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 book ultimately rules in favor of nontraditional support networks, focusing on the harm that can be done by traditional familial influence.
While the house that David and Harriet purchased was initially a hub of familial warmth and camaraderie for even the extended family, that atmosphere devolves quickly after the birth of Harriet and David’s fifth child, the troubled Ben. Though skeptical of Harriet and David’s decision-making from the start, the extended family is willing to put those judgments aside and help (both financially and through childcare) when all is going well. However, they disperse when Ben brings trouble, which suggests that the support of an extended family is unreliable
Lessing doesn’t suggest that nuclear family is much more stable or helpful. For instance, Harriet’s attempts at connecting with Ben fail from the start. When the child looks at her, she sees no recognition or affection returned to her, which casts suspicion on the traditional notion that the nuclear family is defined by an unshakeable bond. The faultlines of the nuclear family are also echoed in David’s divorced parents, as well as in the sharply different paths David and his sister take. This shows that the nuclear family—an unstable and even unnatural construction—can affect individuals profoundly when it dissolves.
In the vein of family’s effect on the individual, Lessing also considers whether Ben’s infancy might have been less volatile if the extended family hadn’t been so judgmental of David and Harriet for having become pregnant for a fifth time without the resources to support another child. Despite the childcare and financial support provided by the extended family, their belief that having a fifth child was a mistake creates a toxic environment. This atmosphere begins the dissolution of their tight familial bonds and poisons the family’s ability to embrace Ben as they have the siblings who preceded him.
Instead of advocating for nuclear and extended family, Lessing shows the strength of nontraditional family that people can construct for themselves. Ben, despite his inability to connect with his nuclear family, constructs meaningful relationships with people outside the family. He first attaches himself to a young man named John, who becomes almost a nanny to Ben. Ben also becomes a sort of “mascot” for John’s group of friends, taking joy in being ordered around and kidded by them. This shows that it’s possible to forge a familial-type bond with Ben, which raises the question of what support or acceptance might be lacking in his biological family.
After John goes away to school, Ben builds a group of friends at his secondary school. Though Harriet at first believes the other boys’ acceptance of Ben must be some sort of charity, it soon becomes clear that Ben is actually the leader of this gang and that the group is revered by the rest of the school. Ben’s acceptance with this group again makes the point that, among a group of like-minded individuals, attachment is possible for him.
Despite the fact that this should be clear to Ben’s immediate family, Harriet remains misguided at the end of the book. While watching Ben spend time with his friends, she imagines what the rest of his life will be like, wondering if he will always be “searching the faces of the crowd for another of his own kind.” In this, she fails to recognize that he has found an alternative family for himself that is satisfactory to him. Because Ben has been denied the love and support of his nuclear family, he looks for and finds a non-traditional family which can provide those things for him. The Lovatts cannot find a way to love Ben, blinded as they are by their traditional ideals of family that have gone unchallenged for so long, and so Ben, in turn, rejects them, opting to align himself with a community that better fits his own natural way of being.
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families ThemeTracker
Biological Families vs. Nontraditional Families Quotes in The Fifth Child
But they meant to have a lot of children. Both, somewhat defiantly, because of the enormity of their demands on the future, announced they “would not mind” a lot of children. “Even four, or five…” “Or six,” said David. “Or six!” said Harriet, laughing to the point of tears from relief.
She did not realize, as David did, how annoyed these two parents were. Aiming, like all their kind, at an appearance of unconformity, they were in fact the essence of convention, and disliked any manifestation of the spirit of exaggeration, of excess. This house was that.
“You want things both ways. The aristocracy—yes, they can have children like rabbits, and expect to, but they have the money for it. And poor people can have children, and half of them die, and expect to. But people like us, in the middle, we have to be careful about the children we have so we can look after them.”
Happiness. A happy family. The Lovatts were a happy family. It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.
Harriet said to David, privately, that she did not believe was bad luck: Sarah and William’s unhappiness, their quarrelling, had probably attracted the mongol child—yes, yes, of course she knew one shouldn’t call them mongol[…]David disliked this trait of Harriet’s, a fatalism that seemed so at odds with the rest of her. He said he thought this was silly hysterical thinking: Harriet sulked and they had to make up.
And she silently addressed the being crouching in her womb: “Now you shut up or I’ll take another pill.” It seemed to her that it listened and understood.
