Book Club Questions: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a special shine to them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems…

Both my friend and I really enjoyed reading this horror classic! I was reading it while on vacation in NYC, which was a nice coincidence – although I kept wishing I could just continue reading, rather than go do tourist things with my family. Fortunately the torment didn’t last too long, since the book is both a. short and b. a page turner. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to people who haven’t read much horror in the past and want to dip a toe into the genre. Also, if you’re sensitive to scary things, this book is (psychologically) frightening without forcing you to keep the lights on all night in order to sleep.

Discussion questions below the cut!

The play/films Gaslight gave a name to a specific technique of manipulation that causes the victim to doubt the truth of their own senses, and become more and more reliant upon the person who is in fact destroying their own confidence in their sanity. What is more frightening to you in this book: the supernatural horror elements or the gaslighting which Rosemary undergoes? Explain your answer.

Often horror story protagonists run the risk of frustrating the audience in their inability to extricate themselves from what is clearly a bad situation. Did Rosemary ever frustrate you or did you feel that her lack of realization made sense? How do you think an author can create a knowledge of imminent danger for the reader without simultaneously irritating them by the main character’s helplessness?

Personally, I was almost surprised by the precision and subtlety by which Ira Levin portrayed the sexism which saturates Rosemary’s life. Although Levin only wrote seven novels, his works have remained engrained in pop-culture to this day; Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives are two of his successes that dealt specifically with “female horror.” What are the first films that pop into your head when you think of big horror movie hits? Which of these films deal with “female horror” and which do not? What characterizes “female horror”? Do you think there is such a thing as “male horror”? If so, how would you describe it? Do you think a “female” horror story is by necessity feminist, even in part?

Speaking of female protagonists in horror, I noticed a number of reviewers on Goodreads complaining about how irritating Rosemary was–specifically because she was passive, weak, and unable to fight back against her circumstances. I was strongly reminded of Shelley Duvall’s performance in The Shining: reviled by many viewers as “that irritating woman who won’t stop crying and screaming,” precisely because she managed to portray so well the complete fear and helplessness that results from domestic violence. For both Rosemary’s Baby and the film The Shining, do you think the reader/viewer needs to understand the domestic violence aspect of the story in order to actually understand the story? What do these two stories become without this aspect?

Ira Levin’s writing is often described as sparse, to the point that some people feel the novel Rosemary’s Baby reads more like a less-engaging screenplay for Kubrick’s film version (an unusually faithful adaptation which used almost all the dialogue from the book verbatim). Did you enjoy Levin’s writing style, or did you find it overly minimalist? How effective do you think a more description-heavy approach would have been for the story Levin was trying to tell?

Rosemary’s Baby is one of those novels/films that everyone assumes everyone else has read/seen, making it nearly impossible to pick up the book for the first time without having already heard the entire plot. How much did you know about the plot going into this book? How do you think knowing less (or more!) about the novel’s plot would have affected your reading experience? Is the book still a rewarding read even if you know “the twists”? Why or why not?

What are some specific details Ira Levin uses to create a sense of unease from the beginning of the novel? When did you first start to feel that sense of “something’s wrong”?

During the 1940’s and 1950’s (following WWII), the concept of the “perfect American household” began to spread as the American ideal – the father had a steady job, the woman mostly stayed at home and had a few children, and their comfortable home was equipped with all that was modern. Rosemary’s Baby was written in 1967, well after the rise of the Civil Rights Movement that pushed back against this insistence that a heterosexual patriarchal consumerist family model that was only easily accessible to white Americans was the American ideal. How does Levin conjure up the “perfect American household” in this novel? Without directly addressing the Civil Rights Movement, what are ways in which he shows the reader the faults of this ideal? Do you think the “perfect American household” is still an ideal that impacts us today?

Rosemary’s Baby takes place in New York City. Why do you think Ira Levin chose that city as his setting? In what ways does the setting allow this story to happen, and make a more effective story for the reader?

How did you feel about the ending of the novel? Satisfied, dissatisfied, uncertain? Explain why you felt that way. If possible, try and think about the ending in the context of Rosemary’s own psychological journey throughout the novel; is the ending a success for her, or a defeat?

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