The Fifth Child Summary
by Doris Lessing

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The Fifth Child Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Harriet and David meet at an office party. In no time, they find that they both want to start a family. Harriet is a virgin, despite her friends’ sexual promiscuity, and David has had only one long relationship with another woman. Harriet and David decide to marry. Then they purchase a large Victorian-style home in the suburbs of London, planning to have many children. On the day they take ownership of the house, David and Harriet have sex in a bed left by the previous owners. Harriet becomes pregnant and is now a stay-at-home wife. David continues his work as an architect.

David’s mother, Molly; his stepfather, Frederick; his father, James; and his stepmother, Jessica, visit the couple’s new home. James, a wealthy shipbuilder, agrees to pay the mortgage. Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, also visits and agrees to stay and help Harriet through the pregnancy and to help raise the child. Luke is born in 1966. Three months after Harriet gives birth to Luke, she again becomes pregnant.

Meanwhile, Harriet and David’s extended families visit and stay at their large house over Christmas and Easter holidays. Harriet’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, William, struggle through marital problems, and Sarah gives birth to a baby with Down syndrome. Harriet has her second child, Helen, and soon thereafter her third, Jane. Despite Dorothy’s protests that Harriet is having too many children too quickly, the Lovatts think of themselves as a perfect family that deserves its happiness. Harriet believes that Sarah and William had a child with Down syndrome because of their quarreling.

Harriet gives birth to a fourth child, Paul. David’s parents and Dorothy continue to protest the number of children the Lovatts are having and question how they will afford to send them all to school. After Dorothy leaves to take care of Sarah’s children, Harriet gets pregnant again and soon realizes the pregnancy will be exceptionally difficult. The fetus kicks early in the pregnancy, and Harriet becomes convinced that it is trying to tear out of her womb. Dorothy returns and chastises the couple again for being irresponsible.

The couple’s marriage begins to deteriorate as Harriet becomes increasingly upset by the painful pregnancy and secretly takes tranquilizers. She begins to think of the fetus as a monster and, after giving birth, calls the baby a troll, goblin, and alien. Ben, the newest child, repulses the entire family with his abnormal strength, troll-like looks, and lack of affection. Harriet thinks she is a criminal for having given birth to a monster. Years later, the family suspects that Ben is guilty of killing pets that relatives bring over during holidays. The other children attempt to teach Ben some manners. He copies their behavior, but the children become afraid of him and lock their doors at night.

After seeing Ben’s unruliness and Harriet’s fatigue, relatives stop spending their holidays with the Lovatts. The other children, especially Paul, begin to feel neglected as Harriet, in spite of her repulsion for Ben, spends most of her time taking care of him. Under the advice and financial help of friends, Harriet and David send Ben to an institution, where “freak” children will eventually die under extensive drugging. Harriet feels guilty for sending Ben away. Against the wishes of David, she visits...

(The entire section is 857 words.)