After witnessing her son’s murder on national television, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictitious Hazel Bergeron responds absent mindedly, “Gee…. I could tell that one was a doozy.” In the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut explores a future in which the government makes everyone equal, through absurd instruments. Similar to other dystopias, the powerful consume those without power at great cost, but what makes this short story distinctive is that it ends without a vision to solve the madness. It identifies the issue, making it larger than life in order to horrify readers, but it fails to find a solution—presumably, this improper balance of power will continue on with Harrison Bergeron’s death.
Stories like “Harrison Bergeron” take one’s natural inability to love thy neighbor and stretch it to its limits to see what might happen. In the case of “Harrison Bergeron,” it results in a society where everyone experiences inhumane treatment at the hands of the powerful. Similarly, in Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives and in Apple TV’s Severance, the powerful consume the efforts and humanity of the people they’re supposed to protect. In The Stepford Wives, husbands murder and replace their wives with literal robots who cook, clean, and submit mindlessly, while in Severance, the Lumon corporation divides the consciousness of office workers, creating two consciousnesses that exist in the same body yet are controlled by office management. Both stories impel us to imagine a world where humans societally commodify other humans, but in the end, we’re left desiring a solution to the madness.
A Wife Consumed
In his novel The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin presents idyllic Stepford, complete with happy husbands, who spend their evenings at the secretive Men’s Association, and submissive wives, who spend their days looking flawless and waxing their floors. As the newest neighbor, Joanna Eberhart cannot fathom why these women are only interested in their homes, but she finds friends in Bobbie and Charmaine, who moved into Stepford not long before her. Joanna becomes increasingly suspicious and isolated when Charmaine abruptly tears up her beloved clay tennis court (so she can replace it with a putting green for her husband) and exchanges all of her personal interests for a newfound dedication to cleaning her home; about a month later, Bobbie undergoes a similar change.
While modern language tends to take the term “Stepford wife” and apply it to a woman who likes to keep her house clean and care for her family, this is not an accurate representation of Levin’s vision. It is worth noting that he wrote this novel in the early ’70s—a different political landscape from the one we live in now—and as Peter Straub points out in the novel’s introduction, “this is a novel that satirizes its oppressors and their desires, not their victims” (xi). In other words, Levin is not out to criticize women who enjoy homemaking; he is out to criticize those who consume them.
A Stepford wife is a commodity, created by the selfish imagination of her Stepford husband. The Stepford women are described as dead and robotic, fixated on the cleanliness of their homes and the happiness of their husbands at the expense of everything else—they drop all of their hobbies, interests, jobs, and autonomy. They spend their days and nights speaking sweetly to their families, preparing food, maintaining their homes, and sexually pleasuring their husbands, and while their husbands live like kings, it’s not clear how their children fare (when Joanna attends parent-teacher conferences, she notes that the event is ill-attended by either parent, hinting that Stepford mothers aren’t interested in their children). The twisted imagination of the Stepford men is best illustrated when Joanna’s husband, Walter, invites friends from the Men’s Association over for drinks. Joanna joins their conversation before realizing that Ike Mazzard, a magazine illustrator known for sketching “dream girls,” is sketching her. Everyone falls into uncomfortable silence, the men are embarrassed, and Joanna receives a “flattering” sketch by the end of it; the rest he keeps. The men have engaged her in conversation in order to distract her from their actual purpose: to design a “dream version” of Joanna Eberhart who will eventually replace the actual Joanna. Later, she’ll realize the Stepford men are proficient in vinyl polymers, engineering, electronics, and animatronics, the perfect credentials to create subservient robots. The Stepford men are not interested in wives or companions; they are interested in creating a product that will fulfill their needs without any reciprocal effort on their part.
Unfortunately for the Stepford wives, Levin doesn’t provide any sort of redemptive future for the town of Stepford. In the end Joanna, on the verge of a breakdown and rightfully paranoid, follows the town’s men to meet the new Bobbie in her kitchen. Brandishing a butcher knife, Bobbie tells Joanna that she will cut herself to prove that she is still able to bleed–still human, still Bobbie. Joanna moves closer to witness this proof before we’re abruptly taken to another day months later at the local supermarket. We’re drawn into the perspective of the newest resident, Ruthanne, who sees Joanna shopping, her cart and appearance perfectly tidy. When Ruthanne asks Joanna about her photography, she admits that she dropped it to pursue housework. Ruthanne is surprised but returns home to talk with her husband about their getaway the following weekend, which we know will be the demise of Ruthanne and the addition of yet another Stepford wife into the community. So the cycle continues, with no end in sight and no solution offered.
