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Rosemary's Baby: A Critique

An examination of the feminist themes in a classic horror novel by Ira Levin.

By Cynthia ScottPublished about a year ago 10 min read
Courtesy of Imdb


I finished re-reading Rosemary's Baby, and one of the things that stood out to me that I had either forgotten or missed during the first reading, was how the novel goes beyond what the film implies in its ending.

Published in 1967 to critical and bestselling success, and adapted into a film a year later by Roman Polanski, Ira Levin's novel sets itself up as a horror story about occultism and devil worshipping. Though the novel sits quite comfortably within the horror genre, its original intent, as the author had hoped, was to "increase the skepticism that had always resided in him" (Otto Prenzler, Introduction to 2010 ed.). However, in the years that followed its release, both the publishing and film industries recognized that there was an audience for occult horror and churned out works in the same subgenre. Many of these books or movies were in the pulp or exploitation categories, but a few others, like The Exorcist, have become classics in their own right.

Unlike its successors, Rosemary's Baby does not traffic in any of the familiar tropes of the horror genre. Even The Exorcist, which treats devil possession with stark realism, still features an actual demon that possesses a preadolescent girl and an exorcism to drive the evil spirit out of her. Rosemary's Baby doesn't feature any supernatural elements at all, until the end, but even that is muted and pared down. No one spits up pea soup or turns their heads at 180˚angles. No one levitates or is mauled by horrific supernatural creatures. Only one death occurs in the novel, and that is presented in such an ambiguous fashion that readers still question whether this death was the cause of witchcraft or a perfectly natural, though tragic, reason.* The true horror in the book comes from the paranoia readers experience in watching Rosemary's bodily autonomy stolen from her one piece at a time. From her husband Guy deciding when they should conceive a child, to the rape, to the pain she experiences and that which is ignored by everyone, and to her child being ripped from her arms, Rosemary is the ultimate passive spectator in her own story. But it is precisely her lack of autonomy that is so terrifying. In a patriarchal society, Rosemary has no free will. She is an object upon which horror is visited. And as readers or viewers, we are forced to witness her violation and are somehow made complicit with it.

The novel's ending, however, poses a real plot twist, one that I missed the first time I read it.

My encounter with Levin's work began not with the novel but with the movie itself. I don't recall when I first saw Rosemary's Baby, though I'm certain it was during a television broadcast since I was born the year it first appeared in theaters, but I have been a fan of the movie for many years. There were elements in the film that I often overlooked. As a young viewer, I thought Minnie and Roman Castevet, the elderly neighbors who take an uncanny and intrusive interest in Rosemary and her pregnancy, were the ultimate villains of the story. When I got older, I realized the real villain was her husband, who essentially pimps his wife out to the devil. When I read the novel for the first time years later, I was surprised to see how faithful the movie was to the text, even right down to the dialogue. I can read some of the lines and hear Mia Farrow's, John Cassavetes', or Ruth Gordon's (Minnie Castevet) voices inside my head. But because the novel, like the film, takes completely within Rosemary's POV, we also see her reactions to the horror slowly building around her.

Though she comes across as passive throughout the story, Rosemary nonetheless has a mind of her own. She is much more upset when she believes her husband violated her while she was passed out on the night they were to conceive a child, though, being a woman of her time, rationalizes and excuses his behavior. The Castavets’ intrusiveness and the fact that no one takes her pregnancy pains seriously all eventually eats at her nerves, and little by little she begins to assert herself in the situation and take back control over her life and body before some circumstance (her rationalizations, the abrupt ending of her pains, her husband’s constant gaslighting) pulls her back under the web of their control. Her realization that she is the victim of a conspiracy also arrives slowly, for she is still rationalizing, still trying to deny what is there in her face. By the time she admits the facts and is forced to take action, it is too late, but we see how Rosemary’s steps toward assertion are painfully tentative. In the interest of time and streamlining different elements of the book, the movie leaves out some of these aspects of Rosemary's blossoming consciousness.

Another thing the movie leaves out is its ending. Though the scenes are still faithful to the novel, with Rosemary accepting that she is the mother to a demon spawn, there are other subtle elements to this acceptance, ones that are mostly Rosemary coming to grips with the situation she has been forced into. I'm not sure if I've simply forgotten this aspect of the novel the first time I read it, or it completely flew over my head, but they are extraordinary when taken into the novel's entire thematic elements.

