Pure Evil

American Dreams: A Best-Selling Pint-Sized Psychopath

Rhoda Penmark is a serial killer who’s murdered three people and a dog. Rhoda is eight. In 1954, no one had met anyone like her, or the novel that contained her: ‘The Bad Seed.’

Everett Collection/REX USA

“There had always been something strange about the child …”

Yes, there is something strange about Rhoda Penmark, the charming, well-mannered, dimpled little girl who, by the age of eight, is an accomplished serial killer. In the past year she has murdered an elderly woman, a classmate, a groundskeeper, and her dog. The dog comes first, not long after Rhoda’s seventh birthday. She had begged her parents for the pet, but quickly grew tired of caring for it. “An object lesson in responsibility and kindness,” thinks her father. As it turns out, it is an object lesson in getting away with murder. Rhoda’s mother Christine, hearing the dying whimpers of the dog, discovers Rhoda leaning out of her bedroom window, dispassionately staring down at her little terrier, writhing in agony in the courtyard three stories below. “What happened to the dog?” asks Christine. “It fell out of the window, I think,” says the little maniac.

What makes The Bad Seed so chilling is not the nature of Rhoda’s crimes but her manner. She may look like a child, with her high giggle, pigtails tied with bows of ribbon, and gap-toothed smile, but her mind is as calculating and cynical as any grown-up’s. She speaks with chilly precision, “in the tone that a bored but tolerant adult might use.” The only time she behaves like a child is when she is playacting in order to win over adults, especially Christine, by chirping cloying nonsense like, “Oh, I’ve got the sweetest mother! I’ve got the prettiest mother! I’ve got the nicest mother! That’s what I tell everybody.” Freud defined the uncanny as an ambiguity about the extent to which something is alive; in The Bad Seed, the ambiguity is about the extent to which Rhoda is a child. The more she thinks, and acts, like an adult, the more monstrous she seems.

The Bad Seed is the story of how Christine becomes aware that her daughter is, in modern terminology, a psychopath. The novel was William March’s sixth, published not long before he died of a heart attack in New Orleans. He had lived just long enough to see his book become, by a good margin, his greatest commercial success—enthusiastic reviews resulted in pre-publication sales of more than 5,000 copies—but not long enough to appreciate the enormous scale of that success. The Bad Seed would ultimately sell more than a million copies, leading to a hit stage adaptation and an Oscar-nominated film. March, who considered it his worst book—“an almost vulgar work, one which he regarded even with some embarrassment,” according to his biographer—would have been even more surprised to learn of the critical acclaim it received, acclaim that had evaded him most of his career. Admiring letters arrived from Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, who called it “marvelously creepy,” regretting that she had not written it herself. Malcolm Cowley advanced March’s candidacy for membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and The Bad Seed was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Why did a novel about a child serial killer hit so hugely in 1954 America? While tightly paced and chilling, the plot, at least read today, is highly predictable; even March, in a metafictional twist, has one of his characters predict the story’s inevitable conclusion. The writing is vivid and economic but displays no unusual virtues. Still the novel transfixed the national imagination. Critics at the time, trying to explain its popularity, often pointed to a conversation between two men that is overhead early in the story by Christine. In a novel distinguished by its economy of prose and storytelling, this passage stands out for its gratuitousness:

“I was reading the other day,” said the taller of the two, “that the age we live in is an age of anxiety. You know what? I thought that was pretty good—a pretty fair judgment. I told Ruth about it when I got home, and she said, ‘You can say that again!’”

“Every age that people live in is an age of anxiety,” said the other man. “If anybody asks me, I’d say that the age we live in is an age of violence. It looks to me like violence is in everybody’s mind these days. It looks like we’re just going to keep on until there’s nothing left to ruin. If you stop and think about it, it scares you.”

“Well, maybe we live in an age of anxiety and violence.”

“Now, that sounds more like it. Come to think about it, I guess that’s what our age is really like.”

Christine, reflecting on this exchange, concludes that violence is “an inescapable factor of the heart, perhaps the most important factor of all—an ineradicable thing that lay, like a bad seed, behind kindness, behind compassion, behind the embrace of love itself.”

Seizing on this scene, critics called the novel “an allegory of our violent times.” A New York Herald Tribune critic described it as “a commentary upon the bewilderment and helplessness of all men and women of average good will who find themselves face to face with pure evil.” But Christine’s bewilderment is only the novel’s starting point. From there March moves into darker territory. After discovering that her own mother had been a serial killer, Christine decides that she is responsible for her daughter’s actions: “How can I blame Rhoda for the things she’s done? I carried the bad seed that made her what she is. If anybody is guilty, I’m the guilty one.”

In her introduction to a new edition of the novel, Elaine Showalter suggests that the treatment of Rhoda reflects March’s own repressed homosexuality—his belief that he, like Rhoda, was himself a bad seed. It might also be possible to see in Rhoda’s cold, unflappable manner an allegory for the narcotizing effect of violence. March, whose fascination with the macabre and perverse seems to date from his traumatic experience as a soldier in World War I, suffered badly from what today we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Yet the greatest source of horror in the novel is not Rhoda’s actions, but Christine’s emotional response to them. She is utterly alone with her suffering. She cannot bring herself to tell her husband, who is working abroad (he had requested an international transfer, she becomes convinced, because of his own misgivings about Rhoda); nor can she bring herself to tell Rhoda’s teachers or her best friend, despite their concern. The closest she gets is to tell an acquaintance, a popular crime buff, that she is writing a novel about a murderous child. In a perverse twist, Christine’s refusal to share the burden of her knowledge forces her to become her daughter’s accomplice, as she begins to destroy evidence that might cause Rhoda’s actions to be revealed. The most horrible act of violence in the novel is inflicted by Christine, on herself.

The profound loneliness and guilt felt by Christine would have been familiar to many women in post-war America, a period in which divorce rates surged and single motherhood, though still considered shameful and even taboo, became increasingly common. If a marriage failed, if the husband was violent, unfaithful, or alcoholic, it was the wife’s fault. Less than a year before The Bad Seed appeared, Dorothy Carnegie, wife of self-help guru Dale, published How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead—a bestselling guide instructing women to dedicate themselves to achieving their husbands’ professional advancement and personal happiness. The Bad Seed has a perverse riff on this scenario, when Christine learns that her mother, in order to further her father’s standing, had murdered, one by one, all of the relatives that stood in his way. When the father finally inherited his entire family’s wealth, the mother killed him too, and gained the fortune herself.

Christine’s fate is not so felicitous. But March’s readers—particularly those mothers forced to shoulder the unwanted burdens of unruly children and paternal absence—likely gained some satisfaction from the novel’s conclusion, in which Christine’s husband, at last, returns home from abroad. Upon realizing that he must take care of Rhoda himself, he bursts into tears. Parenthood, even under optimal conditions, isn’t easy. But when you have to go it alone, it can be murder.

Other notable novels published in 1954:

The Dollmaker by Harriette ArnowA Fable by William FaulknerPictures from an Institution by Randall JarrellA Kiss Before Dying by Ira LevinI Am Legend by Richard MathesonThe Huge Season by Wright MorrisSweet Thursday by John SteinbeckMessiah by Gore Vidal

Pulitzer Prize:No prize awarded

National Book Award:The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Bestselling novel of the year:Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockers by Richard Price2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington1924—So Big by Edna Ferber1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara