Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

One of the most prominent contemporary writers, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Her best-known novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), experiments with narrative form to look at the interior lives of women. Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe),...

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One of the most prominent contemporary writers, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Her best-known novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), experiments with narrative form to look at the interior lives of women. Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), and moved to London in 1949. Her outsider status as part of a minority in the former British colonies, and as a woman and a communist after she moved to England, helps her write poignantly about social and political issues. In her fiction, she frequently employs elements of myth, fable, science fiction, and mysticism, but other novels, such as The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) and The Good Terrorist (1985), maintain a strictly realistic mode.

In The Fifth Child, Lessing begins with a seemingly realistic 1960’s setting but integrates elements of science fiction into the narrative with the birth of the odd Ben, the Lovatt’s “alien,” “monster,” or “Neanderthal” child. The Fifth Child remains a minor work in comparison to her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, but it is innovative in playing with the boundary between social realism and science fiction to address mid-twentieth century anxieties about gender and motherhood. In 2000, Lessing published a sequel to the novel, Ben, in the World, which follows Ben’s travels and recounts the hostility that he faces.

In The Fifth Child, Lessing uses a third-person limited narration that sticks closely to Harriet Lovatt’s actions and reveals her happiness in being able to live in her dream home and her anguish after conceiving Ben. The novel rarely delves into the emotions of her husband or other characters—who ritualistically appear at every holiday until Ben’s birth—nor does the novel give the reader a window into Ben’s thoughts. The novel sets up a stark contrast between Harriet, whose complex emotions toward Ben are understandable, and Ben, who remains utterly alien. The novel never explains what Ben is—alien, monster, Neanderthal, or deformed child.

The absence of chapter breaks in the novel contributes to the way in which the story quickly and fluidly builds up to Harriet’s horror toward Ben, her isolation from the rest of the family, and her resulting fear of motherhood in general. Read as an allegory or fable, the novel seems to warn against the idolization of domesticity and motherhood by the Lovatts. In the first half of the novel, the Lovatts fervently believe that they deserve the happiness they have found by purchasing a large home in the suburbs and deciding to have many children. The birth of Ben and his inexplicable monsterlike qualities, however, challenge and ultimately destroy their self-assurance and faith in family as a panacea.

Ben and the destruction of the Lovatt family function as critiques of common midcentury attitudes toward motherhood, the novel’s major theme. Being a mother is always Harriet’s first duty, and it defines her identity. Thus, when she cannot love Ben and struggles to care for all her children, David and her relatives consider her diseased. Also, despite Harriet’s conviction that the fetus (later, Ben) inside her is trying to kill her, her fears are dismissed as mere hysteria by her doctor, husband, and relatives. To them, and to Harriet herself, motherhood is supposed to be instinctual; Harriet’s repulsion toward Ben, therefore, is unnatural.

Harriet calls herself a criminal several times in the novel, and David stops wanting to sleep with her after Ben’s birth. The novel’s depiction of Harriet’s guilt throws into relief that she never realizes her commonality with Ben as an “other”; both Ben, a biological oddity and possibly an atavistic “primitive,” and Harriet, a woman and mother, are objects of speculation, ridicule, curiosity, and racialization in the eyes of society.

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