Book Review: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

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Ira Levin wrote a classic book that came out in the summer of 1967 and went on to become an instant hit at the bestsellers list. In a foreword by Otto Penzler, he writes:

Levin was not a believer—not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship. In fact, he had rather hoped that his novel would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him. It wasn’t to be.

The summary of Levin’s mentality that propagated him to inscribe the classic horror novel might have been to slash the quacks associated with Satanism, Alternate Religion, Devil Worshippers, and such widely intriguing concepts that have absorbed horror fanatics and skeptics of religion for a long time. What resulted was of course, as expected, increased fascination into the already beguiling topic of Satanism and the underground society of Satanic Covens. We could say that the popularity and the ensuing leapfrog into these occult phenomena defeated the purpose of Levin’s work. Yet in doing so—not only did Ira Levin produce a classic in the genre of horror and mystery, but also handed the likes of Stephen King further incentive to venture into this genre that might date back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula for creating a character that is arguably the greatest modern fiction character in the history of Western Literature. Fortunately, for us, it kick started a plethora of horror fiction and characters that live on until today rivaling the hymns of religion and God, whilst shaping the world of fiction into two poles of white and black—led by God on one side and Satan on the other side. Simply ironic, isn’t it?

For a book that has lived on for 47 years, and counting, the plot of Rosemary’s Baby would hardly be anything but unknown. Accelerated by the movie adaptation by Roman Polanski, in an as exact manner as he could, Rosemary’s Baby had now transformed from a state of visual imagination to a state of visual reality. The movie itself went on to become a feather in the hat of horrors in film and without much hesitation; it is one of the best movies from the lens of Roman Polanski. Saying all of that, this piece is hardly about the movie. It is about the prose that Levin created from his own imagination and observation of the world around him—as a critic of such forms of religion and as an inscriber of imagination, one of the best in the game.

The story begins with a couple, Guy Woodhouse and Rosemary Woodhouse in search of a new house to begin a new phase in their lives. They come across an old Victorian-styled Gothic house at Bradford in New York. The catch, of course, is that the house carries its own air of controversies and a history of witchcraft and devil worshipping. Aesthetics override logic; the lovey-dovey couple decides it’s the house for them. Once they grace the architecture of the classic house, realities change for both, with Guy flourishing in his career, and poor Rosemary spiraling into a dreaded circle amidst witchcraft that promises to take away her unborn baby; thereby shattering her life, or so it seems…

Ira Levin has an exquisite style of writing, minimalist without wasting words and getting to the point as quickly as he can. When he does describe the atmosphere and surroundings in detail, you’d wonder what clues is he giving you, or how it would all work out in the end. This is what sets apart Rosemary’s Baby. Being a horror novel, it barely exposes the horrific elements rather plays with the psyche of your personality, through Rosemary who is the central character. Laying down a set of omens, signs, and symbols, Levin places warnings as steps and as you climb on them, ultimately—you reach the point of no return. Midway through the book, I realized that the story doesn’t have anything drastic and such apparent episodes in a horror sense. It isn’t there, but it’s still eerie. It doesn’t freak the muscles out of you; it just keeps you hooked. With his limited omniscient narrator point-of-view, the writer makes you observe situations around, the environment, and notice the tiny odd details that may as well work as the biggest points in taking the story further and building to an unexpected and nervy climax.

In the build up to all of this, Levin is somewhat cagey. When things do fall into their place at the start of the second act, the story runs rampant almost difficult to keep track of the page count as I found myself turning it in rapid succession myself. With a visual style of writing, you could imagine the happenings quite astutely, almost as if it were a movie because Levin aids in this with a staunch grip over what he wants to show, what he wants us to know, and how he intends to take it further. My visual tubes were flying in imagination when reading this horror classic; engrossing would be the correct term.

Throughout the book, the reader will find dark undertones hidden under the normal lives the couple seems to live. Almost too dark, and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, the narration persuades you to root for Rosemary in this house filled with a myriad of perplexing personas. At one point, you’d wonder who is sane and who is not; who is evil and who is good. The interactions between Rosemary and Guy (her husband) irritated me to no end, not because it was uninteresting or melodramatic. It was weirdly interesting and alarmingly freaky, but mainly because of the cold and distant behavior of Guy towards Rosemary indifferent to her woes, or perhaps even blind and suspending of Rosemary’s troubles. Add to that, the chilly twists, and the creepy mannerisms and auguries, I would be lying if I said I didn’t look around while reading this novel midnight all alone in my house!

