The Bad Seed

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The Bad Seed
First edition
Author William March
Country United States
Language English
Genre Psychological horror
Publisher Rinehart & Company
Publication date
April 8, 1954
Media type Print (Hardcover & paperback)
Pages 247 pp (reprint edition)
ISBN 978-0-06-079548-1 (reprint edition)
OCLC 61157841
Preceded by October Island (1952)
Followed by A William March Omnibus (1956)

The Bad Seed is a 1954 novel by American writer William March, the last of his major works published before his death.

Nominated for the 1955 National Book Award for Fiction, The Bad Seed tells the story of a mother's realization that her young daughter has committed a murder, or two. Its enormous critical and commercial success was largely realized after March's death only one month after publication.

In 1954 the novel was adapted into a successful and long-running Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, and in 1956 into an Academy Award-nominated film directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Plot summary[edit]

Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark appears to be what every little girl brought up in a loving home should be. Outwardly, she is charming, polite and intelligent beyond her years. To most adults, she's every parent's dream: obedient, well groomed, unassuming and compliant. She does her homework on time, gets good grades and attends Sunday school each and every week. However, most children who know Rhoda keep their distance from her, sensing that there is something not quite right about her.

Rhoda is the only child of Kenneth and Christine Penmark. Kenneth goes away on business, leaving his wife Christine, a beautiful homemaker, at their apartment home with Rhoda. Christine begins to notice that Rhoda is acting strangely toward one of her classmates, Claude Daigle, who mysteriously drowns at a school picnic not much later. When news of the boy's death reaches Christine and Rhoda, Christine notices Rhoda is indifferent about the loss. Claude's death is presumed accidental, but one detail was unexplained: his face was imprinted and dappled with strange crescent shaped marks. Christine learns that Rhoda quarreled with Claude over a perfect penmanship medal award that the boy won, but which Rhoda believed she deserved more, and has lied about the last time she saw her now deceased classmate.

Faced with Rhoda's deception, Christine begins to reevaluate a few troubling incidents from the past. After Rhoda had begged her parents for a pet dog, she quickly became bored with it, and the animal died in what Rhoda described as an "accidental fall" from the apartment window. An elderly neighbor in Baltimore had promised Rhoda a special necklace upon her death, and soon after died from a fall down the stairs while babysitting Rhoda, who now proudly owns the necklace. Additionally, Rhoda was once expelled from a school for repeatedly being caught lying to teachers and staff who described Rhoda as a "cold, self-sufficient child who plays by her own rules".

Disturbed by the idea that her daughter might indeed be the one behind all these tragedies, Christine begins investigating true crime stories and indirectly asks friends for advice under the guise of writing a novel. Soon Christine discovers that she was adopted as a young child and that her birth mother is Bessie Denker, a notorious serial killer who died in the electric chair, and of whom Christine has vague, fragmented memories. Christine feels responsible and blames herself for passing on the murderous "bad seed" gene to her child, yet clings to the hope that Rhoda might have killed Claude by accident during a squabble over the medal, and is just too afraid to tell anyone. Christine writes a series of lengthy, tortured letters to her husband expressing her worries about Rhoda, but never mails them in fear of what may happen if he, or someone else reads the letters and goes to the authorities. Instead, Christine chooses to wait until Kenneth comes home to tell him in person.

In the meantime, Leroy Jessup, the crude-minded maintenance man who works and lives at the Penmark's apartment complex, is the only other adult besides Christine who even partially sees through Rhoda's phony yet charming facade. Believing that Rhoda's sweet persona conceals nothing worse than a mean streak, he relentlessly teases her about her supposed cruelty, pretending to believe her responsible for Claude's death. Rhoda is unfazed by Leroy's teasing, until he tells Rhoda that police can discover traces of blood even after the blood has been cleaned. To taunt Rhoda even more, Leroy then pretends to believe she used her cleated shoes to beat Claude, explaining the crescent-shaped marks left on the boy's face. Immediately after, Leroy realizes he has guessed correctly about Rhoda's dark secret by the way Rhoda reacts to his accusations. Afraid Leroy will expose her, Rhoda makes plans to shut Leroy up for good, waiting until he's asleep in his shed and lights his mattress ablaze before locking him inside, to be consumed by the flames. A horrified Christine witnesses the heartless murder from a distance: it occurs so quickly and smoothly she doesn't have time to get help or intervene. Other people attribute Leroy's death to be accidental by falling asleep while smoking, thus starting the fire.

