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.
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
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 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
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.
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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.
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.