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Literature / The Bad Seed

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The Bad Seed is an American Psychological Horror novel by William March, published in 1954.

Christine Penmark, a housewife, moves into a new town with her husband Kenneth and daughter Rhoda. Christine has always thought her daughter was very peculiar; while always polite, courteous, and charming in public, Rhoda has a cold, apathetic, and calculating quality to her personality which her mother finds very disturbing in a child. As Christine notices the strange and horrible things that happen in the proximity of her daughter, she comes to realize that Rhoda is the very definition of an Enfante Terrible.

One of the earliest and more notable examples of a child being portrayed as irredeemably evil, and delves into the issue of nature vs. nurture as Christine discovers the truth of her own origins.

Thus far, there have been four adaptations of the novel:

The novel contains examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Almost all of the adults buy Rhoda's act, while the children in her school know there's something wrong there and usually avoid her.
  • The Alcoholic: Hortense Daigle, mother of Claude Daigle (whom Rhoda killed because she wanted his penmanship medal), became addicted to alcohol to dull the pain of losing her only child.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Rhoda
  • Arc Words: "What'll you give me for a basket of kisses?" "I'll give you a basket of hugs."
  • Asshole Victim: Leroy could be said to have had it coming. Even so...
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Rhoda gets away with everything.
  • Berserk Button: Rhoda really wanted to win that penmanship medal, and doesn't react well when it's brought up.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Rhoda, full stop.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Rhoda is a manipulative psychopath; Leroy, who is wise to her evil, is a bully who plays stupid to get away with what he does; then we have Monica, who willfully ignores Rhoda's behavior; and the most heroic character, Rhoda's mother Christine, is morally conflicted.
  • Break the Cutie: Rhoda's poor mother!
  • The Cassandra: Leroy's more intelligent wife, who repeatedly warns him that no good will come of his constantly teasing Rhoda.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Since childhood, Christine has had this thought in the back of her mind that she was adopted, though unlike most examples of this trope, the idea fills her with horror. Her parents (mother in the book) profusely deny this, and her friends assure her that this is a common childhood fantasy. Unfortunately for her, the truth is far worse than she could imagine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Rhoda's tap shoes and the wood wool Leroy uses to sleep on.
    • The special vitamins and sleeping pills Monica gives to Christine
    • Also, Christine mentions her husband keeping an actual gun in the house. She later uses it to shoot herself.
  • Children Are Innocent: Mercilessly averted.
  • Corruption by a Minor: Rhoda and Leroy have a relationship that is disturbingly sexual, although they never touch each other. In the book he actually compares his relationship with her to an odd courtship.
  • Creepy Child/Enfant Terrible: Rhoda could have been the Trope Namer for these.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Leroy.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Rhoda, definitely!
  • Dissonant Serenity: Rhoda. She never shows much excitement, no matter what she's been up to.
  • Despair Event Horizon: For Christine this is Rhoda's murder of Leroy. She is forced to give up any lingering denial she may have had about Rhoda's evil nature or her, Christine's, inability to control her.
  • Downer Ending: Not just a downer – it's basically as bad as it gets. Christine commits suicide, whereas murderous Rhoda survives and gets away scot-free, nobody even suspecting her of any foul.
  • Driven to Suicide: Christine shoots herself after thinking she had killed Rhoda.
  • Enfant Terrible: No Freudian Excuse needed. Rhoda was born evil. Hence the name of the story.
  • Every Proper Lady Should Curtsy: Rhoda does these as a part of her good showing of manners.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Rhoda and Leroy's confrontations.
  • Evil Is Petty: Rhoda's motivation for murder is simple acquisitiveness—and since she's eight years old, what she wants can be extremely trivial: a penmanship medal or an ornamental snowglobe.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Leroy in the novel has three children and a wife he cares for in his ornery way. Leroy's family is the only reason Monica keeps him on as a caretaker.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In spite of readily admitting he is a mean and uncaring man who likes to get under a little girl's skin just for kicks, Leroy is genuinely disturbed when he realizes what kind of person Rhoda really is. He's a sociopath too, but even he recoils at murder.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Rhoda, a sweet looking eight-year-old girl, with the dangerous mind of a psychopathic killer.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Rhoda. She acts sweet, but when she doesn't get her way or someone gets in between her and her goals, she shows what a murderous brat she is.
  • Foil: Leroy, the gardener, is the only adult who can see through Rhoda's perfect child act, and enjoys teasing her to get under her skin.
  • For the Evulz: Leroy's motivation for tormenting Rhoda.
  • Gut Feeling: Rhoda is avoided by most children her age, because they can tell there's something not quite right about her. They're absolutely correct.
  • Happily Married: Christine and Kenneth, despite Kenneth's job-related absences.
    • Believe it or not, Leroy and Thelma.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Leroy is correct about a number of the characters: Monica is an arrogant know-it-all, Christine's kindness is a bit condescending, and he underestimates the degree of Rhoda's selfishness and ruthlessness.
  • Karma Houdini: Rhoda gets away with everything she's done in the book.
