Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child: Humanity’s Unknowable Underbelly

Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child is horror at a primal, subhuman level. It tells the story of what happens when the human id—the dark, incomprehensible and unbridled side of human nature—takes shape and form and enters our lives.

Harriet and David Lovatt, the two halves of an unusually traditional and conservative couple gets married shortly after they meet, and to everyone’s surprise, buys a massive Victorian house with plans to have up to eight children. The moment they move in, they begin having children. Their large home, full of their four children, quickly becomes the hub for their extended family. They, having previously been mocked for their strict adherence to archaic views , becomes the pinnacle of what a family and a couple should look like. This shining exterior, however, belies a mounting tension: Harriet’s sister Sarah has a Down’s syndrome child, Molly, and Dorothy, Harriet’s mother and a widow, starts to feel the strain of having to take care of Molly on top of Harriet’s four children. Meanwhile, Harriet and David never really had the money to support the house and their family; they are only able to pull their dream off because of David’s multiple jobs and his rich father’s regular contributions. Their family urges them to slow down, to stop having children so regularly.

The couple, especially Harriet, display an almost obsessive, fearful awareness of how perfect their life is. This obsession is edged with possession: “he was making love with a deliberate, concentrated intensity… taking possession of the future in her” and with cautious fragility: “Often, when David and Harriet lay face to face, it seemed that doors in their breasts flew open, and what poured out was an intensity of relief, of thankfulness, that still astonished them both… It had been hard preserving their belief in themselves when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them”. This passage is haunting, foreshadowing the horrors to come. Their relief, shock and thankfulness speaks of undeserved blessings—a good streak that may be but a temporary blessing. “Condemn” not only speaks of disapproval, it speaks of a sentence, of a punishment—an apt word to summarise their experience with Ben later on.

When Ben comes along, he is the living antithesis to the normalised narratives of home, family and even humanity itself (what makes a successful human). He is a literal troll, a subhuman. He first nearly kills Harriet while in her womb: “she could not sleep or rest because of the energy of the foetus, which seemed to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach”. She begins to hate it, imagining it to be out to get her: “If a dose of some sedative kept the enemy—so she now thought of this savage thing inside her…”. In contrast with the wholesome family life she so desperately builds, Ben is seen as “the enemy”. This alludes to the biblical portrayal of “the enemy”, who comes “only to steal, kill and destroy”. Although it later turns out that Ben is so removed from humanity he is apathetic to the well-being or otherwise of his mother, stealing, killing and destroying everything the couple have built is exactly what he does.

The novel is rife with one pervading question: “Why?”—what caused Ben, why the couple, Harriet in particular, are cursed with such an affliction. It also presents multiple possible reasons:

  1. Ben as punishment for their defiance.

Long before his arrival, their extended family express disapproval at their lavish nuclear family and at the couple’s tendency to ignore the harsh realities of the 1960s and live in their eighteenth-century world. Their cousin remarks: “you’ve had four children in six years”, to which Harriet replies, “A criminal… that’s what I am”. Despite their home being a hub and sanctuary for the family, they drain Harriet’s mother of her energy and time and constantly require financial aid from David’s father—surely such selfish lavishness deserves an equally measureless “sentence”. Their denial of their parasitic tendencies further lends weight to their misdeeds: “David did not like this, he flushed and would not look at anyone”.

When Ben comes, he destroys at once all the pillars of their borrowed happiness: their love, sex life (they are terrified of having sex, lest another Ben be created), children, relatives, home and the future they hope to build. The correlation between what they have built and what he destroys is uncannily exact.

2. He is the juxtaposition and antithesis to “normal” human life

Harriet and David are portrayed from the beginning to be extremely adamant about the narratives defining what makes a successful person and a good life. For Harriet, “many of her friends had divorced parents, led adventitious and haphazard lives, and tended to be, as it is put, disturbed. Harriet was not disturbed, and had always known what she wanted… she did not appear to be more eccentric than she had to be”. On the other hand, David “saw his future as something he must aim for and protect. His wife must be like him in this: that she knew where happiness lay and how to keep it… what he was working for was a home”.

Their narratives about success are strict, linear and traditional—something built by generations of humanity seeking a semblance of “happiness”. In almost literal contrast to their sacred values, Ben is barely even a human at all. While their other children embody the pinnacle of successful family life: “the comical soft little face, with soft blue eyes”, Ben is the opposite, the id to their superego. When he is born, “He was muscular, yellowish long… he had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown. His hair grew in an unusual pattern from the double crown where started a wedge or triangle that came low on the forehead, the hair lying forward in a thick yellowish stubble… his hands were thick and heavy, with pads of muscle in his palms. He opened his eyes… They were focussed green-yellow eyes, like lumps of soapstone”.

In response to the couple’s abnormally strong traditionalism, Ben balances out their extremity. They are beyond proper and rigid; he does not even comprehend these concepts. They are forcefully civilised and proud; he is monstrous and without even the whisper of empathy. Harriet and David, unrealistic dreamers, are all superego, denying the ego to balance them out— ignoring the reasoning voices of their families. Almost in reproach, Ben embodies the id, as a reminder, an embodiment of the unavoidability of balance. Ben as a response is as extreme as Harriet and David’s extravagance is.

This novel appears to comment that balance is unavoidable. That if one seeks only an unbalanced lifestyle, that lifestyle itself will spit out a way to put things back in order.

3. Ben as a throwback to the past

The novel ends on an open note: Ben takes up with a group of criminal youths and the rest of the Lovatt family sell the house and move out. Ben shows no interest in following the family, instead choosing to run wild on the streets with his gang.

The gang, outcast and counter-cultural, represent to Harriet another group of Ben’s possible kind: “Harriet watched Ben with his followers and tried to imagine him among a group of his own kind, squatting in the mouth of a cave around roaring flames. Or a settlement of huts in a thick forest? No, Ben’s people were at home under the earth, she was sure, deep underground in black caverns lit by torches—that was more like it. Probably those peculiar eyes of his were adapted for quite different conditions of light”. In contrast to the humanness of the family life the Lovatt couple builds, Ben is its non-human counterweight. Their narrative—that a big family, proper jobs, strict behavioural norms makes a human human—is contrasted with the non-human Ben. He represents the pre-evolution, pre-civilisation barbarism as symbolised by mythical beings. Indeed, the criminals he choose as his “gang” are frowned upon by others because of their refusal to adhere to human civilisation’s codes of conduct.

All in all, Ben is a fascinating thought experiment, on what happens when life retaliates to the confines and structures it is placed in—resulting in an uncontrollable monster that refuses to comprehend or be comprehended. This sentiment is most poignantly summarised when Harriet catches Ben unawares, lonely in his extraordinary existence: “From the high skylight fell a distorted rectangle of light, and in it stood Ben, staring up at dim sunlight. She could not make out what he wanted, what he felt… He heard her and then she saw the Ben that this life he had to lead kept subdued: in one leap he had reached the dark at the edge of the eaves and vanished. All she could see was the obscurities of an attic that seemed boundless… where he had gone back into a far-away past that did not know human beings”. He is the distortion, the dark underbelly of normal human life, kept distant by its refusal and inability to conform—an unknowable creature residing in us, in our homes—that we sometimes get a glimpse of, but mostly go about our lives unaware of its existence.

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