Christine summons up the courage to confront Rhoda, who of course, initially attempts to lie and manipulate her mother before finally confessing to killing Claude, Leroy and their elderly neighbor in Baltimore, all the while shifting blame to the victims and expressing absolutely no remorse. Christine is now unable to deny her assumptions regarding Rhoda's appalling crimes and fears that Rhoda will eventually be taken out of society forever and end up like Bessie Denker in the electric chair. In a desperate attempt to prevent Rhoda from killing anyone else and to save her daughter from a fate nearly worse than death, Christine secretly gives Rhoda an entire bottle of sleeping pills so she will die painlessly in an overdose. Devastated by what she has done, Christine then shoots herself in the head and commits suicide.

Christine dies, but a nearby neighbor finds Rhoda, who is still alive, but barely so. She is rushed to the hospital and survives. A heartbroken Kenneth returns home from his business trip, believing that Christine had suffered a nervous breakdown. And with no one wiser as to what she has done, Rhoda is free to kill again.

Character list[edit]

Major characters[edit]

  • Rhoda Penmark: Rhoda is portrayed as a high functioning sociopath, although the term was not widely used at the time the book was written. She has no conscience whatsoever, and will not hesitate to harm or even kill whoever stands in her way at achieving her goal. She sees murder as something that is necessary if she believes her victim or target to be a potential threat that will expose her true colors. An adept manipulator, Rhoda can easily charm and mislead adults, while eliciting fear and revulsion from other children, who can sense that something is wrong with her. As a result, Rhoda is a loner who has no close friends. It is implied that she inherited these traits from her maternal grandmother Bessie Denker, who was a famous convicted serial killer in the story's universe.

By the time her mother Christine puts the facts together, Rhoda has already killed one animal and two people (a pet dog, an elderly neighbor in Baltimore, and her classmate Claude Daigle). In time, Rhoda also kills Leroy Jessup, the crude-minded apartment building's live-in gardener, and the only adult besides Christine who sees through her sweet, childish facade. When Christine uncovers Rhoda's dark secret, she attempts to murder Rhoda out of love by giving her an overdose of sleeping pills she disguises as vitamins, but is unsuccessful. Rhoda survives in the end and her crimes are never exposed. She is indifferent about her mother's suicide and it is implied she will follow in the footsteps of her infamous grandmother.

