The Fifth Child

by

Doris Lessing

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The Fifth Child: Pages 74 – 96 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A few days later, Frederick calls to say that a place has been found and a car will come for Ben the next morning. Harriet realizes that David has been working to arrange this privately, David says that Ben “has probably just dropped in from Mars. He’s going back to report on what he’s found down here.” Harriet realizes that Ben is not expected to live long once he gets to the institution and admonishes David, saying that Ben is their child. David denies that Ben is his. David and Harriet observe the children playing in the backyard and note how far they’ve come from their wild, free youths.
Harriet, who has kept several secrets from Ben at this point, realizes that David has also been keeping secrets from her. She is disturbed by the way in which David minimizes Ben’s departure from the house by painting Ben as alien to them and she is horrified when David coldly fails to acknowledge both the fate they’re committing their child to, as well the child’s origin. 
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In the morning, a black van shows up. David loads the bags he’s packed for Ben into the car and then deposits Ben in the car, too. They hear Ben’s screams as the car pulls away, and David assures Harriet they had no choice. Harriet weeps with shock, relief, and gratitude. When the children arrive home from school, they’re told Ben is gone and they express joyful relief. At dinner, Jane asks if her parents will send the other children away, too. Luke assures Jane that Ben was sent away because he wasn’t really one of them.
It is important that Ben, who has tried to run away from the family of his own accord, violently rejects being placed into someone else’s custody. His rejection of this alternative life is not a solution for him, so much as a selfish gesture on the part of the family. Harriet feels conflicted—she’s happy to be rid of him but still guilty. While the children are happy to find Ben gone, they also become aware of the possibility that, if they misbehave, they may suffer the same fate. Luke, the oldest and most aware, however, shows that he, too, could tell there was something fundamentally different about Ben.
Themes
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Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
The family thrives in Ben’s absence, but Harriet can’t distract herself from thinking about how Ben is prisoner somewhere and she is overcome with guilt and horror. One morning she wakes up and says that she must visit Ben. David tells her not to, but Harriet phones Molly and convinces her to share the address. Harriet drives the five hours to the institution. She waits a long time for a girl to come to the front desk, and Harriet realizes that no one visits their children here. While she waits for the girl to retrieve a manager, Harriet hears high screams coming from the wards. Finally, a young man in a dirty lab coat emerges with the girl. He tells Harriet she can’t visit Ben, but Harriet insists.
Harriet’s idealism remains in conflict with her pragmatism. While it is pragmatic to have Ben out of the house, allowing a more idealist family life to proceed, Harriet can’t divorce herself from her pragmatic responsibility of caring for her son, or from the idealistic vision she holds of having the full family intact, with Ben reformed enough that he can happily spend time with the rest of them. Harriet hopes visiting the institution might prove her worst fears wrong, but instead they are affirmed. 
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Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
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The young man says he’ll retrieve Ben, but Harriet lets herself through the door, wanting to see what it is they’re trying to keep from her. Harriet walks through a ward of malformed children, drugged into sleep or silence. She finds the attendants entering a cell. In a padded room, she sees Ben laying on a foam mattress soaked in urine and smeared with excrement, wearing only a strait-jacket, unconscious. The two attendants carry Ben to a bath and wash him down, before dressing him in a fresh strait-jacket.
Harriet has come all the way to the institution to check up on Ben, and she is unwilling to blind herself to the condition of the other inhabitants of the institution, insisting she get a full picture of what life is life for the children there. The squalid conditions of Ben’s cell are contrasted with the gentle actions of the attendants, a mirror for the conflicted way Harriet herself treats Ben.
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Harriet thinks Ben almost looks normal, unconscious as he is, and Harriet decides to take him home. The young woman asks Harriet what she’ll do with him, saying she’s never seen a child so strong. They advise Harriet on how to get him home and tell her that no one lasts in this job longer than a few weeks. They load Ben into Harriet’s car and the young man gives Harriet some drugs to subdue Ben when he comes to. Harriet asks how long Ben would have survived at the institution and the two attendants tell her he wouldn’t have lived long because of the large amount of drugs it took to subdue such a strong child.
Harriet is somewhat relieved (if also frightened) that the attendants are similarly confused by Ben’s condition. While Harriet pretends that she knows how to handle the situation, the attendants know better how Ben has changed since coming into their custody, and they insist Harriet take tranquilizers with her to control Ben when he regains consciousness. Harriet believes she has done the right thing when the attendants reveal that Ben would not have survived long in their care.
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On the way home, Ben wakes up and screams with fear. When Harriet pulls over and looks at Ben, she feels as though he doesn’t recognize her. She injects him with the sedative and arrives home at night. She carries Ben into the house and faces her family, explaining that the institution was killing Ben, which frightens the children. Harriet takes Ben to his room where he wakes up, screaming. She feeds him and then injects him again.
While Harriet and Ben had, at one point, found some semblance of common ground, that progress has been erased in Ben’s time away. Similarly, while she had managed to reconnect with her other children in Ben’s absence, Ben’s return (and her complicity in it) further distances her from her children.
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Harriet defends herself against David’s anger saying that if he would have seen what they were doing to Ben, David would have saved Ben, too. David counters that he was careful not to see. Harriet says that what’s done is done and David calls out “done” as the key word. The children, tear-stained, refuse to look their mother in the eye. David sleeps in another bedroom.
