmed Joanna by causing her to doubt herself. Of course, it’s still unclear to readers whether or not this is just a tactic used by the men to convince Joanna to do what they want. As it stands, things could really go either way: it’s possible that Joanna has simply been paranoid and desperately searching for ways to understand her concerns, but it’s also possible that the men really are turning the women of Stepford into robots. Once again, this ambiguity reflects how difficult it can be to take a stand against powerful, sexist institutions, which often frame women who accuse them of sexism as irrational and out of touch with reality.
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Joanna and the men reach Bobbie’s house. The men say they’ll wait outside while Joanna goes inside with Bobbie, but Joanna backtracks and says Bobbie doesn’t have to cut herself. Still, the men encourage her to follow through with the plan. They say that it’d be good to completely put her doubts to rest, just to make sure she doesn’t start wondering again later. 
Joanna now fully doubts herself. She even seems to be somewhat embarrassed for causing a stir in the community—a good indication of the extent to which the members of the Men’s Association have succeeded in getting her to question her thought process and even her sanity.
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Joanna goes into the kitchen with Bobbie, who is perfectly happy to help put her friend’s mind at ease. As they talk, loud rock music plays from upstairs. When Joanna asks what it is, Bobbie says Dave must be listening to music with the kids. She stands over the sink with a huge knife—so big that Joanna says she’ll accidentally cut her whole hand off, but Bobbie says she’ll be careful. She then tells Joanna to get closer. Again, Joanna says Bobbie doesn’t have to cut herself, adding that she’s going to see a therapist, which will ease her mind more than seeing her friend use the knife. Still, Bobbie urges her to come forward, saying, “The men are waiting.” 
This section of the novel ends without revealing what happens next. However, the fact that Bobbie pulls out such a big knife and repeatedly tells Joanna to come closer is extremely ominous. What’s more, the loud music blaring upstairs could be intended to cover up the sounds of Joanna’s screams, masking the sound of her murder so that Bobbie and Dave’s children don’t know what’s going on. Bobbie’s final line in the novel—“The men are waiting”—is a fitting thing for her to say, now that she’s so concerned about pleasing her husband. Joanna herself is likely to adopt the same concern after the members of the Men’s Association are finished with her.
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