  • Christine Penmark: The young and empathetic mother of Rhoda Penmark. Christine is described as very beautiful. She has Nordic feminine features that are traced to her biological father. Christine is also well groomed, intelligent, and despite being a submissive 1950's homemaker, she is very independent and hands on. As the novel unfolds, Christine slowly pieces together that Rhoda has possibly killed her pet dog, an elderly neighbor in Baltimore and another child, Claude Daigle. Christine doesn't know whether she should love or hate her daughter, but knows that Rhoda will undoubtedly kill again if something is not done. Not knowing what to do, Christine writes letters to her husband about her worries and discovery of Rhoda's true nature, but in the end disposes of them out of fear and decides to wait and discuss the matter with Kenneth in person. Meanwhile, Christine has suspected being adopted since her late teenage years, but did not pursue the idea in fear of upsetting her adoptive parents. After researching, Christine learns her biological mother is Bessie Denker, an infamous serial killer who was executed when Christine was just a small child. In the end, and after unintentionally witnessing Rhoda kill Leroy in cold-blooded murder, Christine finally attempts to kill Rhoda to stop her from harming anyone else and save her from experiencing the same fate as Bessie Denker. She secretly gives Rhoda an overdose of sleeping pills she tells her are "vitamins". Unable to live with the shame of killing her only child, Christine then shoots herself in the head with a revolver handgun. No one ever learns exactly why Christine chose to commit suicide, and the reason and motivation behind her self-inflicted death remains a mystery.
  • Le'Roy Jessup: The sadistic maintenance man who works for the elderly landlady, Monica Breedlove. He is a depraved individual and sees Rhoda as a kindred spirit. Due to his crude mind and dark sense of humor, he is the only adult character, other than Christine, who notices that Rhoda is unlike other children and enjoys teasing her. Leroy tells Rhoda that blood cannot wash off with water and the police can find traces of blood long after its spot has been cleaned. Rhoda only reacts to Le'Roy’s teasing when he claims to have the same pair of shoes which she killed Claude Daigle with. Leroy refuses to return the shoes to Rhoda, and when the realization sets in that she actually did kill Claude, he denies ever having them, claiming he was just joking and that it was a lucky guess. Shortly after, Le'Roy is killed when he is locked inside his makeshift shed by Rhoda, who sets the shed on fire, thus burning Le'Roy to death.
  • Monica Breedlove: The Penmarks' landlady and Christine's best friend. She is an elderly woman who considers herself to be somewhat of a psychotherapist and claims she had been examined by Sigmund Freud. She is very social and popular and enjoys throwing many luncheons and parties. Monica absolutely adores Rhoda. Only seeing Rhoda's sweet, angelic surface, Monica believes her to be a very extraordinary child, even wishing that Rhoda was her very own. Monica gives Rhoda a locket she received when she was eight and a pair of glamorous "movie-star" sunglasses with a special case. Monica knows that Christine is upset about something but suspects she is either ill, or that her marriage with Kenneth is under strain. She never discovers the truth about Rhoda and is ultimately very upset and baffled as to why Christine would kill herself. In the end of the novel, it is implied that Rhoda is plotting to kill Monica next.
  • Reginald Tasker: A writer and friend of Monica Breedlove. He provides Christine with information about the infamous serial killer Bessie Denker. He is friends with and fairly attracted to Christine. He informs Christine that her supposed father, Richard Bravo, worked diligently on the Bessie Denker case. Reginald Tasker also makes mention that Bessie Denker's youngest daughter was the only one who survived from the family.
  • Claude Daigle: The little boy whom Rhoda mercilessly beat to death the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic. He won the Penmanship medal award that Rhoda declared to be hers. He is described as a timid and shy boy who rarely stood up to others. He was the only child of Hortense and Dwight Daigle. Rhoda murdered Claude because he would not give her the penmanship medal that she believed she deserved more. Rhoda repeatedly hit Claude so hard with her shoe that she knocked him unconscious and he fell into the lake and quickly drowned.
  • Bessie Denker:
    March based Bessie Denker on real-life serial killer Belle Gunness.
    A well-known (fictional) serial killer. She is the biological mother of Christine Penmark and the grandmother of Rhoda Penmark. Christine faintly remembers living with her biological family and escaping from her mother. Bessie Denker never makes a physical appearance in the novel. The character's life and murderous history is thoroughly described in the notes of Reginald Tasker. Bessie Denker's career is based very roughly on the real-life careers of Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan. The description of her execution in the electric chair is based on that of Ruth Snyder.

