Monday, March 15, 2010

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

This book amazes me, because it doesn’t get dated. The same is true for the film version Directed by Roman Polanski. I watch it once in awhile just because it’s so good.

The book got passed around my junior high class, because it had a cool “sex scene.” It also had a whole lot more. When I originally read this book (when I was still too young to see the movie), I remembered being terrified for Rosemary, hoping she’d be able to get away from all those crazy people (no don’t take those funny herbal drinks) and get to safety in order to have her baby in a secure place. It was a surprise to me at the end that she was the mother of Satan’s child. That line, “What have you done to his eyes,” will always haunt me. I thought they were going to kidnap her baby for a human sacrifice, and for that reason, I kept rooting for Rosemary to wake up and escape from those people’s evil clutches.

On this latest reading of the book, I find that it loses none of the appeal. Levin is able to do that very rare thing of making you completely suspend belief. In giving it a really close read, I could see the beauty of the book, how all of the pieces (that on first a first reading you might gloss over) fit together to bring us to the conclusion. It’s an absolutely linear story with no narrative tricks, but flows so well, you can read it in one sitting (which I just did.)

The first hint that something is amiss is when Guy and Rosemary move the huge dresser to find that it’s hiding a closet behind it. Rosemary asks why she would block the closet that has her vacuum cleaner. At first Rosemary was the one who was enthusiastic about getting the apartment, so it makes me wonder at what point guy made a pact with the devil. (Most probably when Roman pulls Guy off for a talk when the Castevets have invited them over for dinner.) When Rosemary’s friend, Hutch tries to discourage them from renting there because of it penchant for weirdly brutal happenings, Guy poo poos it. At that point, we know that Guy is a selfish and manipulative jerk, but we don’t think he’s actually evil.

Throughout the book we only know what Rosemary knows. We are lulled into a false sense of security with everyday details. Once Rosemary starts to realize that something is wrong, the book becomes impossible to put down. At no time does anything overtly supernatural or dangerous take place. Indeed, it could all be in Rosemary’s head. We know it’s not, but nothing definite in the book happens to prove otherwise until almost to the ending.

Rosemary has a passive obedient nature which could be said to characterize a woman from the early 1960’s. She defers to the experts and does what everyone tells her to do. When Dr. Sapirstein tells her to drink Minnie’s strange drink, she doesn’t question it.

There was also a cold war paranoia that was very active at the time, and Rosemary’s Baby reflects that fact that you really can’t trust your next door neighbor. He might be a commie or a Satanist. When she feels that she’s been raped by some demon, (“This is really happening,”) the day after she doesn’t trust herself and brushes it off as a nightmare.

There are certain points in the book in which you think Rosemary might have a change. One is when her friends come to their apartment for a party and she agrees to get a second opinion about the pain. The other in when the Castevets announce that they are taking a trip to Europe. Levin gives us a little relief from the tension. We kind of sigh at that point.

Rosemary catches Guy in a couple of small lies and thinks he might be having an affair. The things are subtle and don’t add up to a lot individually, but together, they let the reader know that Guy is working with the Castevets for some evil purpose, even if Rosemary has been too naïve to see it.

After Rosemary has the baby, she at first is told that it’s dead but later goes through the fake closet to find it. After the initial shock wears off, Rosemary softens up to the idea of the baby. “Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well?” The book ends with her baby-talking to the new infant, which is really more chilling than having her run away in terror.

Why this book works for me:

The characters are well defined and believable. Is Guy in league with the devil, or is he just kind of a jerk? At the beginning we’re not sure; later on, we know. Are the Castevets well-meaning busybodies or are they truly evil?

The viewpoint is limited to Rosemary’s perceptions. We have angst because we are literally in Rosemary’s shoes. Isn’t horror all about limited viewpoint so we don’t see the monster behind the door?

The suspense rises as we become more and more sure that Rosemary is in real, not imagined, danger. The book gives us a growing sense of dread as Rosemary realizes that she can trust no one.

Levin provides the day-to-day details of Rosemary’s life right down to what kind of haircut she gets and what kind of dish detergent she uses. This immerses us in the fictive dream. Still, Levin doesn’t over-do it with details; he manages to give us just the right amount.

He keys into our deep-seated fears of evil and (particularly if you were brought up Catholic) the devil in a way that gets right down deep into our psyches.

I ask myself why this book doesn’t get dated, even though it is a 60’s period piece. I think it is that the characters act like real people and they are true to their personalities. As Hemingway said, “Good writing is true writing.” …even when it’s about the spawn of Satan.

1 comment:

  1. Glad this one works for you on so many levels. I think part of the reason it still works today is that people are still afraid of that "other" religion, or about people doing secretly bad things. It feeds on paranoia, which I think is a plus in horror.