Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Ira Levin

In my post on The Last Exorcism, I cited The Exorcist as one of the few novels to hit the three points of what I call the ‘horror triangle’: in other words the story works on supernatural and psychological levels, but there is an additional sociological subtext present. I would include Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby as one of those few novels alongside The Exorcist to function on all three levels.

Stephen King described Levin as a storyteller whose tales are constructed with ‘the precision of a Swiss watch’, and Rosemary’s Baby is certainly a first rate psychological/supernatural thriller. But consider that novel alongside his other work, such as The Stepford Wives, and you have social/political comment par excellence.

Written in 1967 and inspired, at least in part, by celebrity Satanist Anton LaVey, Rosemary’s Baby cleverly keyed in to a growing interest in the occult (as popularised by rock groups like The Rolling Stones), mysticism and psychedelic ‘experience’. This seeking meaning in alternative religions has been described by scholars such as Joseph Laycock as ‘folk piety’, a symptom of the breakdown of traditional religion in the modern age combined with a residual desire to believe in the spiritual. In Rosemary’s Baby, to Levin’s credit, we never really know if Rosemary is truly experiencing the supernatural or simply some form of personal and group hysteria. This is admirably reinforced in the film by Polanski’s refusal to show the ‘demon child’ at the end; we are forced to experience events subjectively through Rosemary’s point of view (in both the film and the novel). The effect on the viewer/reader is powerful.

It was perhaps too powerful for Levin’s liking: he is one of the few novelists to despair at the success of his own work, regretting that Rosemary’s Baby might have helped perpetuate Christian fundamentalism in America (although he joked that he didn’t regret it enough to return the profits from the book). Levin saw himself as a Progressive and the socio-political ‘message’ of The Stepford Wives is more up-front (he quotes Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ in the forward). Intriguingly, Levin develops the feminist subtext of Rosemary’s baby in the later novel. We can see this as coinciding with the rise in second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The feminist subtext of Rosemary’s Baby is, of course, already clear for those who want to see it: Rosemary’s body is controlled by the patriarchy (in this case her husband, the male –led witch coven and Satan) for the purposes of reproduction.

In The Stepford Wives, the woman’s body itself is cloned and replaced by that of a cyborg, such is the ‘threat’ presented by the individual identity of woman to the patriarchy of the story. Rosemary was quite content to be a wife, home-maker and mother but the heroine of The Stepford Wives has to turned into an android before she accepts her lot: Joanna has an identity beyond that of housewife; as befitting a liberated woman of the 1970s, she has aspirations of her own (as a photographer). Levin makes the feminist message the main discourse of The Stepford Wives and underplays the ‘thriller’ aspects.
But more than that: in the town of Stepford, Levin represents the politically regressive provinces that exists in the suburbs of American and British cities; the land of Parent-Teacher Associations and Christian groups who campaign vociferously against the ‘permissive society’. These ‘Stepfords’ exist, and for this reason it may be that, of the two novels, The Stepford Wives emerges as the more enduring work.


Wes M said...

Fascinating stuff Jon... Such is the power of Levin's Stepford concept that the term has entered into the modern lexicon - even people who have never read the book or seen the 1975 film (like myself) have a notion about what the term encapsulates... It's not my favourite Polanski but I still think Rosemary's Baby is a profoundly disturbing film - Mia Farrow's disintegration in that film is so visceral it lends the film an enormous power. I must read the book someday...

Jon T said...

Cheers, Wes. The book is well worth a read - Polanski's adaptation is very faithful - almost page by page and I don't think Levin gets enough recognition for that. Almost everything that is good about the film is in the book.