Adventures in Reading


Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child
November 3, 2007, 7:25 am
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“Harriet and David met each other at an office party neither had particularly wanted to go to, and both knew at once that this was what they had been waiting for.”

I previously mentioned that I wanted to read something by Doris Lessing as she won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, and to be frank I had never heard of the woman let alone read anything by her. One day at work I perused through what was available by her and finally came down to either selecting The Golden Notebook or The Fifth Child. I will admit I entirely selected The Fifth Child (1988) based on the shortness of the novel. What can I say, sometimes you want something long and sometimes you want something short. However, soon after bringing the book home I came across a comment in a community I am in, which described The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World as: “They’re good books, but unexceptional, definitely not what she does best.” All I can say is that after finishing The Fifth Child, which I absolutely could not put down, is that Lessing must be a genius and I can not wait to read another book by her.

The Fifth Child takes place from the 1960s to the 1980s in England, just outside of London. Harriet and David meet at an office party, fall in love, and much to the chagrin of their families and the changing attitudes of society opt to purchase a rambling Victorian mansion and stock it full of children as soon as they can. The couple dreams of a house full of children and family, and with the help of financial aid from David’s father their dream soon becomes a reality. However, the children start to come a little too fast and while it does not specifically say the couple does not use birth control, it is clear that they do not use the pill. After the fourth child the couple (with the encouragement of their relatives) decide to take a break from their ideal brood of six to eight children, but accidents do happen and Harriet does find herself pregnant again.

While none of Harriet’s pregnancies have been easy, the fifth one seems particularly worse, and much of Harriet’s nine months will be riddled with tocophobic anxiety. Harriet is tired and haggard and becomes particularly negligent of her other four children, but Dorothy, Harriet’s mother, and the live in Anne help with the children and housework. The only way to describe this pregnancy is violent. Harriet feels as if she is being attacked and ripped apart from the inside (Rosemary’s Baby anyone?) and becomes dependent upon tranquilizers to calm her fetus. Once the baby – Ben – is born he is definitely not “normal”, and the remainder of the book explores his stunted social and physical growth, a brief time where he is brutally institutionalized, and how this fifth child and Harriet’s relationship with him ultimately destroys Harriet’s and David’s wish of a large and loving family.

As a woman, reading about Harriet’s fifth pregnancy was particularly disturbing in a way that I am unsure a man can experience. (To clarify: most men will not have the experience or the possibly experience of having something like a fetus inside of them.) This is also where the story becomes a symbiotic relationship of figurative and literal readings. At Harriet’s point of pregnancy you can either read that she is indeed being physically attacked from the inside (and Lessing offers a rather vivid description of Harriet being sure her uterus is blackened from the bruises), or that Harriet is being mentally attacked from the stress and emotions of her environment (not to mention the health issues of having five children in roughly six to seven years). Either of these interpretations lead to her increased usage of tranquilizers to defeat the fetus’ physical power over her.

Harriet gives birth to Ben who is in every way different than her previous children. This part of the story unravels sometime in th 1970s and once again the story splices into largely two (though undoubtedly there are alternatives) perspectives: Ben is a genetic throw back in evolutionary progression or the tranquilizers actually harmed him and his family’s animosity directed at him (particularly Harriet’s whose maternal instincts nearly entirely reject him). The remainder of the story focuses on how different Ben is (including killing two pets and physical violence directed at others), and how… uncomfortable this difference is. Simultaneously, Ben’s differences is paired off with his cousin Anne who has Down syndrome. Anne is loved and appreciated by the family but there is something about Ben, something that no professional can pin point, and something that repeatedly makes Harriet feel as if she is accused of being a criminal.

Regardless of your interpretation there is something indeed eerie and disconcerting about Ben and the entire story. Lessing very much plays on the fears of families striving for an idealized perfect happiness, but who receive an unexpected road bump. Dorothy refer to her daughters as “coping” with their situations, but something seems deeply wrong with David and Harriet and their family. For such a short book (only around 133 pages) there is a vast amount of information being exchanged and themes being critiqued. I loved this story though, and it is definitely on my recommended reading list.

Check out John Self’s review of The Fifth Child too.

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4 Comments

Very interesting to read your thoughts on this, as I’ve just finished it myself and liked it, though not quite as much as you did. (And I too chose it based on its shortness, having bought The Golden Notebook when Lessing won the Nobel but never getting around to reading it!)

It had never occurred to me either that men and women might react differently to the book because a male reader has never and will never have the experience of carrying a child to birth. A very good point. I must admit though that I missed entirely the idea that Ben’s development might have been caused by Harriet’s use of tranquillisers too. Always valuable to get another reader’s take on an interesting book like this.

Comment by John Self

John Self: Glad to have you stumble across my blog. Personally, I greatly enjoy reading people’s opinions and interpretations of books I’ve already read – much more than I like reading about other’s views on books I’ve yet to read. It’s great getting different perspectives.

I really enjoyed The Fifth Child until I read Ben, In the World, because the follow up book really destroyed a lot of the hypothesis that had drawn me to this book. In the follow up, Lessing is much more straight forward with what’s happening and I admit I preferred the room for interpretation.

Comment by bookchronicle

[…] July 13, 2008 My partner read Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child last week and I am thrilled. It is the first book ever that I have suggested to him that he’s […]

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[…] had won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, I quickly delved into two of her shorter pieces: The Fifth Child and the sequel Ben, In the World. Always with the intention on reading more by Lessing, the year […]

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