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June 17, 2016

Book Review || Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levine

I actually wish that I had not seen a film version of 'Rosemary's Baby' before I had read the book. This review falls straight into my conundrum of whether to read the book first or watch one of the movies first. I wish I had read 'Rosemary's Baby' before I watched the film.

While Ira Levine's writing is quirky and sharp, the parts of the plot that all add up to the inevitable twist at the end are simply ruined having watched the film first, since the films are practically exactly the same. It is certainly a horrific story and I truly believe I would have enjoyed the novel more had it not been spoiled for me. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy watching films based on books for the different interpretations one may be exposed to and the simpler, visual joys offered up. However, for such a psychological and supernatural thriller, the book would have been spine-tingly wonderful. Had. I. Read. It. First. Particularly since the film brings nothing more to the story and simplifies it into a cutthroat horror.

But not all was lost.While the film versions faithfully represented the context and plotline of  'Rosemary's Baby', right down to the apartment porn, the story itself is really a much deeper commentary on society at large than the films are. While the film versions have a greater focus on the terror Rosemary experiences as she discovers the truth, in the novel we are given a more intimate look into Rosemary's relationships and the inner workings of a patriarchal society that simply views Rosemary - and women - as chattel.

Rosemary represents those mid-century women suddenly no longer needed for war efforts, suddenly spending all their time with their husbands or homemaking or making food for said husband. Her relations with Guy echo interactions reminiscent of those infamous adverts in vintage magazines representing husbands punishing their wives for failing to make dinner properly, his smacks on her bottom when breakfast is late and sarcastic remarks made only half-jokingly.


While Guy might adore his wife, his lust for fame and fortune go beyond his feelings for her. He not only allows her to be drugged and raped, isolates her from her family and friends, forces her to endure a friendship with the Castevets and months and months of pain, insists she is overreacting at every turn, but also shies away from her affections as if she is to blame for carrying a supernatural baby. And then after she discovers what she believes is the truth, escaping to seek help, her husband and crazy doctor are called up to fetch her, because she is nothing but a hysterical woman anyway.

We read the novel with the time period and place in mind, but this is the scariest thing about the story. How would you feel knowing the person you trusted the most had allowed this to happen to you and your body without your consent for their own benefit? How would you feel being forced to go to a particular doctor, forced to take particular drinks, forced to endure months of pain because you apparently don't know better? And then right at the end when you cannot take any more you are handed right back into the hands of your abusers because you apparently don't know any better?

It is also frightening that these notions about women continue today. Why else is there still a struggle for pay equality? Why are women looked down upon for choosing career over family, indeed for choosing not to have children at all? Why are women in the workplace suddenly less valuable when they have children? Why is Hillary Clinton criticised for supposedly not being as a mother should be? Why are women who raise complaints, even ones of a sexual nature, told they are being too sensitive? Why can women not raise their voices in meetings? Why can a rape case result in an extremely lenient sentence so that the rapist's future is not jeopardised? How can women consistently report violence by a man and be ignored? And this is just in Western society. Imagine what it is like in Somalia where a girl's body is so much not her own that they can mutilate her genitals? How afraid girls in Limpopo must be at night when they may be kidnapped by older men, married off, and basically enslaved for the rest of their lives? How women are murdered by family for choosing a different husband? Of course, the latter are extreme versions of patriarchy, but you get my drift.

There is nothing scarier than having our bodily autonomy, our choices, overrun by others, and the fact that everything she experienced was an entirely plausible reality is what makes 'Rosemary's Baby' truly frightening.

Looking even more deeply into the story we see how Rosemary's motherhood has been wrested from her body and placed in the hands of those proverbial doctors who decided they knew everything about women's bodies while hardly wanting to look at them. At the same time, the novel honours motherhood, constantly pointing to and affirming Rosemary's instincts that something is not right about her baby and her situation. Her single interaction with women not involved in the coven confirms all her fears but she can still not act. Indeed, her only real decision considering her situation is when she looks at the baby she bore and decides to be its mother, decides to take what is owed to her after giving her body and her autonomy.

Certainly the victory of 'Rosemary's Baby' is how immersed the reader becomes in Rosemary's world - the mundane details of her upper-middle-class life are so real that we can not help but question whether what must be hysteria or paranoia is as real as the snowflakes falling outside or the swordfish steaks Rosemary purchases from the store. It is only at the end that the ghastly truth is revealed, but Rosemary takes possession of the only thing remaining to her, the only thing that is real: a baby.

Further Reading:

Why Rosemary's Baby Still Matters 47 Years Later
Ira Levin’s Creepy Valentine: Rosemary’s Baby and the Power of Place