Rosemary’s Baby is a distinct exhibition in genre of horrors. Not too long, not short, it is the right length and never once will you feel jaded reading this book. For the style Levin uses, clarity, precision, and matter of fact, the sequences are enthralling and keep you occupied throughout. For avid or selective readers, both, Rosemary’s Baby is the perfect go-to book if you want something clear-cut and interesting. Filled with motifs and almost ridiculing the phenomenon of vibes, signs, and textbook manuals into Witchcraft and Wizardry, Levin’s original purpose might have been to debunk the myth of Satanism and Superstitions, but this novel has only enhanced the curiosity of viewers, especially lovers of horrors and mysteries.

The final pages of the book could have been better. It’s one fault I found and as stimulating as the entire book is, the last wee pages didn’t live up to the gigantic expectations I was carrying towards a mammoth climax—perhaps rivaling Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. It doesn’t pull the book down for me though, maybe slightly, but the climax is unexpected and startling—pulled off with a vivre of enchantment, so it has its own merits and gives a fresh look into things contrasting to what Levin coaxed me to expect. At one point, I was almost worried that all of it would turn farcical, and that is how much the book influenced me as a reader…

Rosemary’s Baby is a tense horror ride until the end and engrains the reader with a paranoid outlook even after you’ve finished reading the book. It is tautly written; exploring much more than the world of devils and spirits, whilst giving us an insight into the psyche of humans and the pervasiveness of ulterior dark arts in our so-called age of Science. A must read book for all readers, especially for aspiring writers of fiction because the second act of the book might be the most interesting pieces of stories, and a rarity that the build to the finality rivals the finality itself in anticipation, execution, and intrigue. Just read it!

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926) – Fiesta!

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The first novel by the prodigal son of American Literature – The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway comes to the front with a novel that has enraged human cognizance for several decades and still stands firm as a descriptive work of cultural spectacle binding the passions of a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris and beyond in the 1920s—just fresh off World War 1. Using his classic iceberg theory, Hemingway presents tension and conflict in this underlying book featuring some of the vilest content in the backdrop of Paris and under the bumbling festivities of San Fermin in Pamplona (Spain), where the festivals, the bullfights, and the internal chaos explode—whilst changing the lives of everybody involved—for good, perhaps for the best.

Set in the 1920s featuring American and British expatriates living a posh life in Paris—during the aftermath of World War 1—the Sun Also Rises is more of a descriptive memoir, a fictional compilation of personal adventures than a novel with a contusive plot, story, and actions carrying the central characters towards the realization of their actions. Amidst the various hidden themes Hemingway illustrates in this fiesta, the conception of escapism shines brightest as all the major characters escape one another and the world through their pernods, absinthes, martinis—into another kingdom, a land of serenity. Descriptive to the fullest and an imaginative travel documentary with veiled currents creating a strange environment for readers, the Sun Also Rises, undeniably, is one unique, alien book that showcases human emotions and activities though the various conjunctions that life’s events brings about. Not much in terms of dramatic depth, the novel is an exemplary example of Hemingway’s works to come and one that set the tone for his minimalist style of storytelling.

The Summary of the Characters

The story starts with Jake Barnes, the main protagonist and the narrator of the story. Jake is a war veteran suffering mentally and emotionally and works as a journalist in Paris. Living the lush life with abundant resources and a lifestyle akin to an aristocrat, Barnes has a love interest in the free spirit, the New WomanLady Brett Ashley—who is sensuous, surreal, and possesses an unpredictably mysterious flicker that disallows her to remain poignant and poised on a singular activity. Jake has everything there is that a man could dream, except one devastating accident during the war that ruined his claim to masculinity and perhaps—took him further away from life as a conscious experience. One of Jack’s mates in Paris, although mere acquaintances who needed one another due to their internal deficiencies; Robert Cohn is a rich writer and former boxer. A sulky figure and prone to discrimination due to his Jew heritage, Cohn is the complete man who nobody seems to want around, mainly because of his differentness to the other band members. Drinking, partying, eating, sulking, and roaming around, life seemed all for the elite group of expatriates in Paris. Not without adventure, though.

