The Fifth Child

by

Doris Lessing

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The Institution Symbol Icon

When the Lovatt family determines that their idyllic family life is threatened by Ben’s violent behaviors, they decide to commit Ben to an institution despite his not having a diagnosis that warrants such an action. Harriet and David know that surrendering Ben to such a place means he will be mistreated, and so Harriet resists this option, but David insists. He would rather put Ben out of mind and focus on the well-being of his four other children than adjust his idealistic vision of family life to include Ben. The institution, then, represents the way “others” are shunned by society when the way their behavior differs from what’s expected of them. While David goes to trouble not to see what is being done to Ben at the institution (both physically by staying home, and emotionally by trying to purge Ben from his thoughts), Harriet is unable to abandon her son in this way, even to the detriment of the other children. Harriet finds the institution where Ben is being held and abused, and brings him back home. Despite Ben returning home, Harriet is still unable to recognize Ben for what he is, trying to transform his personality into one that better matches what she observes in her older children. Harriet makes the mistake of thinking that her two options are either exiling her son or trying to incorporate him into her existing ideal of family life, rather than opening herself up to adjusting the dynamics of the family to embrace Ben’s personality, which is ultimately another form of refusing who he is and pushing him away.

The Institution Quotes in The Fifth Child

The The Fifth Child quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Institution. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Fifth Child published in 1988.
Pages 33 – 74 Quotes

“The trouble is, you get used to hell,” said Harriet. “After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven’t remembered the others for hours. I forgot their supper yesterday. Dorothy went to the pictures, and I came down and found Helen cooking their supper.”

Related Symbols: The Institution
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

She thought it not without significance, as they say, that it was Frederick who said, “Now look here, Harriet, you’ve got to face it, he’s got to go into an institution.”

“Then we have to find a doctor who says he’s abnormal,” said Harriet. “Dr. Brett certainly won’t.”

Related Characters: Harriet Lovatt, Frederick , Dr. Brett
Related Symbols: The Institution
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:
Pages 74 – 96 Quotes

“Shit,” said the young man, meaning her being there.

“Literally,” said Harriet as the door opened on a square room whose walls were of white shiny plastic that was buttoned here and there and looked like fake expensive leather upholstery. On the floor, on a green foam-rubber mattress, lay Ben. He was unconscious. He was naked, inside a strait-jacket. His pale yellow tongue protruded from his mouth. His flesh was dead white, greenish. Everything—walls, the floor, and Ben—was smeared with excrement. A pool of dark yellow urine oozed from the pallet, which was soaked.

Related Characters: Harriet Lovatt, Ben Lovatt
Related Symbols: The Institution
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

She cried out, “Yes, but you didn’t see it, you didn’t see—!”

“I was careful not to see,” he said. “What did you suppose was going to happen? That they were going to turn him into some well-adjusted member of society and then everything would be lovely?” He was jeering at her, but it was because his throat was stiff with tears.

Now they looked at each other, long, hard, seeing everything about each other. She thought, All right, he was right, and I was wrong. But it’s done.

She said aloud, “All right, but it’s done.”

“That’s the mot juste, I think.”

Related Characters: Harriet Lovatt, David Lovatt, Ben Lovatt
Related Symbols: The Institution
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Fifth Child PDF

The Institution Symbol Timeline in The Fifth Child

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Institution appears in The Fifth Child. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Pages 33 – 74
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
...Harriet down in the kitchen to tell them that Ben must be put in an institution. Harriet says that no institution will take him because the doctor says he is normal.  (full context)
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
After seeing this, Frederick tells Harriet that Ben must be put into an institution and Harriet says they’ll have to find a doctor willing to diagnose Ben as abnormal.... (full context)
Pages 74 – 96
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Conformity and Otherness Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Happiness vs. Contentment Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Pages 96 – 133
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Theme Icon
Harriet takes Ben home to talk to him. She asks Ben if he remembers the institution. It’s clear he does and Harriet tells Ben that he’ll need to go back there... (full context)