Minor characters[edit]

  • Kenneth Penmark: The father of Rhoda and husband of Christine. Kenneth is already away on business when the novel begins and he does not return until the very end, after his wife's suicide. Kenneth never discovers the truth about Rhoda or the reasoning behind Christine's suicide and attempted murder of Rhoda.
  • Emory Wages: Monica Breedlove's brother, who lives with his sister. He flirts with Christine at different social gatherings.
  • Claudia Fern: The Fern sister that reprimands Rhoda for harassing Claude the day of the picnic. She describes the events the day of the picnic to Christine along with her two other sisters, and she informs Christine that her sisters and she do not wish to have Rhoda attend their school the following year.
  • Octavia Fern: Fern sister who explains to Christine why the sisters did not ask the Penmarks to donate money for a flower arrangement to be presented at Claude’s funeral.
  • Burgess Fern: Fern sister in charge of enrollment at the Fern School. She would not hold the penmanship medal for Claude Daigle the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic.
  • Richard Bravo: Christine's adopted father, who was killed in an airplane crash during World War II. He was a well-known columnist and war correspondent, performing great research in the "Bessie Denker" case. He never told Christine she was adopted or that Bessie Denker was her biological mother.
  • Hortense Daigle: Mother of Claude Daigle. She is a plain, large woman who believes that the Fern sisters look down on her for being a hairdresser and marrying late. She is devastated by her son’s death and turns to alcohol as a source of comfort. She knows that Rhoda had something to do with Claude’s death and seeks her out to find answers.
  • Dwight Daigle: Father of Claude Daigle. He tries to help his wife, Hortense Daigle, and keep her under control as she suffers from the death of their son.
  • Mrs. Forsythe: She is an elderly woman who, towards the end of the novel, baby-sits Rhoda. Rhoda never harms Mrs. Forsythe because she does not have anything Rhoda wants.
  • Belle Blackwell: Teacher of the Sunday school Rhoda attends who gives Rhoda a copy of Elsie Dinsmore.
  • Clara Post: The old woman who lived with the Penmarks and her daughter, Edna, in the same apartment house in Wichita, Kansas. She befriended Rhoda and believed her to be truly delightful. She promised Rhoda that when she died Rhoda could have an item.
  • Edna: She is the widowed daughter of Mrs. Clara Post. She lives with her mother in the same apartment house in Wichita, Kansas as the Penmarks. Her mother died the day she left to go to the supermarket. Edna was skeptical of Rhoda's story of her mother's accidental death. She did not invite the Penmarks to the funeral or speak to them after the incident.

Primary theme[edit]

Nature versus nurture[edit]

In the decade the novel was published, juvenile delinquency began to be far more common, or at least more extensively reported and documented. Compared to earlier history, the idea of child crimes was a new phenomenon. A controversy about nature and nurture arose as psychiatric explanations were proposed for juvenile delinquency, with the debate being whether inborn tendencies ("nature") are more or less important than environmental factors ("nurture") in explaining deviant behavior.

Supporters of the “nature” side suggested that some people are born evil or with malicious tendencies. The idea that nature prevails over nurture is implied in The Bad Seed. March incorporates the notion that a murderous genetic trait is being passed down through the generations. Within the plot of the story, Rhoda is a serial murderer just like her grandmother, having inherited the murderous gene. Rhoda had been brought up as a privileged child; she was nurtured emotionally and physically and thus a broken homelife was not to blame for her actions. Reginald Tasker hints and suggests at the idea of nature taking effect when he quotes that "some people are just born evil", when discussing Bessie Denker with Christine.

Psychologist Robert D. Hare, who argues that the evidence suggests psychopathy is an inborn trait, discusses The Bad Seed in his 1993 non-fiction book Without Conscience. A lengthy quote from the novel opens Hare's book, describing in March's words how most decent individuals are not by nature suspicious and thus unable to understand or anticipate the acts of evil and depravity that some people are capable of committing. Later in his book, Hare argues that March's novel is a "remarkably true to life" portrayal of the development of psychopathy in childhood, illustrating both Rhoda's callous use of others to serve her own ends as well as Christine's growing helplessness and desperation as she realizes the extent of her daughter's behavior.[1]


