Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Mother Will Love the Satan Right Out

It’s all there, right in front of the reader, and in front of Rosemary. Ira Levin wrote such a tight, straightforward novel and at the same time open to all kinds of interpretations when he gave us “Rosemary’s Baby.” The story is simplicity itself: young couple is finding their way in the big city, he wants to climb the ladder of his business, in this case acting, she wants to have kids and start a family. Within that simple family dynamic all the horror in the word resides.

Levin winds this story so tightly that with each quiet little revelation you feel the tension tick up a notch. Yet, even as the story is coming to a close the reader is rooting for Rosemary to be wrong. Each of her worries: the history of the building, Terry’s suicide, the tannis root, Guy’s whereabouts and how he came to have tickets to a show, Hutch’s coma, Donald Baumgart’s blindness, all of it really could be mere coincidence. The reader, for Rosemary’s sake hopes so. But of course she isn’t so lucky.

From the first meeting with the Castevets Levin shows his hand. Sure, it’s just a peek, but the clues are all there. Roman Castevet says: ““No Pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike”” (Levin 55). Later in that same conversation Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary’s husband, responds: “Guy smiled. “Well,” he said, “that’s show biz”” (Levin 56).

The disdain for the Pope and God in general, are right there for the reader to see. But Levin has his story so well written, the reader not only sees the seeds of the Satanists the Castevets turn out to be, but also how Rosemary is an outsider and Guy is fitting right in with them. “Rosemary, in one of the straight-backed chairs, felt oddly out of things, as if the Castevets were old friends of Guy’s to whom she had just been introduced. “Do you think it could have been a plot of some kind?” Mr. Castevet asked her, and she answered awkwardly, aware that a considerate host was drawing a left-out guest into conversation” (Levin 61).

The story continues to isolate Rosemary and to draw Guy into the circle around her. Not long after the dinner party at the Castevets Guy is alone with Roman for a while. Rosemary is visited by Minnie and Laura-Louise and given the necklace Terry was wearing when she committed suicide. It is a charm full of what the Castevets call “tannis root” that Rosemary thinks stinks. She decides not to put it on. Guy responds “Guy, in the doorway, said, “If you took it, you ought to wear it”” (Levin 70).

This kind of tension building continues as Rosemary is further ostracized (or is she just being paranoid?). Levin never plays dirty tricks on the reader; he places it all out there for us to see. We see the moment Guy either joins the Satanists directly, or at least they act on his behalf by striking Donald Baumgart blind. This is offstage; the reader is with Rosemary at a play called The Fantasticks. When she returns the whole house smells of tannis root. Rosemary just assigns the odor to the charm Minnie gave to her. The reader knows there is more to it than that as Guy is scrubbing himself in the shower.

Near the end of the novel Rosemary runs into the person Guy said he got the show tickets from. He never gave them to Guy. This minor piece of information is nothing in the grand scheme of things, maybe just a simple misunderstanding or a lapse in memory on Rosemary’s part. But by the time this information is revealed we’ve seen Hutch, Rosemary’s surrogate father, lapse into a coma, heard odd music and chanting, watched Rosemary have an unusual and painful pregnancy. Even more, we’ve watched Rosemary systematically get cut off from the rest of the world.

All of this tension building, this tight plotting, this excellent set up and building of suspense shows master craft work by Levin. He truly has a masterpiece of suspense here. It’s no wonder it’s stood the test of time.

However, my favorite aspect of this story is that it doesn’t turn out to be some paranoid delusion on the part of Rosemary. Everything she fears comes true. Levin gives the reader, and unfortunately Rosemary, a real supernatural encounter with Satan. This is done in a dreamlike haze as Rosemary has been drugged, but it is real. It did happen, as Rosemary learns when she breaks into the Castevets apartment in the final scenes of the book.

To take a supernatural occurrence like that, and place it within the relatively mundane (but interesting and well written mind you) confines of a New York City apartment? That is the essence of horror. To take a relatively absurd concept (sex with the devil) and give it a concrete real-world adult application is impressive. For me, that is where the great horror lives.

Finally, once the reader gets to the end and realizes that Rosemary isn’t a paranoid basket case (but the reader is never really sure until Rosemary sees the picture of the burning church in the Castevet’s apartment, you really do have to wait that long), Levin isn’t through with the surprises.

You’ve guessed the group has conspired against Rosemary. You’ve guessed that something untoward is happening. When Rosemary finally sees her baby (Andrew, not Adrian) she is horrified by his eyes, Levin could have ended it there. The movie ends it there basically.

Instead her maternal instincts take over. Sure, he’s Satan’s spawn, but he’s also half hers: “He couldn’t be all bad, he just couldn’t. Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one …” (Levin 244).

So, instead of Rosemary leaping out the window like Terry did before her. Instead of using the knife to kill her baby, Rosemary becomes his mother. It’s a great twist, and, even better, a believable twist. Rosemary is a bit of a pushover (voted the way Laura-Louise wanted her to, letting the Castevets steamroll her time and again, etc.), but she really is the only good person in the whole book. She trusts, and the reader believes (or really wants to believe) that she can foster that goodness in her baby boy.

Beyond that, it is a blunt and, once again, obvious point by Levin about the power of good and evil. If Rosemary is the only good, and obviously Satan is the focal point of evil, then their child has the potential for both, just like all of us.


  1. Nice observations on Rosemary. I agree that this is a tightly-plotted masterpiece. I read the book a long time ago and didn't know the outcome of the book, so I was completely swept in by how mostly everything that happens could be Rosemary's imagination until very close to the end. Rosemary desperately wants to believe the best about her husband and her situation until she can no longer deny the facts. At that point they have her so tightly controlled, she can't really do anything. But actually there is no way for her to escape, because she's carrying the son of Satan. I also loved the ending where Rosemary even wants to believe the best about her child.

  2. See, I'm not too sure about the ending. I wanted Rosemary in action - perhaps rescuing her child from the clutches of evil, but what does she do? She stays there and tickles the baby.

    Argh! At the end, she's just as complicit in her own fate as at the beginning. I think she could've escaped at any point, and although I know its part of the domestic violence syndrome to fail to see a way out, and I know the time period it was written, I still wanted her to go.


  3. I agree that Rosemary is the one "good" character in this novel. I am less certain that it was ever unclear to the reader that she wasn't a basket case. I didn't find that to very suspenseful in that it was obvious to me she was being used for some questionable purpose and that there was some danger to her and her baby if she didn't acquiesce. Which, of course, she does. Makes for a nice plot twist as you say but, like Calie's comment above mine, I wanted her to flee, too, with or without the baby. (Preferably with. I'm a mother, too.)

    Carla E. Anderton

  4. I'm sort of of the opinion that, as she's being complacent, that makes Rosemary just as evil as the people who did this to her. Wouldn't the "good" thing be to take an active role and rescue the child?