Jack Barnes has a plan to go fishing in Spain before proceeding to the grand festival of San Fermin. Joined by Bill Gorton, a former war veteran from New York, Barnes and Gorton enjoy the fishing life in the cold waters of Burguete before joining Brett, Robert, and Brett’s fiancé Michael Campbell at Pamplona for the fiesta and bullfighting. Precisely at Pamplona, this tragic group of the Lost Generation find themselves dreading out their monsters, whilst revealing the absurdity of pangs—finding no redemption nor reprise, just lost fate and old beginnings. Drowned into personal tragedies, jealousy, busts of passion, alcohol, sex, and the inability to accept the real, the bullfighting at San Fermin takes up the metaphor of all the maliciousness present in the band. The bullfighters themselves—drowned in emotions, utterly useless and frail to do anything—except watch and appreciate the real bulls and fighters in the holy festival at Pamplona.

Amidst all the ugliness that the band of Jake and Co. bring to San Fermin, a lone warrior stands tall with his sword—cutting away all negatives and representing bravery, serenity, focus, and purity. The antithesis of Jake, Cohn, Mike, and Brett, this bullfighter not only serves as a fighter but also is a metaphor for holiness and strength in the novel, Pedro Romero. In what has to be cruel justice, the exoticness of Brett doesn’t even stop her from venturing into this warrior—15 years her younger and attempting to poison him with her passion and lust. Fiesta!

The Analysis of the Novel

Pernod, ansinthe, Jack Rose, martini, beer, wine, brandy, whiskey, Vieux Marc, and many other champagnesthe Sun Also Rise, concisely.

In essence, the novel is divided into three categories, three books: 1, 2, and 3. Each serves a concise purpose, as in the three Acts—Book 1 presents the exposition, whilst Book 2 features the rising action and sets the stage for the unalike—less dramatic, more intuitive—climax. Finally, Book 3 serves as a climax, open ended in many ways and in all probabilities, the path to acceptance for the central protagonist, or maybe just another beginning into the waters of inebriation.

The first book emphasizes in the lives of the men and women at Paris—almost always intoxicated, with only wine and food in the minds of the people, each characters finds himself or herself lost in his or her gory world of tragedy. For Jack Barnes, it is his impotence and his undying love for Brett, whilst for Brett—it is her erotic, flickering nature and her inability to stay with one man, her want to taste every man; every man that she likes. The supporting cast of Cohn who is lost in his own world and is amidst a family crisis himself—finds himself falling for this vivaciously independent spirit in Brett. Watching Brett with every man in town, and pitying his own impotent state, Jake turns into a sadistic masochist who drinks himself to get away from what is and presses firm judgment on whatever he sees around—narrating almost like a pro.

In Book 2, the scene takes the stage as Jake accompanied by Bill and the team of Cohn, Brett, and Mike go towards San Fermin, with Jake and Bill stopping by fishing and it’s here where Hemingway shows the only true relationship of the novel, amidst forgery, illusion, and conceit. At the festivities, the characters bring the worst out of one another and almost intoxicate the reader himself/herself with the amount of swimming they indulge in—at San Fermin.

The final part of the Book, the third part detaches Jake away from all his associates, including the venomous Brett. Coming back to his own truths, Jake grows a sense of acceptance—engaging in personal activities, thereby finding himself. Just before it’s all over, his lover Brett recalls this great man and that calls for one of the best quotes in the book:

“Send a girl off with one man. Introduce her to another to go off with him. Now go and bring her back. And sign the wire with love.”

