Rosemary’s Baby

Book cover: Rosemary's Baby by Ira LevinTrigger warning after the jump

Spoilers after the jump

Even though he remained as faithful to the original as possible, I was never a big fan of Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby. That Scene was the most memorable/terrifying/skin-crawling part of the film for me, as was the chilling ending. Everything else? Meh, I’d always thought. Now having read Ira Levin’s classic, I know what’s missing: the slow-building psychological thrill of it all.

The book starts with Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse being offered an opportunity to move into The Bramford, a luxury building in Manhattan. A friend of theirs warns them of the building’s dark history of mysterious deaths, cannibals, and the occasional high-profile practitioner of witchcraft; Guy and Rosemary laugh it off as superstition. They settle into their new life, Guy as a struggling actor and Rosemary as a nesting housewife who hopes to start a family soon. Soon after, they also befriend their nosy elderly neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet; Rosemary is unsettled by how clingy they are, but Guy seems to love their company and starts spending more and more time with them.

Things are soon looking up for them. Guy has a big break, albeit under unfortunate circumstances: the actor he always seems to lose jobs to has suddenly gone blind. Now Guy is getting all kinds of roles and finds himself on the brink of great success. He and Rosemary have also finally agreed to try and start a family.

*You are now entering the trigger warning / spoiler zone*

You really have to feel for Rosemary; she’d been trying for ages to get Guy to agree to start a family, even trying to trick him and lie about her menstrual cycle, but he insisted on putting it off until after his career had flourished. The big night she’d been waiting for finally arrives and what happens? She is roofied by her husband and raped by Satan as part of a terrifying ceremony. Rosemary initially believes the experience to be a dream and then realizes in her haze that she really is being raped.

She wakes up naked the next morning with scratches on her body and wonders what happened, telling her husband that she had a terrible dream she was being raped; Guy apologizes for the scratches and explains that he didn’t want to miss Baby Night, boasting that it was all fun “in a necrophile sort of way.” Rosemary (understandably) feels betrayed by it all. She tries to shake it off as if she’s making a big deal out of nothing, but an unbridgeable chasm has now opened between her and Guy. While they grow apart, the Castevets become a constant presence in their lives, much to Rosemary’s chagrin.

So. That is the guy Rosemary is married to: a cocky and rape-facilitating jerk who exchanges his wife’s body, womb, and emotional well-being for fame and glory. And it’s all downhill from there. All the joy she feels at learning she’s pregnant also soon disappears, as the first half of her pregnancy leaves her tormented by excruciating pains. She loses weight and looks ghastly, but her doctor insists it’s all normal and that the pain will disappear any day now. Rosemary is unable to do much of anything; she has no one but the tenants of the Bramford and her short-tempered husband to turn to.

If there was ever a book to make you want to rage against the patriarchy, this is it. Sure, Minnie Castevet is a constant nuisance in Rosemary’s life, making sure Rosemary drinks her special daily shake and seeing to it that Rosemary Satan’s spawn has everything it needs. But from the beginning, it’s clear that Rosemary is at the mercy of a cadre of men: her husband, who was selfish even before he sold her out for a career; Roman Castevet, who has a key role in this central nightmare; and even Satan himself, who serves as a mirror-opposite stand-in for the Catholic Church (Rosemary left Catholicism to marry Guy, and Satan’s spawn is conceived on the night the Pope visits NYC). Rosemary’s doctor, Dr. Sapirstein, advises her to reject all advice from her friends because doctor knows best, and the doctor she later turns to in desperation only turns around and contacts Guy and Dr. Sapirstein to come collect her.

Ultimately, it’s the little man himself (plus a heavy dose of maternal instinct) that gets her. Even though she’d been told that her child had died, Rosemary hears a baby somewhere in the building and knows it’s hers. She approaches the black-draped bassinet with trepidation, shrieking in horror when she sees what she gave birth to:

The thing to do was kill it. Obviously. Wait till they were all sitting at the other end, then run over, push away Laura-Louise, and grab it and throw it out the window. And jump out after it. Mother Slays Baby and Self at Bramford.

Save the world from God-knows-what. From Satan-knows-what.

A tail! The buds of his horns!

She wanted to scream, to die.

She would do it, throw it out and jump.

And yet. And yet…

Ira Levin deploys some of the oldest gender-based tropes in the horror canon. Rosemary Woodhouse does not sell her soul to Satan; her heart already belongs to Satan’s son. Damn that maternal instinct!

But even with all of that, even though you want to shake Rosemary and yell, “WAKE UP! GET OUT OF THERE,” even though Levin’s book probably helped solidify some of those very tropes I just complained about? It’s entertaining and unnerving in ways that the movie — no matter how faithful it was (and it was pretty damn faithful: a lot of the script came word-for-word from the book) — could not possibly be. Polanski was wise not to show Satan Jr. in his movie, letting viewers conjure their own images based on Mia Farrow’s horrified face. The book actually does give descriptions of the child; swaddled and sleeping, the boy could be mistaken for any human baby. What makes that scene so wonderfully creepy in the book is Rosemary’s internal struggle as she weighs her child’s human and Satanic physical features; you can see her maternal instinct subsuming all of her red flags measure by measure and know she’s a goner before she ever opens her mouth. It’s a hell of a little book.

Rosemary’s Baby was originally published in 1967. I read the 2011 edition published by Pegasus Books, a partner of Open Road Integrated Media.

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): eBook
Source: Purchase
Pages: 245

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6 comments

  1. twhittlesea

    I am glad the book includes the “kill it? dont kill it?” element, it was all I was thinking about at the end of the film and the whole ‘motherly instinct’ thing is not conveyed exceptionally well. No matter how poignant the dropping of the knife (that poor floor) was, it just was not enough to explain why she didn’t run in there and stab everyone – lets face it they were all pretty old! I will have to give it a read.

  2. Zach

    Out of curiosity, what tropes are speaking about? At the time of its release, those tropes did not really exist in horror films yet. They definitely do today, but in 1968 there were relatively few films dealing with a woman and pregnancy, hence the success of Rosemary’s Baby (or novels for that matter. Afterwards, a slew of books/movies came out attempting to deal with the same themes). Also, complex female protagonists were sparse in horror at the time, especially with Hammer studios in Britain just coming to an end, and the Gothic-era being turned over to more urban story lines. So at the time, these were not tropes.

    Also, I wasn’t sure on your interpretation of the book/film as being feminist, or upholding patriarchal expectations? Because I totally interpret Rosemary’s struggle/character as a very strong character that is struggling to battle the patriarchy, but also conflicted because she is really feminine and wants a family/baby, but is being molded and shaped by the men around her. I think the horrifying ending is supposed to read as just that; Rosemary has lost. The battle she has been fighting is over, and the audience is disturbed by this decision she makes.

    I think her character speaks so much to a generation of women like Rosemary. Also, Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives, a really feminist novel that deals with feminism in the same manner (presenting strong female characters in the midst of a very patriarchal and disturbing society) but unnerves the audience to convey its themes.

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