David’s admission that he willfully avoided thinking about the pragmatics of his son’s existence in the institution show his own commitment to idealism, even as he criticizes Harriet’s idealist insistence on keeping Ben a part of family life. The rift between David and Harriet grows a great distance here.
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Harriet repeats the cycle of feeding and sedating Ben. She tries to reassure Ben that he is home and safe and that if he behaves she will take off the strait-jacket. He struggles and Harriet sees that the police have come to the house because of the disturbance. David sends them away. When the children are due home, Harriet, again, asks Ben to quiet down, and exhausted, he complies. She bathes him and threatens to put the strait-jacket back on him if he misbehaves, realizing that she must use fear to control Ben. Finally it seems as though Ben recognizes her. Harriet remains with Ben that night, feeling as though she is shielding the rest of the family from him as she reteaches him all the social skills he lost in the institution, but the family feels as though she has chosen Ben over them.
That Harriet resorts to ruling Ben with fear shows how desperate she is to make this situation work. While she would never think to use the same tactics with her other children, she feels she has no other choice but to use this type of discipline with Ben, a concession to his difference, if a cruel one. It is the moment when Harriet gains control that Ben shows some sign of recognition. Harriet again feels persecuted for focusing her attentions on Ben, even if her reason for this is to assimilate him back into the family, something she feels obligated to do.  
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The first time Ben sees David, he hisses, remembering it was David who put him in the van. David doesn’t apologize, now believing that Ben is Harriet’s responsibility, and the other (“real”) children his own. Ben resumes copying the other children and things return to the way they were before Ben left, except for Ben’s distrust of David. Harriet hires a young man named John to come help clean up the garden, and Ben takes a liking to him immediately. John is kind but firm with Ben, bossing him around like a puppy that needs training. Harriet goes to the café where she knows John hangs out with some of his other unemployed friends. She asks if John would be willing to care for Ben during the day until he’s old enough to go to school, and John accepts the offer.
The house is clearly divided at this point. David remains firm that Ben is not his child, though he claims full ownership of the rest of them. While some equilibrium is found over time, Ben holds a grudge against David for sending him away, and Harriet, seeking an alternate solution to their family life, calls upon someone outside the family to provide Ben care. Recognizing that their immediate family falls short of what Ben needs, but that Ben is able to connect with someone who’s not a relation, she allows Ben to begin forming a connection with someone else, hoping it might allow the rest of the family to remain intact.
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John arrives each morning to pick up Ben on his motorbike. Family life is improved if distant. David returns to sleep with Harriet and Harriet begins taking the Pill, indicating a growing lack of trust in Nature. Harriet asks if Dorothy might watch the children so that she and David can have a weekend away together. They go to the countryside. Harriet suggests having more children and David bristles at the idea. Harriet says that another Ben couldn’t happen and David asks if they’re just supposed to forget the children she’s already neglecting.  Harriet suggests that another child might draw the family together. In David’s silence, Harriet recognizes what a bad idea it is. David asks what they should do about Paul, who is damaged by the way he’s been refused attention because of all that his younger brother requires. Harriet hopes he’ll get over it, but David disagrees.
While Ben forms his own bond with John, the rest of the Lovatts attempt to repair their severed ties, but a fair amount of distrust has been seeded into their interactions with one another.  While Harriet had previously been skeptical of the Pill, which is otherwise embraced by the masses, she decides to take it now in the hopes of preventing another unwanted pregnancy. Despite this precaution, Harriet still harbors her idealism in the hope that perhaps another child could be the glue needed to firmly pull the family back together again. Harriet continues to remain blind to Paul’s problems, while David is this time the one who is trying to address them, counter to the way he tried to look away when they abandoned Ben at the institution.  
Themes
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Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
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Some people visit for the summer holidays because Harriet has explained that Ben is hardly ever home. Molly and Frederick do not attend, unable to forgive Harriet for bringing Ben home. Among the guests is Deborah, newly divorced. Ben has become a mascot for John’s group of friends, treating Ben roughly, ordering him about, calling him “Dopey, Dwarfey, Alien Two, Hobbit, and Gremlin.” David picks up extra work, and much of this money goes toward paying for outings for Ben. Ben is moved to a regular bedroom, where they can no longer lock him in for fear of his protest. This causes the other children to lock their own doors, barring Harriet from tucking them in or checking on them. On the rare occasions when Ben observes Harriet tucking the other children in, he doesn’t seem to understand the gesture. Sometimes Harriet wakes to find Ben watching her sleep.
Harriet continues to try to convince the others that the Lovatts are leading an ideal family life, an indication that she, too, wants to believe this. Ben, on the other hand, has found a comfortable place as the little brother of a less traditional family, one that seems inscrutable to Harriet.  Whereas Harriet had tried to act sweetly with Ben, she sees him responding more favorably to rougher treatment. She is unable to see that she could mirror this same behavior to similar effect, and indeed it’s possible that such a shift in her actions would be too little too late. Ben’s freedom in the house continues to hinder her connection to the other children.
Themes
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Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
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