"Let it be said quickly: William March knows where human fears and secrets are buried. He announced it in Company K, a novel published twenty years ago and equaled only by Dos Passos' Three Soldiers as a sampling of men at war. He has proved it again and again in the other novels and short stories, all of them floored and walled in what Clifton Fadiman decided to call "Psychological acumen". But nowhere is this gift better displayed than in The Bad Seed — the portrayal of a coldly evil, murderous child and what she does to both victims and family. In the author's hands this is adequate material for an absolutely first class novel of moral bewilderments and responsibilities nearest the heart of our decade."[2]
"Dark, original, ultimately appalling, William March's extraordinary new novel is, on the obvious level, a straightforward, technically accomplished story of suspense. The manner of its telling — the dispassionate, exact, almost starched prose, with its occasional glints of sardonic humor — is an impressive achievement in itself. It lends some credibility to a narrative against which the imagination rebels; and towards the end, as horror is piled upon horror, it saves the book from falling headlong into absurdity... This is a novel bound to arouse strong responses, to generate vehement discussion, and so not easily to be forgotten."[3]
"The Bad Seed would have been a stronger novel without this false premise — the granddaughter of a murderess is no more likely to be a murderess than the granddaughter of a seamstress, or anyone else. Apart from this flaw, however, The Bad Seed is a novel of suspense and mounting horror, which the reader who can close his eyes to March's unnecessary premise will enjoy as the work of one of the most satisfying of American novelists."[4]
"The Bad Seed is terrifyingly good, not only because its theme is worked out so powerfully, but because every character is convincing. One has to believe that these appalling things took place exactly as the author says they did."[5]


Broadway play[edit]

Maxwell Anderson adapted the book for the stage almost immediately after its publication. Anderson had previously won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1935 and 1936 for his plays Winterset and High Tor, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1933 for his play Both Your Houses. Reginald Denham directed the play using Anderson's script. The play opened on Broadway on December 8, 1954 at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre), less than a year after the publication of the novel.

On April 25, 1955, the play transferred to the Coronet Theatre (now the Eugene O'Neill Theatre), where it completed its successful run of 334 performances on September 27, 1955. Nancy Kelly, the actress who played Christine, won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The audience made claims that Patty McCormack, the child actress who played Rhoda, was the most memorable character.[6]

1956 film[edit]

Mervyn LeRoy was the director of the 1956 movie. In LeRoy's Hollywood career, he produced and or directed over 70 films including Little Caesar and Little Women. Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack and the majority of the original cast acted in the 1956 movie. The ending of the 1956 film was changed from the novel in order to comply with the Hays Code. Rhoda is struck and killed abruptly by lightning when she goes back to the scene of her crime to retrieve the medal, while Christine survives her suicide attempt. During the closing credits, LeRoy added a light-hearted sequence of Nancy Kelly, Christine, holding Patty McCormack, Rhoda, over her leg and spanking her — possibly to remind audiences that this is just a play.[7]

1985 film[edit]

The Bad Seed was remade as a television movie in 1985, adapted by George Eckstein and directed by Paul Wendkos and kept the novel's original ending. It starred Blair Brown as Christine, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Carradine as Leroy, Richard Kiley as Richard Bravo, and Chad Allen as Claude Daigle. Carrie Wells played the title character, whose name was modernized as "Rachel." The TV-movie version was considered inferior to both the play and original film.[7]

Potential remake[edit]

Eli Roth was set to direct a new remake of the film, as stated by Roth promised a new take with a modern horror sensibility. "The original was a great psychological thriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings," said Roth. "This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we're going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She's this cute, cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves 'N Sync."[8]


  1. ^ Hare, Robert D. ([1993], 1999)Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, The Guildford Press, pp. 155-156
  2. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 5.
  3. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 4.
  4. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 6.
  5. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 7.
  6. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 8.
  7. ^ a b Showalter 1997, p. 9.
  8. ^ Murray.

Works cited[edit]

  • Showalter, Elaine (1997). Insights, Interviews & More. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 
  • Murray, Rebecca. "'The Bad Seed' Sprouts for Director Eli Roth". Guide[citation needed]. 

External links[edit]