THE BAD SEED / William March

THE BAD SEED / William March. 1954 (215 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the fern Grammar School picnic, was the last time had she known contentment or felt peace.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Past tense. Third person selective singular. From the opening line the reader is introduced to the internal thinking of Mrs. Christina Penmark. The narrator observes and reports on all the characters, but only enters Mrs. Penmark’s thought process.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The beginning of this book is immediately unsettling with the statement implying that the reader entering a conversation already in progress. “Later that summer…”. The story starts from a point in time that is in Mrs. Penmark’s memory. The narrator tells the reader, quite frankly, that there is a great amount of unhappiness in store for Mrs. Penmark. As soon as the first sentence finishes, the tone switches to an idyllic picnic setting – a picnic that is scheduled for the following day, and then to the historical significance of that annual event. The narrative takes a third step backwards to explain a time when the picnic’s hostesses were young girls. Young Rhoda, the title character, her mother, Mrs. Penmark, and Rhoda’s teachers, the hostesses who are from Rhoda’s grandparent’s era, represent three generations, an important aspect of the book’s theme; sometimes a “bad seed” passes down the line.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The story begins very much in the same vein of a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” episode. One can practically hear the underscoring in the background. The reader is familiarized with Mrs. Penrose, her natural excitement for the annual picnic, and her genuine admiration of her daughter’s ability to rise, dress and present herself so capably, “particularly the complicated plaiting her own thick, blonde hair.” One must remember this is the early 1950’s and all of the other characters except Rhoda lean closer toward the Victorian than the Modern era. Rhoda is presented as a regular child with excellent manners, but even as she impresses everyone else, her Mother observes and then dismisses Rhoda’s ability to manipulate in subtle but convincing ways.

Language: The language is a bit florid and seems to float in an artificial way. Commonplace events are “perfect” and “wonderful” which seems to indicate that Mrs. Penmark is in some degree of denial.

Character:  While Rhoda is the title character, it is her mother, Mrs. Penmark, who is the catalytic one and who, seemingly in retrospect, becomes hyper-vigilant in her observations of her daughter. She is not a suspicious woman, but she suspects that something is not right. This is played subtly in the early pages, since too much doubt on her part would tip the balance against Rhoda. Each of the other several characters who are introduced in the early pages are drawn clearly enough and reinforce what a remarkable young lady Rhoda is. It is unfortunate that Rhoda, in her psychopathic way, will turn against several of them in order to obtain something they have or cover her tracks from a previous event. But, I’m getting way past the first ten. Within the first ten pages we hear about a young boy who won the penmanship award, an honor that Rhoda wanted and is rather peeved about not getting, which is too bad for the boy.

Setting: The reader is not given as clear a relationship to place, or as early, as in many of the other books on this site, but taking a very close look at the first sentence one understands that the place the author begins this story is in Christine Penmark’s turbulent thoughts. The reader is placed into a vague notion of location via the nexus of her thought-storm, which points to the Fern Grammer School picnic. This indicates to the reader that the story has a starting point that includes children, teachers and parents. Otherwise the opening of the book is turbulent and murky, as is Mrs. Penmark’s very slow realization that her daughter is THE BAD SEED.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Why, one must ask, when there is so much effort on the narrator’s behalf to show what a happy and harmonious existence there is in this fictional town “between the river and the bay,” is June seventh the last day that Mrs. Penmark will know happiness or contentment? This is a major expectation, which must be answered by the end of the book.

Random Comments: THE BAD SEED was William March’s last and most popular novel. Considered a second rate novelist, this book became an instant success and in 1954 sold over two million copies, was made into a highly successful play and won four Academy Awards for the 1956 film with the original Broadway cast. Unfortunately, Mr. March passed from a heart attack one month after the book was released. I’ll bet Rhoda did it.

Elaine Showalter, in her preface to the 1997 Ecco Paperback edition commented, “Today, even those who have never read the book, and never seen the play or film, use March’s image of the “bad seed” as a proverbial term for an evil child.”


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