The Fifth Child
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,...
(The entire section is 1829 words.)