The Fifth Child

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1829

Since the publication of her first book, The Grass Is Singing , in 1950, Doris Lessing has proven to be a writer as versatile as she is prolific, producing approximately thirty-three books of poems, stories, plays, essays, and, most important, novels. Even as a novelist, she has proved extraordinarily varied...

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Since the publication of her first book, The Grass Is Singing, in 1950, Doris Lessing has proven to be a writer as versatile as she is prolific, producing approximately thirty-three books of poems, stories, plays, essays, and, most important, novels. Even as a novelist, she has proved extraordinarily varied in her approach; the realism of her early and middle periods gave way to the mysticism and science fiction of her Canopus in Argus series, published in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Lessing’s willingness to experiment with fiction’s forms, indeed her obsessive need to do so, is best evidenced in a relatively early work, The Golden Notebook (1962). Here she weaves together the themes of personal and artistic crisis in a new and, for the period, wholly representative way, forming what critic and novelist David Lodge has called the “problematic novel.” In it, Lessing takes as her subject the inadequacy of the conventional novel and her own hesitance about writing such a work (coupled with the writer’s need to write).

Much less insistent about its own form, Lessing’s most recent novel, The Fifth Child, is nevertheless disquieting both formally and thematically. Considerably longer than the conventional short story, it seems wanting as a novel, lacking a certain necessary scope and substance—or so the book seems at first. Moreover, this work—its length and therefore status as novel a bit uncertain—begins realistically, its satiric edge present but muted; soon, however, Lessing adds certain supernatural touches that transform her realistic fiction into gothic thriller and ultimately into a disquieting fable of considerable social, psychological, and, above all, moral depth and complexity. The Fifth Child is therefore the kind of novel that evokes for its reader as much pain as pleasure. It deliberately, if unself-consciously, disrupts the reader’s complacency about formal and moral matters. The complacency it disrupts, however, it in a sense fosters; the novel begins by first drawing in the reader, convincing him to take the side of David and Harriet in their determined efforts to realize their dream of happiness in England of the 1960’s, where “making it”—both sexually and financially—are in, and love and family are decidedly out.

Written in a brisk, no-nonsense style, the verbal equivalent of David and Harriet’s straightforward marital code, the novel drives the reader as well as its two main characters toward the catastrophe lying at the heart of the narrative.

Harriet Walker and David Lovatt meet at an office party, where each feels and clearly is out of place: old-fashioned; conservative; moral; in a word, different. They are instantly drawn to each other. Each wants the other, wants the fulfillment of their anachronistic vision of happiness, an Ozzie-and-Harriet dream of family bliss (on a larger scale than Ozzie and Harriet Nelson ever imagined). Despite the criticism of parents and siblings, they buy a huge house outside London and have four children in six years, all the while turning their home into a kind of family hotel at holiday times. This happy home is not, however, without its own weak points. These Harriet and David are more than willing to overlook: an offhand reference to the English class-system, a mere mention of the growing wave of crime, the fact that it is David’s father, James, and his wealthy second wife who pay the mortgage and Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, who keeps house. Frequent references to the untended garden hint that Harriet and David’s idyllic family life may be partial at best, merely a middle-class pastoral.

The birth of their fifth child, Ben, brings their blissful dream to an abrupt end. Ben is a rather unusual child, and Lessing makes every effort to render him in nearly supernatural terms. In the space of only five pages, Harriet calls him a troll, a goblin, a leech, an alien, a little beast, and a nasty little brute. Physically odd if not quite deformed, he is soon perceived as a threat by the entire family—including the dog and cat, which he kills.

Ben resembles Ira Levin’s character Rosemary’s baby, but he is considerably more than that, as soon becomes apparent when the Lovatts, backed once again by James’s money and with what Harriet’s sister Sarah calls “typical upper-class ruthlessness,” decide to institutionalize him. He is placed in an institution located in the wasteland of northern, industrial England—an area that has fallen victim to economic policies which have sought to save the south at the expense of the north. Angela, Harriet’s other sister, tells the family, “My God! . . . Sometimes when I am with you, I understand everything about this country.”

Whether Ben is understood as a devil, a reversion to some earlier evolutionary type, or a symbol of Great Britain’s growing underclass—made up of disfranchised blacks, Asians, and unemployed whites—he is perhaps best approached as a latter-day version of Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener. However variously his existence can be explained, his presence is simply and finally a given; the real issue is not how to deal with him, but the fact that he must be dealt with at all.

