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 is left to find community and acceptance elsewhere. Through the story of the family’s implosion and Ben’s pursuit of familial connection outside of the family, the novel posits that strict conformity creates the conditions under which people become outcast. While this can be damaging to those who are made to feel different or inferior, however, Lessing demonstrates that communities of outcasts can still be a powerful refuge for those who aren’t accepted elsewhere.
Harriet and David might have known better than to judge their son for being different; in the beginning of the book, they themselves are ostracized for their traditional values, which are out of vogue in the raucous ‘60s. David is fiercely conservative and old-fashioned, and Harriet is discarded by a series of friends for being a virgin, which made her a misfit. When David and Harriet meet at an office party, they believe immediately that they were made for each other, and they mitigate their social otherness by forming a family. However, their experience of being judged and othered does not make them more compassionate towards those with differing perspectives, values, or capabilities—instead, it ends up reinforcing their traditional values and closing them off to the idea that people who are different than they are should be accepted and valued.
This becomes most obvious when their fifth child, Ben, is born. Immediately, Harriet and David feel unable to connect with—or even love—this child, whom they deem a “throwback,” “goblin,” “troll,” and “dwarf.” Ben disrupts the traditional family life to which Harriet and David feel entitled, and instead of striving to accommodate Ben’s needs and shifting their family expectations to account for his presence, Harriet insists that they try to change Ben, while David believes that they should institutionalize him to preserve the family dynamic that existed before he was born. To his conformist, suburban family, Ben represents an uncivilized streak in the human species that must be tamed or excluded from modern family life and society.
Ben’s family harms Ben because they can’t accept his differences, but other characters harm Ben by only accepting him under the pretense that he has no differences. Throughout the book Ben’s doctor gaslights Harriet, pretending that there is nothing unusual about the boy and suggesting that instead the fault lies in Harriet’s hysterical, paranoid behavior. Ben’s teachers, too, act as though there is nothing extraordinary about him, despite his inability to retain any knowledge from classroom lessons. In refusing to acknowledge his disability and otherness, Ben’s doctor and teachers become delinquent in their efforts to treat him, educate him, and prepare him for life beyond school.
While Ben’s family acknowledges his differences but can’t accept them, and Ben’s doctor and teachers can accept him but not acknowledge his differences, Ben ultimately finds refuge from his otherness among people who can both acknowledge who he is and accept him just that way. For example, Ben’s attachment to his caregiver, John, a mostly unemployed youth, is driven by John’s willingness to roughhouse with Ben, treating him like an active and disobedient puppy. John is playful but firm, ribbing Ben, while also ordering him about. The group of John’s friends (outsiders themselves) accept Ben by adopting the same tone with Ben, calling him teasing but affectionate names like Dopey, Dwarf and Hobbit. Ben enjoys the way this indicates that he is a part of the group. Later, in secondary school, Ben also finds satisfying companionship with a group of other outcasts, taking on the role of leader and turning the Lovatt home into a sort of clubhouse for them. These relationships show that Ben is capable of family-like bonds when he is accepted and understood, contrary to the way his family rejects him for his otherness. Ben’s burgeoning friendships outside of his family suggest that, if his family could only accept his differences, perhaps they, too, could have connected with him and made him part of the family.
Conformity and Otherness ThemeTracker
Conformity and Otherness Quotes in The Fifth Child
She knew his look of watchful apartness mirrored her own. She judged his humorous air to be an effort. He was making similar mental comments about her: she seemed to dislike these occasions as much as he did. Both had found out who the other was.
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.”
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.”
“A real little wrestler,” said Dr. Brett. “He came out fighting the whole world.”
Harriet found herself thinking, I wonder what the mother would look like, the one who would welcome this—alien.
“All right, all right—the genes have come up with something special this time.”
“But what, that’s the point,” said Harriet. “What is he?”
The other three said nothing—or, rather, said by their silence that they would rather not face the implications of 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.”
He watched the children, particularly Luke and Helen, all the time. He studied how they moved, sat down, stood up; copied how they ate. He had understood that these two, the older ones, were more socially accomplished than Jane; and he ignored Paul altogether. When the children watched television, he squatted near them and looked from the screen to their faces, for he needed to know what reactions were appropriate. If they laughed, then, a moment later, he contributed a loud, hard, unnatural-sounding laugh.
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.
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?”
Paul was even more difficult than Ben. But he was a normal “disturbed” child, not an alien.
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?