The Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1950’s America
Each decade of the 1900’s in America has a basic reputation that one has engrained in their mind, even if one wasn’t actually alive during the specific decade. This being said, the 1950’s has distinct stereotypes that most Americans are aware of. The perfect American family, the loyal and obedient housewife, and the providing business- husband is the cliché 50’s; like our generation, there were many different things going on, but this particular image is the one most connect with this decade. This image is promoted even more through modern media and television; shows like Mad Men and American Horror Story delve into these stereotypes and popularize them in the modern world. These stereotypes make the 1950’s look quaint and perfect; a utopia where families were happy and problems didn’t exist. However, a nation terrified against the possible threat of Communism and the portrayal of women as “weak and serving” is the part of the 1950’s that many Americans don’t like to look at. We learn about it in our history books and through modern education, but it is not shown as much when looking in the media at the cliché of the fifties. In Jack Kinney’s 1956 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers (originally titled The Body Snatchers and published the previous year), all sides of this decade are shown. Finney’s science fiction work about the a doctor and his love interest fighting against an identity stealing alien force incorporates the typical fifties American community, the set gender roles, and a nation terrified of Communism.
Finney’s novel starts off with the first person narration of Dr. Miles Bennell, a local doctor in the town of Santa Mira and the protagonist of the novel. Not only does Bennell’s vocabulary sounds a bit old-fashioned, but certain aspects of Bennell’s everyday life are foreign to us. Bennell mentions, “I’ve gone to bed staggering-tired, knowing I’d be up in a couple hours driving out to a country call; as I did, have done often, and will again” (Kinney 2). The notion of a country call, or house call, which driving out to the patient’s actual house to do a medical examination, is totally unfamiliar to us in the modern day. There are a few doctors who still travel to the houses of their patients for checkups. One of the main reasons for this is because there aren’t as many small town, local doctors who are close to the community. In the novel, Miles knows just about every member of the town. He knows each of his patients not just as a patient, but as a member of the neighborhood. When Becky Driscoll comes to him needing his help, she mentions her cousin and her uncle as if Miles knew them personally, which he does. Not only this, but each member of the community knows Miles; when he goes to check on Uncle Ira, they have a common back and forth between the two. “This was the usual routine between us, whenever we ran into each other around town” (Kinney 6). He’s not just a doctor, he is a highly respected member of the community. Even despite Miles’ position in the town, a community this close guarantees that everyone will know each other in some way. Miles states; “of course it was Uncle Ira, the same Mr. Lentz I’d known as a kid, delivering an evening paper to the bank every night” (Kinney 6). A quaint, close- knit town like this is a high cliché of the fifties; everyone knows everyone, usually from a young age. This is shown through the character of Miss Wyandotte, a librarian that Miles had known since he was a child. She’d been working at the library for as long as Miles could remember, and her never changing position fit in with the routine of every day life. It’s also shown by the naming of the townspeople throughout the book, unimportant characters to the plot but crucial to showing how strong the bond in this town actually is. Nothing really changes, and each person delivers something for the town to continue to thrive. This is probably one of the reasons why certain people recognize the subtle changes in their close ones relatively quickly; they’re so used to things being a certain way that when even the slightest change occurs, it is noticed. The fact that the people of the town feel comfortable enough with Miles to come to his with absurd notion of simply feeling like someone they know is different, shows how close and almost familial they feel with Miles. This may be a reason why the aliens picked this town to invade; it’s already so isolated and familial that not many people would have connections to the outside world. When Miles and Becky drive through the town and realize that it’s dying, Becky wonders, “do you think it’s possible for a town to cut itself off from the world?” (Kinney 75). For a town as internally close as this, it could be possible. Today, a doctor is simply someone’s medical caretaker. In the fifties, a doctor could be like family, especially in a town like Santa Mira. The typical close-knit, American community is definitely a known cliche of the 1950’s.