His presence proves all too well the inadequacy of the Lovatts’ love, of the British faith in their own just society, and a host of other fond illusions held in common by characters and readers. Without Ben, the Lovatts are a family; with him they are not. Their eldest child, Luke, explains matter-of-factly to his siblings, “They are sending Ben away because he isn’t really one of us,” but as even—or especially—the children intuit, such a rationale begs the question. If Ben can be excluded from the family so easily and finally, so then can they. The irony here is that in a very real and more than merely biological sense, Ben is one of them. He is the perfect embodiment of the obstinacy with which David and Harriet pursued their dream of a large, happy family in the face of their parents’ and other relatives’ strong objections and of their obstinate refusal to be like their contemporaries: sexually free, financially well-off, ultimately selfish and uncaring. Despite their efforts, David and Harriet do become selfish and uncaring when they choose to institutionalize their child; as the situation is presented, however, it is hard for the reader not to agree with them to some extent. The fact remains that, like Bartleby, Ben is intractable and not amenable to reason (or love).

Just as Bartleby stands forth his own inexorable self, so too does Ben, in his own less overtly existential, more pathologically deviant way. Nevertheless, Harriet chooses to rescue him, because he is her son. For her pains, she is forced to watch as her husband grows more distant, as three of her children leave home, and as the fourth, Paul, becomes increasingly fearful and maladjusted—all without her having significantly improved Ben’s life. She rescues him from the living death he was forced to endure in the institution; in exchange, he is made to suffer a more expansive but no less insidious form of confinement: existence at the margins of society.

From childhood intractability and malevolence, Ben graduates to robbery and possibly rape, to that love of violence and general lawlessness that Anthony Burgess depicted in such frightening detail in A Clockwork Orange (1962). To her credit, Harriet does take Ben home. Once there, however, there is nothing she can do for him other than exact a measure of obedience by threatening to send him back to the institution. Coming to distrust the medical doctors and other professionals with whom she must deal and feeling in a very real sense abandoned by her family, Harriet turns Ben over to a local youth, John. In John’s gang, Ben gains a degree of acceptance—which is to say, recognition.

To recognize, literally “to see,” plays a crucial part in this deceptively simple, artfully straightforward novel. Harriet believes that she sees something the others—her husband, her doctor, “all of them”—cannot or will not: “Everyone in authority had not been seeing Ben ever since he was born. . . . Would people always refuse to see him, to recognize what he was?” The “what” Harriet wants them to see remains undefined: What exactly does she see? That despite appearances, Ben is indeed human? Or that he is not? What she wants for Ben may be nothing more than what she comes to want for herself, “that at last someone would use the right words, share the burden. . . . She wanted to be acknowledged, her predicament given its value.” If the words Harriet wants are to come, then they will do so in the very form and complexity of the novel itself, for what Lessing accomplishes in The Fifth Child is nothing less than the naming—the recognizing rather than the resolving—of Harriet’s (and Ben’s) predicament.

On at least one level, The Fifth Child concerns Harriet’s situation as a woman, a wife, a mother. (Much of the novel is in fact focused through her.) After bearing four children in six years, Harriet is physically as well as psychologically exhausted. Her dream of a large, happy, ordinary family becomes an intolerable burden. Pregnant with Ben, her imagination grows morbid: The child in her womb is becoming the monstrous embodiment of her own repressed hostility, of the dream turned nightmare. Thus, Dr. Gilly, the London specialist she consults, may be right: The cause of the problem may not be Ben at all but rather her unreasonable hatred of the child whose existence has consumed her every moment and every thought but who also frees her of ever having to bear another child. This view puts Harriet in the worst possible light. Seen more sympathetically, she has been made to bear too great a burden, made to feel a “criminal” first for wanting to have another child, then for having a “monster,” and finally for bringing the monster child home rather than letting him die in the institution. Thus does the mother of the monster become a monster herself.

Yet this interpretation does not explain all the novel’s complexity. Lessing has designed The Fifth Child to provoke thoughts about women, about families, about contemporary Great Britain. Whether all that the novel evokes can or even should be made consistent, reducible to some one overriding theme, is another matter altogether. The novel’s realist, supernatural, sociological, and feminist perspectives do not quite jell, nor do they seem to parallel one another as neatly as some readers would like. These perspectives are bound together by a general sense of injustice and by the need to find a way to live morally in the absence of fixed moral standards. Against the backdrop of this call for moral improvisation, the novel suggests that the contemporary world stands on the verge not of solution but of apocalypse, the perhaps necessary precondition to moral change.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85

Booklist. LXXXIV, January 15, 1988, p. 809.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, January 1, 1988, p. 10.

London Review of Books. X, April 21, 1988, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 27, 1988, p. 3.

Ms. XVI, March, 1988, p. 28.

The New Republic. CXCVIII, May 16, 1988, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, June 30, 1988, p. 30.

The New York Times. CXXXVII, March 30, 1988, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 3, 1988, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, January 29, 1988, p. 413.

Time. CXXXI, March 14, 1988, p. 86.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 22, 1988, p. 452.

Tribune Books. March 20, 1988, p. 6.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, March 20, 1988, p. 3.

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