  • Kick the Dog: In the novel Rhoda pushes her pet terrier out of a window when she gets tired of taking care of it.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Monica Breedlove, Christine's landlady and a prominent figure in the community. Monica is described as an "amateur psychologist" but clearly doesn't have any actual expertise in the field. She randomly diagnoses Leroy as a paranoid schizophrenic, her brother Emory as a closeted homosexual, and herself as having incestuous feelings towards him. Her advice only serves to distress and upset Christine more and more, but she's totally blind to the fact that Rhoda is a serial killer. Nicely contrasts her employee Leroy who's a case of Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Lack of Empathy: When Christine asks Rhoda if she understands the pain Mrs. Daigle must be going through after discovering his medal that she stole from Claude's body, she responds, "I guess." Later, she says, "If Mrs. Daigle wants a son so bad, why doesn't she get one from the orphanage?"
  • Love Martyr: A familial example: Christine sacrifices her sanity, integrity, and in the original story, her life out of the love she has for her daughter, who when asked if she truly loves her, only replies "You're silly!".
  • Mistaken for Insane: At the novel's end, it's assumed that the stress of being separated from her husband, combined with all the tragic "accidents" in his absence, caused Christine to suffer a psychotic break that drove her to kill herself and her daughter. No one suspects her real motivation.
  • Motormouth: Monica spends so much time talking that she never actually observes what's going on around her, and thus can never apply what knowledge she does have to a real situation. Rhoda has her wrapped around her little finger and she doesn't even realize it.
  • Mugging the Monster: Leroy thinks it's fun to tease Rhoda. He learns better...too late.
  • My Beloved Smother: Mrs. Daigle is shown to be very overprotective and anxious about her only child Claude, which is why his death emotionally destroys her.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: Despite growing up with loving parents, Rhoda's sociopathic nature was apparently passed down from her maternal grandmother, a serial killer.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In a misguided effort to protect her husband from the repercussions of Rhoda's crimes, Christine tells no one what she's learned, destroys all the evidence, chooses an uncertain method to kill Rhoda, then kills herself, leaving no one the wiser when Rhoda survives to kill again.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Leroy pretends to be a humble simpleton in front of Monica and other adults, while revealing his true mean nature to children. He believes himself to be Brilliant, but Lazy, but based on his wife's comments and his own actions in the story, this is debatable.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Christine has one in the book's backstory. Kenneth's mother always thought there was something not right about Christine, and warned her son about marrying and having children with her. Worth mentioning, her name is Rhoda —Christine named her daughter after her mother-in-law in an attempt to appease her, but it failed to improve their relationship.
    • Even worse for Christine, it seems the elder Mrs. Penmark may have been on to something after all.
  • Offing the Offspring: Rhoda's mother tries to do this in the book. She also finds out that her own biological mother, a famous serial killer, murdered her entire family, including her other children and almost killed Christine herself.
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Leroy, especially in the book where he gives Rhoda a dead rat in a gift box just For the Evulz.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Christina kills herself in part as punishment for unleashing Rhoda on the world. By killing both Rhoda and herself, she feels she's stopping "the bad seed" before it can reproduce again.
  • Serial Killer: By the end of the story, Rhoda has a body count of four: her pet dog, a neighbor who promised her a snowglobe after her death, Claude Daigle, and Leroy. With the exception of the last one, they were all for short-sighted and selfish reasons.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Monica. How often do you hear "penurious" and "larvated" in a conversation?
  • Smug Snake / Small Name, Big Ego: Leroy, who as mentioned before overestimates his own intelligence.
  • The Sociopath: Rhoda has neither conscience nor empathy and has no issues with killing to get what she wants. Rhoda's personality is encapsulated in this exchange between her and Leroy:
    Leroy: You ask me and I say you don't even feel sorry about what happen to that poor little boy.
    Rhoda: Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle who got drowned, not me.
  • Stepford Smiler: Rhoda, and as she finally catches on, her mother.
    • Even before then, Christine has hidden the traumatic memories she has of her psychopathic mother from her family.
  • Title Drop: Comes in a passage where Christine is musing about the nature of violence.
    It seemed to her suddenly that violence was 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. Sometimes it lay deeply hidden, sometimes it lay close to the surface; but always it was there, ready to appear, under the right conditions, in all its irrational dreadfulness.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Rhoda!
  • Villainous Lineage: Christine discovers that her biological mother was a serial killer and believes that she passed her murderous nature to Rhoda.
  • Wham Line: The book's final two sentences.
    Monica: At least Rhoda was spared. You still have Rhoda to be thankful for.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: While the setting of the novel isn't directly stated, there are several clues that it's in Maryland. The Penmarks previously lived in Baltimore; the Fern sisters mention a town called Benedict (there is a Benedict, Maryland) and also use the term "bay-side" (a common Maryland description for towns located on the Chesapeake Bay).
  • Worthy Opponent: A few lines of dialogue suggest this between, of all people, Leroy and Rhoda once they both discover that the other is also a sociopath.