The Lovatts, David and Harriet, meet at a party in London in the 1960s, and it is love at first sight. They marry, establish a home, continue their careers, and produce four children in short order. Their happily ordinary life is thrown into turmoil with the birth of their fifth child, Ben. The Fifth Child
, a novel by British author Doris Lessing, was published in 1988 and spawned a sequel, Ben, in the World
, in 2000. The Fifth Child
, while chronicling the plight of a family beset with conflict upon the birth of a child who is violently angry and does not conform to the traditional family structure that everyone else adheres to, it becomes more than that. The short novel also serves as a metaphor
for society at large as the Lovatt family, particularly parents Harriet and David, attempt to hold on to their ideal view of life in the context of the particular world in which they are raising their four other children.
The story opens at an office party that neither David, an architect, nor Harriet, who works in sales, is enjoying. The event is a noisy affair, and they are drawn together by their dislike for it. It does not take long for them to decide that they are of one mind, and they soon decide to marry. They have a shared desire to have a large family. They buy a large house and are excited by the prospect of filling its rooms with children. Upon the conception of their first child, they turn to their parents for support. David’s parents are divorced, and Harriet’s mother is a widow. David and Harriet have four children, Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul, relatively quickly. Their families gather for summers and other holiday celebrations, and life goes on very smoothly for all. When Harriet becomes pregnant for a fifth time, however, life for the family takes a dramatic turn.
This pregnancy is different from her others. Unlike her earlier ones, this time she is in much pain throughout. The usual family celebrations are unable to be held. When the child, whom they name Ben, is born everything about him seems off-putting to those around him. He is violent virtually all of the time. The author describes Ben as a brute, beast, goblin, and an alien among other terms. Whether he is evil, supernatural, or just somehow disturbed, he clearly poses a threat, even eventually killing a dog and a cat. In spite of his destructive nature, Ben is given the same love and nurturing as all of his brothers and sisters. No matter what the attention he is given, Ben is unable to relate to or connect with others. Although Harriet is not supportive of the decision, Ben is ultimately placed in an institution. This temporarily restores happiness for the family, but it is short lived. Harriet misses Ben no matter what effect on the family structure he might have had. She brings him home from the institution. David does not agree with this choice, but Harriet feels that letting him remain there will lead to only a painful future for the boy and eventually his death.
Over time, Ben’s siblings try to get used to having him home again, and Ben tries to adjust to being among them. To some extent, he becomes part of the family. He communicates more effectively and tries to coexist with his brothers and sisters. The others, though, are not able to fully acclimate to his return, and they find ways to take their leave, going to live with their grandparents or to boarding school. Harriet’s life changes significantly, as she becomes Ben’s caretaker more and more. David grows more distant and isolated, and any attempts to rekindle romance or a semblance of the life he and Harriet once shared fail. Ben starts school and acquires some friends with whom he begins spending much time, easing some of the tension on the family.
Time goes by and Ben begins secondary school. By this time, the former life that the family had known no longer exists. Ben takes up with a group of teenage boys who are also dysfunctional with respect to school. They take to the streets and to living off of Harriet, her long held dream and image of family life now a distant memory. David continues to try to get Harriet to leave the house and forget their youthful vision of a large, united family. There is an irony
to her ultimate acceptance of the inevitable. She sees that Ben will become fully engulfed by the gang with which he spends his time, and that perhaps, having so much in common with them, he will have in some form the type of extended family for which she has always yearned.