Making Some Sense of Rosemary's Baby

Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby is a really, really fascinating movie. I’m not referring to the cult of witches that reside in a New York apartment building. Nor am I referring to the titular baby who happens to be the son of Satan. More broadly, I’m interested in the way the film tells its story, particularly the way the end paints the entire film.

In a lot of ways, Rosemary’s Baby is a really rewarding film. It follows Rosemary Woodhouse’s entire pregnancy, charting her increasing paranoia as she suspects she's being taken advantage of by a coven of witches. In the end, the audience is not left wondering whether Rosemary was right or wrong about the witches. Instead, we get full confirmation of her suspicions; the witches are real, they stole the baby, she gave birth to the Devil's child. From the movies I’ve seen, this is pretty nontraditional! Most films would derive their power and memorability out of not revealing the truth.

One of the critiques I’ve seen lodged against Rosemary’s Baby is that there isn’t much to it; it’s a film that lacks much depth. There’s a pretty convincing argument for this point. The film's climax takes place in great chaos - Rosemary locks herself in her apartment, trying to stay away from those she believes to be witches. The coven, including her husband, end up getting in and she goes into labor due to panic. The group ties her to the bed and sedate her. She blacks out.

When Rosemary wakes up, she’s told the baby has died. However, the following scenes reveal that the baby was taken by the coven. It’s confirmed, outright, that the baby is the son of Satan. It's a shocking but validating finish, but it removes any potential ambiguity from the story. This is not to say that ambiguity always breeds depth, but the thematic and narrative directness employed at the end of the film make it less about what it all means and more about how it all happened.

That said, I think there is some depth to be discovered here, even with the lack of ambiguity. Rosemary's struggle is, textually, against the coven of witches. But consider what these witches represent - they operate as a representative of or conduit for social injustices and institutional hierarchies that work against women.

Much of the story’s exposition reveals Rosemary to be a woman trapped by doing what’s expected of her, inhibited by social norms. She is a married woman whose husband is an aspiring actor. They move into a brand new apartment and her solitary responsibility is to work on fixing up the apartment while her husband, Guy, works to attain success.

This narrative is reinforced strongly throughout the film’s first act as the audience sees her around the apartment painting the walls, cleaning the floors, and adjusting furniture. There is no talk of what Rosemary may aspire to, only the struggle that her husband faces in achieving what he wants. All Rosemary is given is the possibility of a child. At the end of the film, Guy admits that he chose to align with the coven - they promised him success in exchange for his wife's baby. This moment helps to best articulate the gender politics enamored within the film. Guy made a decision to use Rosemary as a tool for achieving his personal, compromising her autonomy. Here we see, again, the prioritization of the man's desires over the woman's needs.

In the end, Rosemary's life ends up completely warped by her husband's decision to side with the coven. She devotes herself to a tumultuous pregnancy and ends up giving birth to something evil. The effect of her lack of autonomy leads her to side with the coven and continue caring for the child, despite the obvious harm done to her.