The Fifth Child


Doris Lessing

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Fifth Child, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Nature vs. Nurture

David and Harriet produce four sweet children in quick succession before birthing a fifth, Ben, who is violently willful and seemingly malevolent from the start. Through an exploration of Ben’s personality, Harriet and David’s parenting tactics, and their extended family dynamics, The Fifth Child asks whether nature or nurture determines a child’s personality and, by extension, whether it’s possible to change a child’s personality through nurturing them. Though Ben’s character seems to suggest that…

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Idealism vs. Pragmatism

Throughout The Fifth Child, Harriet and David struggle to figure out how to be pragmatic in a difficult situation. However, their individual interpretations of what constitutes pragmatic action diverges as the novel progresses: Harriet interprets the magnitude of Ben’s troubles to mean that she should, in the name of pragmatism, focus her energy on him, while David takes a wider view of the situation, thinking it practical to focus on their other children and…

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Conformity and Otherness

The Fifth Child is the story of a conventional, old-fashioned family coming into conflict with a troubled child who does not fit into their expectations for their life. Instead of accepting their child, Ben, on his own terms, Harriet and David try to change him so that he will conform to the family life they desire. However, their quest to change Ben not only fails, but it also rips the family apart, and Ben…

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Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families

The Fifth Child, a story of a family unraveling, ends with that family destroyed. David and Harriet’s once-strong bond has been weakened by the stress of raising their troubled son Ben, and the four older children have all left the house in hopes of finding a more stable home life with their grandparents or at boarding school. Though Lessing provides a fair account of the positive support that a family can provide, the…

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Happiness vs. Contentment

In The Fifth Child, Lessing portrays a family relentlessly pursuing happiness. Harriet and David believe that they are destined for happiness because they have a clear idea of what will make them happy and a plan for how to achieve it: they want to have a large family, so they buy a big house and start having children. Though they believe that they are making concerted progress towards an attainable goal, Harriet and David…

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