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The Fifth Child

The Fifth Child Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Iran, where her father was a clerk at the Imperial Bank of Persia. Soon after, her family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to farm. Though her father had hoped to make his fortune there, the experiment failed and the family remained poor. She went first to an all-girls Roman Catholic convent school before continuing her own education privately at age 13. She married twice, had three children, divorced twice, and decided to move to London with only her third son and her unpublished first manuscript, The Grass is Singing, all before she turned 30. In London, she became involved in communist, anti-racist and anti-nuclear activism, resulting in her being placed under surveillance by the British Intelligence Services for 20 years. Her most famous book, considered a feminist classic, The Golden Notebook, explores mental and societal breakdown, socialism, anti-war efforts and the women’s liberation movement, hallmarks of her life reflected in her body of work. By the time of her death, Lessing had written more than 50 books and been awarded nearly every major literary prize in Europe, including a Nobel Prize in Literature, though she declined Damehood because of her problematic relationship to the British Empire. She died in 2013 at the age of 94.
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Historical Context of The Fifth Child

Lessing sets her book in the 1960s, a moment when the regimented social order of the 1950s was giving way to a period in which Europe and the Americas were in the grips of left-wing political movements that sought to upend all kinds of norms. Harriet and David meet in 1965, just as the Sexual Revolution is gaining speed, making it all the more clear that Harriet, a virgin who is skeptical of the pill and wants to stay at home with a large family, aligns much more clearly with 50s ideals than with the countercultural changes of her era. It’s worth noting that, at a time when recreational drug use, civil rights, socialism and the controversy of nuclear technology filled the headlines, none of these topics is mentioned by the Lovatts in the novel. It’s as though they are shutting themselves off from the real world in their removed mansion in the country. Despite the absence of political turmoil from the book, Lessing acknowledges that the mass suffering she observed in refugee camps in Pakistan, Mozambique, Eritrea, Tigre and others had perhaps informed the anguish readers find in the characters.

Other Books Related to The Fifth Child

Twelve years after the publication of The Fifth Child, Lessing published a sequel called Ben, in the World, following Ben into adulthood, absent of the Lovatt home. Both books’ portrayals of Ben are indebted to radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who believed psychological breakthroughs could be achieved through breakdowns and that schizophrenia is a sane response to an insane world, forming a rather romanticized notion of madness. Lessing also maintained a close friendship and romantic relationship with Clancy Sigal, an American writer, and both created facsimilies of the other in their autobiographical fiction. Though most famously told through film, critics have identified Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967) as an influence on Lessing’s novel, drawing comparisons between Harriet and Rosemary’s difficult pregnancies.
Key Facts about The Fifth Child
  • Full Title: The Fifth Child
  • When Written: 1980s
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1988
  • Literary Period: Feminist
  • Genre: Gothic
  • Setting: A small town within commuting distance of London
  • Climax:  Harriet retrieves Ben from the institution where he’s been abandoned and the family’s contentment is immediately dashed.
  • Antagonist: Ben
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient, free indirect discourse

Extra Credit for The Fifth Child

You can never go home. Doris Lessing was outspoken about her politics throughout her life, causing her to be barred from entering Rhodesia and South Africa for her resistance to white minority rule.

Fit mother. When Lessing moved to London, she took with her only her youngest son. She saw this not as an act of abandonment of her other children, but rather as an act of bravery in fulfilling her own dreams.