Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

Levin was a professional writer who produced half a dozen novels, nine plays – including the fifth longest-running play on Broadway (Deathtrap) – as well as ten or so film scripts and adaptations, in a career which lasted from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

It is a real achievement for a writer to create one archetype of imaginative power, one avatar, one story or figure which is a permanent addition to the cultural store. One obvious measure of their success is the number of times they’re reworked into movies by the fiercely competitive and money-driven film industry.

On this criterion – movie success – Levin’s novels score high: Rosemary’s Baby (1 classic movie and several spin-offs), The Stepford Wives (2 movies and several spin-offs), The Boys From Brazil (1 movie), A Kiss Before Dying (2 movie versions), Sliver (1), with his hit play Deathtrap also made into a 1982 movie starring Michael Caine. This is success, big success, in the popular realm.

Of all of them Rosemary’s Baby, his second novel, is probably best known and most influential, often credited with begetting the contemporary horror story. The Devil isn’t depicted as a character in historical fiction, in Biblical epic or in some foreign land – He is here, now, in a Manhattan apartment block, among people like you or me.

According to his Wikipedia article, Levin later regretted how RB opened the way for a wave of horror stories and movies – namely, The Exorcist (novel 1971, movie 1973) and The Omen (movie 1976) – which gave a new realism and cultural presence to Satanism and which, he speculates, provided ammunition for the rise of US evangelists and the Christian Right. Maybe.

Short plot summary

A group of satanists in New York select a fertile young bride and arrange for her to be drugged and raped by the Devil, and then groomed and cared for while she brings the baby to term. The text is artfully constructed so that it starts in the humdrum world of tenancy agreements and bad plumbing and only slowly, through hints and glimpses, allows you to realise the true nature of what’s going on.

Before the movie came out, the novel had already sold two and a half million copies and, after the terrifying film (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring John Cassavetes as the creepy husband and Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary, sales soared to over 5 million.

So what accounted for it success? How does it work?

Rosemary’s Baby

1. Commonplace setting

A young married couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are looking for an apartment in New York so he can pursue his budding career as an actor and she can fulfil her dream of being a successful actor’s wife. Aged just 24, Rosemary has left her Catholic family back in Omaha to come to the big bad city and marry a non-Catholic, and oh how she longs for a baby.

Apparently by chance, they get the opportunity to rent an apartment in an old Gothic building, the Bramford, where an old lady has (conveniently) passed away. Again by chance, they get chatting to the old couple across the hall – Minnie and Roman Castevet – and, to Rosemary’s surprise, her husband becomes firm friends with them, until he is regularly popping round for chats with the old man who knew a lot of the old Broadway greats.

So far so innocent. Levin’s technique is to intersperse the text with odd moments, inexplicable events, ominous anecdotes – slowly at first. Rosemary meets the young woman, Terry, who the Castavets have taken in, in the laundry room in the dingy basement. She shows Rosemary an odd necklace the Castavets have given her, containing a foul-smelling substance. Days later the Woodhouses are walking home to find the sidewalk cordoned off where Terry has leapt to her death. A few days later, after the customary commiserations, Rosemary finds Minnie Castevet forcing the same necklace on her as a gift…

The apartment walls are thin, allowing Guy and Rosemary to overhear the old couple next door in their bedroom. Initially they hear comic old person nags – ‘Roman, will ya bring my cocoa!’ But in a repeated device, Levin shows us Rosemary’s thoughts as she falls asleep and dreams, mixing up genuine dream elements (meeting the Kennedys) with things heard through the wall – Roman and Minnie arguing about using such a useless young girl (the suicide), they must find a fresh, fit young woman for… what?

2. Precision and economy

The writing is crisp and precise. The use of dialogue is particularly telling, making quick cool leaps, just the telling phrase or snappy gag which gives you a flavour of the young couple’s irreverent humour.

Only as much detail and description and dialogue is given in each scene as is required to move the story along. All superfluous matter is cut. This makes the opening stretches a little colourless, as the mundane atmosphere is created by describing genuinely inconsequential things, quite a lot of Rosemary’s plans to redecorate the flat and what she’s cooking for Guy etc.

However, after about 50 pages and the reader starts to suspect something is wrong, the slow drip-drip of suspicion and coincidence begins to give every little incident a sinister dimension. And following chapter 8, the Sex-With-The-Devil scene, when we realise something is very very wrong, then every event, every remark from the husband, every look, every knock at the door or ring of the neighbour’s bell, becomes part of a closing trap, creating a genuine sense of claustrophobic fear.

3. The key

Rosemary has a friend named Hutch, an older man, a long-time New Yorker. He acts as a chorus, implicitly commenting on the action and providing the key to the dénouement.

Early on he outlines to Guy and Rosemary the Bramfield’s bad reputation: a history of suicides, murders, and association with one Adrian Marcato, who was accused of Devil worship and lynched in the lobby of the building. Later Hutch offers Rosemary use of his cottage in the country when she is feeling disoriented after the Sex-With-The-Devil chapter, barely accepting the cover story that her husband and she were both drunk and he took her violently while she was unconscious.

Guy learns that Rosemary has planned to meet Hutch when she is well on into her pregnancy, suffering constant pain, losing weight and looking awful. He tips off the Castavets and, when Hutch doesn’t keep his appointment, Rosemary is distraught to learn he has suffered a stroke and is in a coma.

At the very end of his life he regains consciousness long enough to get his nurse to promise to hand Rosemary a package. It is a book about witchcraft which is the key to opening her understanding about the conspiracy. Structurally, Hutch is vital to the plot, revealing the backstory, exposing secrets and unlocking understanding and meaning for both Rosemary and the reader.