The ending is open but gives the suggestion of how Jake has grown out of Brett. Perhaps not entirely, but Jake isn’t the vulnerable self he was as shown in Book 1 and was rather restrained and ironic. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The Psychology of the Novel

The Sun Also Rises is unique for the sole reason—it shows rather than tells. There is so much tension gathered but Hemingway barely utters anything; he lets the situation and circumstance reveal the overlooked truth. The themes of masculinity, women freedom, escapism, genuine love, lust and passion, discrimination, and adventure surround the plot and the progression of the story. Briefly:

Masculinity: The major characters of the novel are all typical, idiosyncratic male characters. The only female character is Lady Ashley; with the prostitute Georgette and another woman Edna glamorizing the novel for small portions. From the topic of masculine exhibition to the sadistic nature of all involved and not to forget the impotent bitterness of Jake, masculinity and the dominance of masculine forces override this novel. The events that take the plot forward—the bullfighting, the vibrant active festivals, and the fishing—they all focus on masculine domination and assertion of power. Lady Brett Ashley, as independent as she is, is shown to rely heavily on masculinity to fulfill her life and she feeds off masculine forces to grow and to consider herself complete.

Women freedom: Lady Ashley is the New Woman. Independent, passionate, and pretentious in her own elusive ways, she cannot be tied down to any single object. A drunkard with charms and her love for most that come around her, Brett is free, but the freedom comes at a price. Her lover, Jake, stands forever by her side—never restricting her or without apparent jealousy, ultimately highlighting how Lady Ashley is tied to Jake Barnes, despite her free flowing spirited nature.

Escapism: Everybody is in an escape. Brett is escaping for her inner demons; Jake from his inability to have Brett, whilst Cohn from his Jewish past and Mike from his fiancé’s sensual nature and his own financial wreckage, whereas Bill from his days, olden days as a war veteran. None of the characters accept the present and look for outlets—women, wine, adventures, loathing, bickering, and just fading away before the whole cycle repeats.

Love: The one true aspect that shines in the novel is Jake’s detached love towards Lady Ashley, irrespective of her manners, nature, and behavior. In the same manner, Lady Ashley’s love towards Jake also seems honest, but her nature of virility doesn’t allow her to commit, as she is one walking bomb of passionate twinkle—sometimes here, other times there.

Lust and passion: Everything here falls in the banner of lust and passion. Lust for food, lust for women, lust for adventure, lust for passion, lust for masculinity; lust is present everywhere. The story itself is a story of passion—some passionate about writing, some about adventure, some about sex, some about alcohol, some about food, some about the easy life, and some about self-pittance. At the centermost, the novel is a high representation of lust and passion.

Discrimination: The character of Cohn serves the sole purpose: anti-Semitism. Everybody in the band either hates or dislikes Cohn, despite being a good fella, because he is a Jew. It doesn’t matter what he does and how good, he’s a Jew and that is that!

Adventure: From road trips, to fishing, to the bullfight adventure; what is not adventurous here? The novel spends 40% of time in adventures, the rest 40% in wine, food, and cafes, whilst the remaining 20% in the actual plot that the novel is built on the base of. Probably one of the reasons why the Sun Also Rises got mixed responses upon its first publication. The novel is an adventure tale with direct depictions of the lives and experiences of the adventurers than a drama with a strong narrative plot. Specifically why, the book focuses much, much on random activities of the characters and describes the scenarios, trips, activities, and adventures in much detail as opposed to the plot—where Hemingway leaves it to the reader to extract the juice.

The Final Act

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Whilst rich in descriptive prose and narration, the Sun Also Rises might be an overdose of adventure, travel description, wine, food, and random mumblings without any purpose for many. There are parts when the description becomes bland and too much, almost documentary styled and the novel doesn’t enhance the main plot for large portions in the middle. Nonetheless, at other times, the novel presents some of the most interesting, dynamic, and vibrant dialog exchanges, scenarios, and spirals one would expect from a Hemingway standalone classic. In terms of recommendation, the Sun Also Rises is highly recommended for those wishing to live parts of France, Spain, and the 1920s—without moving an inch, or to those adventure lovers seeking the thrills from the pen of an outstanding writer. For those who seek dramatization and elusive narration, the novel may not incite the imagination as much as the name Hemingway would. In general, Fiesta is one landmark novel, exceptional in its own ways, but strictly restricted to the imagination of the reader. It did show the world the coming of a legend, Ernest Miller Hemingway.

And, the Sun shall keep on rising…