The underlying gender roles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers also connect the story with the fifties. The main female protagonist, Becky Driscoll, is an accurate representation of a 1950’s woman. She is portrayed as beautiful and feminine; the object of Miles’ affection. However, Becky is also seen as more of a weak character, often falling back onto Miles to protect her and nurture her. She is often shown distressed or crying, either because of fear or downright frustration. She also constantly looks as if she is sick, or about to faint. When she and Miles witness the conversation between her “family”, Miles notes “her face was completely drained of blood, and her mouth hung open, and I knew she was only semi-conscious” (Kinney 81). Becky begins the novel as a classic fifties ‘damsel in distress’, and is constantly in need of the strong, nurturing male figure (Miles) to come in and save her. When he goes to rescue from her house, he actually carries her all the way back to his home, like some kind of princess. Another female protagonist who adopts these stereotypes is Theodora Belicec, Jack’s wife. When Miles tells her his plan for her to wake Jack up if she notices the transformation of the unidentified “man”, Jack looks at her and asks her if she is even able to do so. The only woman in this novel who is even partially tough is Wilma, Becky’s cousin. Miles describes her as red-cheeked, short, and plump, with no looks at all; she never married, which is too bad. I’m certain she’d have liked to, and I think she’d have made a fine wife and mother, but that’s how it goes” (Kinney 4). He also states that Wilma is tough- minded and bright, owning two stores and making a steady income out of it. The first gender role that is shown in this description is Wilma’s lack of looks correlating with her smarts and success. A fifties wife was stereotypically lacking of intelligence or innovativeness; the husband of the family was often the working one while the wife stayed home and cared for the children and the house. The family model brings about the next aspect of a woman’s gender role, which is that Wilma never married. This was definitely uncommon in the fifties; a woman’s main goal was to find a successful man to marry and start a family with as soon as possible. Wilma’s rebellion of these typical gender roles makes her a foil character of her cousin Becky, and an alien to Miles. However, there is a transformation of Becky in this novel, to a classic fifties woman to a more strong, independent figure. This could be a symbolic representation of women at the time, slowly stepping up and rebelling against the classic “housewife” role. At the end of the novel, Becky actually saves Miles by sedating two of the men who are attacking him. On the more emotional side, Becky confronts Miles and tells him they should’ve married, making the first move in their relationship. Both of these acts were most uncommon in the fifties time period. A woman would often wait for a man to suit her, and would never proclaim her feelings for him first. Becky begins the novel as one of these typical fifties woman, but transforms throughout the novel into a more strong, tough- minded woman. Finney’s use of Wilma as well as his transformation of Becky shows his attempt to break these gender roles as well as exhibit of the rebel of the woman portrayal during this decade.
One huge event going on during the publication of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into “Un-American activities”. The Cold War was in full affect, and Americans were absolutely terrified that their greatest enemy, Communism, could actually be living among them. Many believe that Kinney’s novel is actually an extended metaphor of the invasion of communism in the United States. Finney translates the fear of a Soviet invasion into America into a story about alien invasion. In his story, the aliens steal peoples’ identities and live among the citizens of Santa Mira, in complete secrecy. A major scare at the time was the possibility that the Soviets could be subtly living among the Americans; every day people just like us. So Finney’s alien invasion and placement of the aliens among the people is a metaphor for the Soviet’s invasion and stealth among the American people. The threat of lost individuality is one that is present both in the novel and in real life. UWF student Virginia Zasadny wrote an article on whether Finney’s novel is just an example of satire or a kind of Cold War propaganda, trying to unite American citizens even more against the possible threat of internal communism. “The pods infect their hosts, transforming them so that, while they are identical in every respect, they are now different, possessors of an “alienness” that comes from their new knowledge. This ‘new knowledge’ which comes from their ‘alienness’ is, of course, ‘a metaphor for communist ideas’” (Zasadny). She believes that, like communists trying to convince Americans that attempt to convince Americans that they are in the right, the aliens in this novel mimic the Soviets and try to make Miles and Becky see their way. Finney always insisted that the novel was purely for entertainment, not some sort of Anti-Communist publication. Maureen Corrigan, a writer for NPR, insists that the novel is just a metaphor for the every-changing nature of people, sometimes into something more negative. “People we love can change, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells us, and sometimes that change is terrifying” (Corrigan). However, many critics still do believe that Finney’s novel had an underlying communistic theme, and the political and social events at the time, combined with the plot of an “alien” invasion in the novel, points more toward that direction.
There are many distinct stereotypes and cliches that are connected to the 1950’s. The typical American family and community is one; close to each other, familiar and trusting with one another. Living in a 1950’s American town would guarantee that you’d know everyone, from the local librarian that you’d check books out from when you were a child to the man and his family that lived above the shoe store. The thought of community dependency is a positive one, but in this novel, it allows for an easier takeover by the alien force. Set gender roles were also an important theme in the 1950’s. The male was the typical working husband, providing a steady income for his family. The wife was the stay at home mother, caring for her home and family. Finney breaks some of the typical gender roles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He mirrors the slow rebellion of the roles in real life with the use of a more masculine female character as well as the transformation of an extremely feminine character. The metaphor for the Red Scare is also seen in this novel; Finney may or may not have used the invasion of an identity snatching alien force as a metaphor for the invasion of Soviet Communists in the United States, trying to turn Americans over to their side. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a typical 1950’s novel with cliches and stereotypes. However, Finney does challenge some of these stereotypes, as well as leave us with the question of whether or not he was really speaking about the political events of the time. This makes this novel an interesting mix of classic fifties literature and new ideals of the time, leaving us questioning it more than sixty years after it was published.
Works CitedCorrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson Of ‘Body Snatchers’: People Change.” NPR. NPR, 17 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. N.p.: Dell, 1956. Print.
Zasadny, Virginia. “Cold War Propaganda or Clever Satire?” University of West Florida Book Club. Pensacola Magazine & UWF University, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.