The Rhoda Reaction

By MICHAEL BRONSKI  |  December 20, 2006

So as we say goodbye to bloody 2006, it’s worth pausing to take a closer look at The Bad Seed, a work that not only allows us to distance ourselves, through camp, from the demonic forces running roughshod through the world, but offers a chance to revive a broader debate about the nature of “evil.”

Born to be wild
The film version of The Bad Seed, released half a century ago — with it’s startling performances by Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mother, Christine; Eileen Heckett as the mother of one of her victims; and, of course, Patty McCormick’s as the film’s unnerving anti-heroine — has all but eclipsed the novel on which it was based. Although unread and out of print today, William March’s The Bad Seed was an instant bestseller when it was published in April 1954, selling more than a million copies within a year. The New York Times called it “a true artistic achievement,” and it struck such a cord with the public that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Maxwell Anderson penned a stage version that opened to rave reviews just 22 weeks later.

Aside from the film’s cop-out Hollywood ending, which kills off Rhoda and allows her mother to survive, its plot and narrative structure is nearly identical to March’s original work. In a near parody of post-war family life, lovely, educated Christine Penmark is married to a traveling businessman, a former army officer, and their daughter, Rhoda, is the perfect child. Suddenly their idyllic life in an unnamed Southern city (based on March’s hometown, Mobile, Alabama) is shattered by the death of a boy in Rhoda’s day school. It quickly becomes evident that Rhoda knows more about the death than she will admit, and that she murdered him. As Christine agonizes over what to do, Rhoda, covering up her crime, strikes again. Christine, the hapless heroine, is trapped in a bright, sunny all-American home with the knowledge that her perfectly behaved, obedient child is the source of malevolence and horror. This was the birth of the suburban gothic at its finest — and earliest: it was neither the older British gothic, which featured solitary young women trapped in a dark, decrepit medieval castles fighting off unknown horrors, nor the Southern gothic that had gained currency at mid century with the work of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.

March’s novel had far more psychological and sociological nuance than either. After it becomes clear that Rhoda is a sociopathic killer, March goes to great lengths to explain why. Rather methodically, he delineates — through conversations among the novel’s adults — three theories that account for the cause of human “evil.” Monica Breedlove, Christine’s landlady and a strict Freudian, treats every aspect of human behavior as a clash between id and superego. Reginald Tasker, a crime writer, believes human behavior is shaped by a confluence of factors, including developmental issues and mental illness; Richard Bravo, Christina’s war-journalist father (who is deceased in the novel, but a character in the film) believes violence is caused by environment, especially poverty. And Christine believes — especially after discovering that she is the daughter of a famous female serial killer — that her daughter’s behavior is genetic, and that mind and environment are of far less consequence than an inborn tendency to violence. The novel and film present these theories with equal weight, and to the literate common reader of the 1950s, who was well versed in popularized Freud as well as the cultural critiques of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Franz Boas, and Ruth Benedict, The Bad Seed captured a vibrant debate about the genesis of human wickedness.

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