Female Archetypes in The Bad Seed

Updated on December 4, 2014

Obligatory synopsis

Most folks are familiar with the basic outline of The Bad Seed, especially as the play and film adaptations, considered classics now, continue to be widely viewed. However, for the sake of clarity, a brief synopsis may be beneficial.

Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark and her mother, Christine, move into an apartment in a new town while the father of the family is working overseas. Rhoda is a peculiar child. She is quiet, reserved, and not at all affectionate or emotional in any way. After Rhoda loses a penmanship contest, the winner drowns in the bay during the picnic. Little by little, Christine slowly pieces together the truth about Rhoda: that she is a killer. She has killed before and will certainly kill again.

The dashing William March, preoccupied with the darkness of human nature, suffered several mental breakdowns throughout the course of his life.
The dashing William March, preoccupied with the darkness of human nature, suffered several mental breakdowns throughout the course of his life. | Source

A life seeped in sadness

Despite having written several novels and short stories, Southern writer, William March, only came to prominence after The Bad Seed. Unfortunately, March died of a heart attack merely a month after the publication of his final novel and did not live to see the impact his work had on the thriller genre as a whole.

March's life, like the circumstances of his premature death, was unfortunate in many ways. As a teenager, after his family moved to a small sawmill town, he was forced to drop out of school. His parents, preoccupied with caring for his eight siblings, did not feel compelled to encourage March's burgeoning literary efforts.

At the age of sixteen, he left home and then briefly attended the University of Alabama Law School before enlisting in the Marines during World War I. He sustained several injuries and received various medals for his service. Perhaps the most damage done was to March's psyche, however, as he suffered numerous mental breakdowns during his adult life. One episode left him to recover in a sanitarium.

By the early 1950s, March had resigned himself to pursuing writing exclusively as a full time career. In 1954, he published The Bad Seed. Although originally regarded as a potboiler, it has since been examined, critiqued, and praised for its depth surrounding early ideas of sociopathy and the debate of nature versus nurture in personality development as well as its frank mention of Freudian ideas, gender expectations, and sexuality.

A budding psychopath

Rhoda Penmark as portrayed by Patty McCormack in the 1956 film adaptation.
Rhoda Penmark as portrayed by Patty McCormack in the 1956 film adaptation. | Source

Women as overbearing characters

There is a startling difference in how the female characters are portrayed when compared to the male characters. The majority of characters in the book are women, but those characters and are melodramatic and unsettling to the reader in regard to their behaviors. The men, in contrast, are either absent from the action entirely, have no bearing on the plot's progression, or are victims of one or more of the female characters, signifying impotence. In fact, for nearly each female character of note, there is a male counterpart that is the direct antithesis of her personality. Part of what makes the characters so oddly jarring is that they act as the complete opposite of how one would expect. However, stepping outside of gender roles in this case is not a positive progressive movement, as March pushes his characters onto the other side of the spectrum entirely.

In an introduction to a reprint of the novel, Elaine Showalter hypothesizes that the author, having never had a substantial romantic relationship with a woman, was a closeted homosexual. That fact, perhaps mixed with a tumultuous relationship with his mother during childhood, caused him to be timid around women. His anxiety surrounding the female sex is highly visible in the construction of his characters.

The chilling poster for the film adaptation

The Bad Seed helped pave the way for other movies involving creepy killer kids.
The Bad Seed helped pave the way for other movies involving creepy killer kids. | Source

The smothering mother, Mrs. Breedlove

Although it's tempting to jump right to Rhoda and her sociopathy, she is, in a lot of respects, not as (immediately) disconcerting as the other female characters. Monica Breedlove, an aging socialite, owns the apartment that Rhoda and her mother call home. Because of this, she has no trouble in unnecessarily inserting herself into the lives of others (penetration being a phalic motion). She frequently visits Christine, rings her on the phone, accompanies her on outings, and bullies the mother and child into vacationing with her at the bay, usually without any form of invitation or request. The reader soon grows tired of Mrs. Breedlove's incessant prattling and prying as well as her aggressive signs of "affection."

The dynamic between Christine and Mrs. Breedlove is an odd one. All at once, their relationship is intense yet entirely one sided. While Mrs. Breedlove frequently contacts Christine, her efforts are rarely reciprocated and then only when a favor is needed. Mrs. Breedlove teeters on the line between overprotective mother and obsessive lover. (One might read into the connotations of her surname.) The only aspect that prevents Christine and Mrs. Breedlove's relationship from creeping into the realm of the homoerotic is Christine's apathetic response to Mrs. Breedlove's advances.

Mrs. Breedlove, having reportedly been psychoanalyzed by Freud himself before he passed her off onto a poor, unwitting pupil of his, is obsessed with the field of psychology. She generally makes overarching or reaching statements, leading the reader to believe she has only a flimsy grasp on the topic at best. Nonetheless, she sees fit to talk candidly about her id impulses and exercises in association with everyone, often talking over them to complete her thought. She takes pleasure in shocking others, particularly in revealing to party guests that her brother and roommate, Emory, is, in her estimation, a homosexual. This act in itself is incredibly symbolic on a Freudian level. By revealing Emory's proclivities, she is symbolically castrating him and therefore emasculating him.

In contrast to his tiresome sister, Emory is quiet, compliant, and keeps mainly to himself.

Mrs. Breedlove presents a locket

Mrs. Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) offers a gift to Rhoda. This helps display Rhoda's preoccupation with material items.
Mrs. Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) offers a gift to Rhoda. This helps display Rhoda's preoccupation with material items. | Source

The hysterical, grieving mother

Hysteria, containing the same Latin root as hysterectomy, was traditionally thought to be an ailment almost exclusively affecting women. The idea, nowadays, is not only sexist but discredited; however, the concept appeared to hold water in the Victorian ages up through the mid-20th century. (In the book, the doctor frequently writes off the women's problems as mild upsets due to too much stress or not enough food and prescribes them sleeping pills without another moment's thought.)

One of the most distressing characters in the book is Mrs. Daigle, the mother of the little boy murdered by Rhoda for his penmanship medal. Her emotions turn on a dime. She is at once sobbing and grateful for Christine's visit and is then accusatory and belligerent. The grieving mother appears on Christine's doorstep towards the end of the book, drunk, and insisting that Rhoda knows something she's not saying. She alternately compliments Christine and then insults her until her husband appears at the apartment to retrieve her.

While any mother would be devastated at the loss of her only son, there is a subtle hint of an Oedipus complex between Claude, the child, and his mother. When Christine first sees Mrs. Daigle, she is with her son before the picnic, constantly touching him, caressing him, and worrying over him. After he has died, Mrs. Daigle tells Christine twice that Claude referred to her as "his sweetheart," claiming that one day he'd marry her.

In contrast, her husband is subdued and meek, often apologizing for Mrs. Daigle's erratic behavior. He repeatedly tells Christine, "Hortense is not well" and that "she is under a doctor's care."

Christine discovers Rhoda's secret

The present mother and absent father

Despite the prevalence of colorful, disturbing, and aggressive female characters, Christine, our heroine, is without much personality at all. She allows herself to be ferried from task to task by others, and, when confronted with concrete evidence of Rhoda's crimes, she faints, freezes up, or neglects to act. When Leroy, the depraved maintenance man, is set on fire by Rhoda, Christine can do nothing more than stand at the window and scream.

Christine is a stunningly ineffective protagonist. Even after she learns the truth about Rhoda, she fails to prevent another death (Leroy's) from happening. And her plan to end Rhoda's killing spree for good is horribly botched, leaving Rhoda alive and Christine dead and no record or evidence of Rhoda's crimes intact. Christine, despite being a woman, is unlike the other female characters in the book. She is a pathetic character in many ways and lets the reader down on several occasions. The reader roots for Christine but to no avail.

Kenneth Penmark, Rhoda's father, is impotent even compared to his wife, simply due to his absence. When we do see him, he has been made a victim directly by his wife and indirectly by his daughter. He breaks down in tears, casting him in an emasculated role.

Buy the book on amazon

Rhoda and her victims

Female serial killers are especially rare. According to scientificamerican.com, only 17% of serial murders in the United States are committed by women. So it is even more intriguing why March would choose to include not one but two female serial killers in his novel: Rhoda and, as we learn later, Rhoda's biological grandmother, Bessie Denker.

In fitting with the theme of women taking on masculine qualities, Rhoda takes the cake. She is neither emotional nor loving like one would believe a little girl would be. Instead, she is logical and goal-oriented. That's not to say that those are negative attributes; Rhoda simply takes them to the extreme, becoming cold and calculating.

Her first victim that we see, Claude Daigle, is the yin to her yang. He is timid and meek from having been endlessly coddled by his mother. Claude is harassed by Rhoda until she finally murders him, the female in a position of extreme power over the male.

This same situation is repeated when Rhoda very coldly plans and carries out the murder of Leroy by lighting him on fire for fear he will spill her secret. Leroy is a very aggressive and masculine presence (we first see him hosing down the walkway before spraying the feet of his landlady, a very phallic image), but that does not prevent Rhoda, more masculine in her qualities, from destroying Leroy.

How are serial killers made?

See results

An intense read for lovers of psychological suspense

This novel works on more than one level. First, it is an in-depth look at the darkness of human sexuality, desire, and violence; it is a book that speculates that there is a significant biological component to sociopathy (despite the fact that the idea is displayed clumsily in the book); it is a book that comments on gender roles, particularly how they appear within the psychoanalytic model. Secondly, it's just a creepy book about a creepy kid. Either way, it's a fascinating read.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)