“Suddenly the little girl found she was alone. She and her brother had lost each other. She wanted to go home. She did not know which way to walk […] She wandered about for a long time, and then she was thirsty again. She bent over a pool wondering if it would be orange juice, but it was water, clear pure forest water […] She bent over the pool […] but she saw something she didn’t expect. It was a girl’s face, and she was looking straight up at her. It was a face she had never seen in her whole life. This strange girl was smiling, but it was a nasty smile, not friendly, and the little girl thought this other girl was going to reach up out of the water and pull her down into it.”
The new baby had of course been offered to everyone to hold, when they asked, but it was painful to see how their faces changed confronting this phenomenon. Ben was always quickly handed back. Harriet came into the kitchen one day and heard her sister Sarah say to a cousin, “That Ben gives me the creeps. He’s like a goblin or a dwarf or something. I’d rather have poor Amy any day.”
“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.”
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.”
“It’s either him or us,” said David to Harriet. He added, his voice full of cold dislike for Ben, “He’s probably just dropped in from Mars. He’s going back to report on what he’s found down here.” He laughed—cruelly, it seemed to Harriet, who was silently taking in the fact—which of course she had half known already—that Ben was not expected to live long in this institution, whatever it was.
“He’s a little child,” she said. “He’s our child.”
“No he’s not,” said David, finally. “Well, he certainly isn’t mine.”
While she was part of the general relief, and could hardly believe she had been able to stand such strain, and for so long, she could not banish Ben from her mind. It was not with love, or even affection, that she thought of him, and she disliked herself for not being able to find one little spark of normal feeling: it was guilt and horror that kept her awake through the nights.
“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.
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.”
David came back to sleep in the connubial room. There was a distance between them. David had made and now kept this distance because Harriet had hurt him so badly: she understood this. Harriet informed him that she was now on the Pill: for both it was a bleak moment, because of everything they had been, had stood for, in the past, which had made it impossible for her to be on the Pill. They had felt it deeply wrong so to tamper with the processes of Nature! Nature—they now reminded themselves they once felt—was at some level or other to be relied upon.
But the last thing before they slept, the other children locked their doors quietly from inside. This meant Harriet could not go to them to see how they were before she went to bed, or if they were sick. She did not like to ask them not to lock their doors, nor make a big thing of it by calling in a locksmith and having special locks fitted, openable from the outside by an adult with a key. The business of the children locking themselves in made her feel excluded, forever shut out and repudiated by them. Sometimes she went softly to one of their doors and whispered to be let in, and she was admitted, and there was a little festival of kisses and hugs—but they were thinking of Ben, who might come in…and several times he did arrive silently in the door way and stare in at the scene, which he could not understand.
“You think Ben is a throwback?” enquired Dr. Gilly gravely. She sounded as if quite prepared to entertain the idea.
“It seems to me obvious,” said Harriet.
Another silence, and Dr. Gilly examined her well-kept hands. She sighed. Then she looked up and met Harriet’s eyes with “If that is so, then what do you expect me to do about it?”
Harriet insisted, “I want it said. I want it recognized. I just can’t stand it never being said.”
“Can’t you see that it is simply outside my competence? If it is true, that is? Do you want me to give you a letter to the zoo? ‘Put this child in a cage’? Or hand him over to science?”
“We are being punished, that’s all.”
“What for?” he demanded, already on guard because there was a tone in her voice he hated.
“For presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because we decided we would be.”
“Rubbish,” he said. Angry: this Harriet made him angry. “It was chance. Anyone could have got Ben. It was a chance gene, that’s all.”
“I don’t think so,” she stubbornly held on. “We were going to be happy! No one else is, or I never seem to meet them, but we were going to be. And so down came the thunderbolt.”
These days the local newspapers were full of news of muggings, hold-ups, break-ins. Sometimes his gang, Ben among them, did not come into the Lovatt’s house for a whole day, two days, three.
He was not someone easily overlooked…and yet why did she say that? Everyone in authority had not been seeing Ben ever since he was born…When she saw him on television in that crowd, he had worn a jacket with its collar up, and a scarf, and was like a younger brother, perhaps of Derek. He seemed a stout schoolboy. Had he put on those clothes to disguise himself? Did that mean that he knew how he looked. How did he see himself?
Would people always refuse to see him, to recognize what he was?