In the novel, Rosemary, still horrified by what has been done to her, slowly accepts the fact that her child is part-demon (though she at first wonders whether she should toss the baby and herself out the window as a sacrifice to save the world from evil). She begins to think the child's horrifying features aren't so bad after all, and coos over it. Unlike the movie, in which we do not see the child, we see the child when Rosemary first peers into its carriage––orange, slitted eyes, claws, budding horns, and tail. The descriptions are cheesy, relying heavily on religious depictions of the devil, but Levin, with his precise, sparing language, can pull it off, largely, also, because the descriptions are mostly second-hand from the coven members who gleefully point out his features.

Rosemary begins to bond with the child, unloosens its tight clothing, rocks the carriage, and speaks to it. The movie essentially ends here, but the novel continues with Rosemary asserting some control over her situation. Realizing that he is also half-human, she decides that not all hope is lost. If the child is a part of her, it can be raised to understand morality, faith, and reason. She sees herself as a conduit, not simply bodily, as a mother's body is a conduit that brings life to others, but a moral and spiritual conduit, one who can shape and influence the child to become a kind, loving, and responsible adult. She feels a sense of control over the child that, despite its origins, is still hers.

While much of Rosemary's plans are expressed internally, she quickly begins to assert her control over the coven, beginning with the child's name. Roman Castevet, in perhaps one of the most arrogant moves in the novel (which says a lot considering that Guy is pretty much a jerk throughout), names the baby after his father Adrian, and himself, Steven, despite having no biological connection to it. This intrusion is in keeping with everything he and Minnie have done to Rosemary. It is Roman who paints Rosemary's nude body with satanic symbols during the rape sequence; it is also Roman who shows up at her apartment while she is visiting with her friend, Hutch, to maintain his control over Rosemary's actions; and it is also Roman who convinces Rosemary to be a mother to the child, implying of course that she is only to provide basic maternal care. The real control over the child's upbringing belongs to the coven, specifically to Roman. Naming the child after himself and his father is essentially an extension of his patriarchal control over Rosemary.

However, Rosemary fights back. She insists on giving the baby the name she had picked out for it––Andrew John. When Roman protests, she states quite plainly: "'I understand why you'd like to call him that, but I'm sorry; you can't. His name is Andrew John. He's my child, not yours, and that is one point that I'm not even going to argue about.'" She insists on controlling every aspect of his childrearing, from his name to his clothing, and, we are also led to assume, his moral upbringing. Roman attempts to protest, but Minnie cuts him off by shouting "Hail Rosemary!", leading the coven to continue the chant, as well as to hail the name Rosemary chose for the infant. Whatever control Roman wields over Rosemary has now been severed.

One might see Rosemary's victory as Pyrrhic, especially considering that she is being drawn into the coven. But her victory is far from Pyrrhic because Rosemary, despite being forced into this situation, is nonetheless determining the parameters in which she will be involved. She is establishing her relationship with her child and within the coven on her terms. Her power does not come from the fact that she gave birth to Satan's child, in much the same way the Virgin Mary's power comes from giving birth to Jesus; rather it comes from the fact that as a female, her power is already there. Patriarchy simply blinded her from recognizing that. But once she acknowledges the control patriarchy had in defining her choices, she takes back what always belonged to her: Her body, her sexuality, and her ability to determine when and whether to reproduce and to safeguard and protect her children as she sees fit.

One of the things that is often missed from feminist discussions is that if a woman should have complete autonomy over her body, her sexuality, and reproductive needs, it only goes to figure that men will have less power and control over their own. Autonomy over our bodies inevitably means controlling who has access to them and the spaces in which they navigate; controlling whose genes will be passed down to the next generation, and controlling the nature of sexual desire, since women's sexuality and reproductive processes are separate, providing us with more expansive definitions of what pleasure means to us outside of reproduction. For women to truly have that much control over our bodies ultimately means that men will have to submit to and be subject to that control if they wish to have sexual, romantic, and reproductive relationships with women. Men get this to a certain extent––Incels certainly in their misguided ways get this. It is why, along with the material control men gain over women's bodies, why I think patriarchy exists and continues to exist: without it, men will be forced to recognize the truth about their gendered roles. But, sadly, many women are still caught in the gaslighting trap that was set for Rosemary, blithely unaware of the forces that are dictating their choices. In an era where abortion rights are now being stripped from women, and even the definition of woman and womanhood is being contested, Rosemary's Baby still manages to deliver a powerful message.

*Edit: In the article, I mentioned there was only one death in Rosemary’s Baby. After publishing, I realized that there are in fact two, but all of the deaths occur outside of Rosemary’s POV, so my initial argument about the novel's refusal to rely on traditional horror conventions is still the same.

This essay was originally published in my Substack newsletter, The Portal, where I post essays, articles, short stories, and novel excerpts from my SF series, The Book of Dreams, which is now available as a novel at Amazon.

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