4. American prose

After reading scores of English novels from the 1950s, 60s and 70s it is an enormous relief to read some American prose. It is free. It is unconstrained. It is unburdened by the wretched class system ie the grovelling belief of English writers that to be classy they must write stiff Augustan prose – the guests with whom we arrived, whilst I opened the window – all the markers of ghastly good taste.

Levin’s prose is simple and unadorned and just gets on with it. At a party:

Mike wig-wagged over heads and mouthed Congratulations. She smiled and mouthed Thanks. (p.141)

No fussing about style and elaborate periphrasis. The language is always inflected towards Rosemary’s point of view and (initially at least) fresh, happy, simple tone of voice.

She went to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses; not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighbourhood but simply because on that snappy brightblue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders. (p.71)

When Levin wants us to hear her thoughts, he just puts them in italics.

Rosemary hung up and then lifted  the receiver again, but kep a hidden finger on the hook. She held the receiver to her ear as if listening, so that no-one should come along and ask her to give up the phone. The baby kicked and twisted in her. She was sweating. Quickly, please, Dr Hill. Call me. Rescue me. (p.189)

And to convey Rosemary coming round from a drugged sleep after she had given birth, he uses not Joycean stream of consciousness or a wordy attempt at a lush description. Keep it simple, really simple.

Light.

The ceiling.

And pain between her legs.

And Guy. Sitting beside the bed, watching her with an anxious, uncertain smile.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she said back. (p.205)

If it works, do it.

5. Faust and feminism

What emerges is that Guy has sold his soul and made a bargain with the Devil. The Castavets have offered him success in his career if he gives the Satanists his wife’s womb. The day after his long chat with Roman the actor who was Guy’s rival to get a plum new theatre role inexplicably goes blind and the role is offered to Guy. Further ‘accidents’ smooth his path to parts in high-profile TV ads and then a Hollywood studio comes calling. Earthly success beckons.

Two thoughts immediately arise:

  • Faust The novel is a version of the Faust myth, but with a spin; instead of his own soul, Guy has sold his wife’s womb. What’s interesting is what’s missing from this version of the myth – the theology. There is remarkably little theological paraphernalia, no priests or angels, no weighty discussions of God and right and wrong and the afterlife; let alone the more superficial layer of horror effects, like things going bump in the night. It is all kept within the world of a happy young couple and their eccentric neighbours. The Faust myth always ends with Justice being done, the protagonist realising the full implications of his deed, before being dragged down to hell screaming. None of that here. Guy remains a two-dimensional character, ready to sell his wife to the devil to get a good part in a play. –There is quite a lot of satire here on contemporary American values.
  • Feminism Lots of feminist tropes meet here, the one that strikes me being the way a man has sold his wife’s body for his gain. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural functions of the female body. It’s nowhere mentioned, but it’s just one of the issues which naturally arises from a novel dedicated to one woman’s pregnancy.

6. Pregnancy

Is there a human condition more fraught with meanings and anxieties and mystery and concern than that of a pregnant woman? The mechanism of existence, the way we all came into the world, the fragile slender means of our survival. The novel is cleverly contrived, expertly paced, written as if half way to a screenplay and works as a gripping read. But its theme also taps into archetypal fears –

  • taking the reader inside the mind of a panic-stricken woman who thinks she has been possessed by a demon and is carrying an alien body inside herself
  • tapping every reasonable person’s concern for the frailty and vulnerability of the pregnant woman ie the story has an added layer of terror because its main figure is a universal symbol of helplessness

The tale of the exploitation and hunting down of a particularly frail, vulnerable, naive pregnant woman brings into sweaty focus a world of conscious and unconscious anxieties which all contribute to its tense finale.

7. The Jewish view

Levin was a Jewish man. Rosemary is a (lapsed) Catholic woman. There are a number of ways you could take issue with his depiction of her gender and religion. For the purposes of the fiction I was persuaded by both – though she didn’t seem to carry the full burden of Catholic guilt experienced by many of the women I’ve known who’ve abandoned their faith. More interesting, I think, is the possibility that the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke about the stupidity and vulgarity of Christians. I don’t think it is, but at moments, especially towards the end, it certainly could be.

The final pages tread a very fine line between horror and the ridiculous – the Satanists crowd round the cradle with the little baby Satan in it, chanting ‘Hail Adrian! Hail Adrian!’ You could burst out laughing. This and some other details of the Satanism border on the risible; what holds the book together and gives it its hurtling, breathless tension in the final chapters is the immediacy of the portrayal of a vulnerable pregnant woman driven to a state of complete panic.

I didn’t necessarily buy the horror. But I was completely convinced by the terror.

The movie

Roman Polanski’s taut and terrifying film of the novel, made in 1968, and starring Mia Farrow, was shot in the Dakota Building in New York using a cast of venerable American character actors, and it is these – Sidney Blackmer and the terrific Ruth Gordon as the Castevets, Maurice Evans as Hutch, Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein, Elisha Cook – as much as Cassavetes and Farrow, who root the outrageous story in an all-too-believable everyday reality.

Having just watched it, I’m struck by how very faithful the script (written by Polanski) is to the novel. Or how readily adaptable the novel was into a screenplay. The post-birth scene quoted above is shot exactly as per the novel, starting with the white ceiling and panning down to reveal Guy looking anxious and he and Rosemary both saying a blank ‘Hi’. The movie confirms your sense of the slick efficiency of the book.

Related links

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary's Baby

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary’s Baby

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife who is desperate to have a baby to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then try to keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the conspiracy.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
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