A Consciousness Consumed
While The Stepford Wives provides an obvious moral issue with the killing of one’s wife to replace her with a robot, the Apple television series Severance deals more subtly with the morality of creating people in order to consume their efforts. In this series, employees of biotechnology corporation Lumon undergo a procedure that leaves them consciously severed, with a new consciousness existing only inside of work, while their regular consciousness exists as normal outside of work. Referred to as “innies” and “outies,” the one has no memory or realization of the other, even though they exist in the same body. The controversy over the severance procedure is multi-faceted: people condemn the “outies” who have undergone the procedure as unethical; investors and supporters applaud the ingenuity of Lumon; and (it’s revealed later) inside leaders of Lumon consume the inner consciousness seemingly for their personal gain.
The consumption of the inner consciousness is not immediately apparent, since the procedure seems to benefit those who have undergone it. In an advertisement, Lumon describes the innies as family members who share the same ideals and are excited to uphold the work of their company. Mark, the protagonist, initially appreciates the procedure because it allows him to work his office job and forget about the death of his wife for eight hours. Mark’s innie co-workers receive prizes and affirmations when they do their job well, and they’ve come to accept that life inside Lumon is all they remember.
When Helly is introduced, her discontentment threatens Lumon’s stable office life and challenges us to consider the ethics of a severed consciousness. While her inner office life begins by watching a video of herself peacefully consenting to the severance procedure, Helly refuses to accept the office life she has been given. She persistently attempts to send a message to her outie, convinced that if her outie knew how unhappy she was, she would show compassion and allow Helly to quit. Believing management is preventing the transfer of messages, she tries to provide her notice of resignation on her body, in her body, and even through a broken glass window, slashing her arms in the process. Finally, she forces management to record her resignation video to her outie, but she quickly receives a recorded response from her outie, threatening and disparaging her: “I understand that you’re unhappy with the life that you’ve been given. But you know what? Eventually, we all have to accept reality. So here it is. I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions. You do not.” While co-workers and management look on unfazed, in this moment, Helly realizes that she has no autonomy or recognized personhood. Her inner consciousness is at the mercy of her outer consciousness, and she will spend the rest of her days waking in the elevator, working her eight-hour shift, entering the elevator to return home, and then immediately exiting the elevator to work her eight-hour shift, until—well, we’re not sure when the cycle will end. This is their lives now.
A Love-Thy-Neighbor Type of Vision
While John Calvin never wrote fictional anything (that we know of), his consideration of the greatest commandment in Mark 12 suggests that his dystopia might look similar to The Stepford Wives, Severance, and other stories like these: “It is a mercenary love which the children of the world entertain for each other, because every one of them has regard to his own advantage.” A mercenary love is one that loves for one’s personal gain as opposed to loving for the good of another. It’s a distorted vision of the biblical command to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” first presented in the Old Testament and later affirmed by Christ himself, and it uses, terrorizes, and dehumanizes fellow man. In stories that commodify humans, we see this mercenary love, this distortion of Christ’s command to love thy neighbor, stretched to absurd limits, and we’re horrified.
I don’t expect Severance to supply a perfected solution at its series’ end, but in light of inconclusive endings, we’re left wondering: where is the alternative vision to the mercenary hellscapes provided? Severance creator Dan Erickson has provided hints of what that solution might look like: “I just hope that people remember that they’re a lot more important as human beings than they are as cogs in a company. Because we’re all cooler, weirder and more interesting than the value we have to someone’s bottom line.” Erickson’s desire is that viewers will value their humanity, the uniqueness that makes them human.
The call to love one’s neighbor takes this recognition of one’s humanity and applies it outwardly, to others. It destroys hierarchy, levels the ground on which everyone stands, and demands that we love our fellow humans with the same dignity that we show ourselves. In God’s vision of neighbor loving neighbor, we’re not left wondering what this love should look like or how it should be defined. According to Jesus, the second command is defined by the opening lines of the Shema—“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Who God is precedes the ability for love of neighbor, providing the “why” of loving one’s neighbor—the command provides the “how” of living in a world in which that dignity is honored and upheld.
Levin and Erickson have invited us into a world where the biblical charge to love thy neighbor is opposed, but now we’re left wondering: is there another way, an alternate vision that draws out what the world might look like if this command was followed? I would argue that there is:
Wanting to justify himself the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
A husband called to love his wife grew tired of her, murdered her, and replaced her with a machine that could serve his every need.
A leader who promised to do good created an inner consciousness, took advantage of her, and violated the commitment to honor her as family.
An outcast happened upon a man who was badly injured, cared for him like he loved him, and provided for all of his needs.
But who is my neighbor?
“The one who had mercy on the man.”
Jesus told him, “You go, and do likewise.”