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 are actually overreaching and compromising the happiness they already have in the process. The family’s ultimate downfall—which comes after a blissful period that they felt was not enough—suggests that Harriet and David brought about their fate by refusing to be contented with the happiness they had already been afforded, even if that happiness didn’t quite match their dream.
One reason for Harriet and David’s dogged pursuit of a better and better life is that they believe that happiness is something that one earns through morality and concerted effort. As they grow their family inside their cozy home, they imagine their happiness to be a reflection of their righteousness, believing that they have made good choices and that they are admired for the life they have built. In response to their family’s initial judgment of their extravagance, Harriet defends the choices she and David have made by saying, “This is what everyone wants, really, but we’ve been brainwashed out of it. People want to live like this, really.” In this statement, Harriet fails to acknowledge that their life is made possible by her mother’s free childcare and David’s father’s financial largesse—instead of acknowledging that her life is indebted to others, she prefers to subtly imply that the family’s judgment is a product of their jealousy of her life.
In contrast to Harriet and David’s notion that they are good people who are earning their happiness through prudence and effort, Lessing calls attention to the hypocrisy of Harriet and David’s inability to live within their means. Though they claim not to be materialistic, they insist on owning a home that they cannot afford, hosting parties they can’t supply on their own, and birthing children they have neither the time nor the money to care for properly. Instead of seeing their excesses as a sign of bad choices and fraught morality, they see their wonderful life as further evidence that they are on the right track. It seems no coincidence, then, that the troubled child is the final one David and Harriet bring into the world—a clear indication that this child marks some sort of tipping point, where, even with the generous assistance of their parents, David and Harriet can no longer maintain order.
As it’s Harriet and David’s inability to acknowledge the reality of their situation that leads them to overextend themselves, The Fifth Child can be seen as a morality tale in which a family, rather than contenting themselves with the happiness and privilege they already enjoy, ruins themselves in pursuit of the extravagant gratification that they believe they’re owed. Had Harriet and David contented themselves with what they had, rather than always assuming they were owed their ideal of happiness without earning it, they might not have been “punished” for their greed and ambition.
At the end of the book, as their perfect life lies in shambles, Harriet explicitly avows this interpretation of the story, professing her belief that she and David have been punished for assuming they could be happy. However, David has a less moralistic interpretation: he believes that their misfortune has been the product of pure luck (anyone could have had an anomalously troubled child) and poor decision-making (had Harriet not rescued Ben from the institution where they’d admitted him, their family life might not have devolved to the extent it did). In their own way, both David and Harriet are pointing to the dangers of defining happiness too narrowly and failing to adjust expectations in the face of difficult circumstances. Whether this was a cosmic punishment or a banal case of cause and effect, Harriet and David’s arrogant and naïve insistence on always reaching for more has clearly destroyed their chance of being happy at all.
Happiness vs. Contentment ThemeTracker
Happiness vs. Contentment 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.
“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.
“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.”
Harriet found herself thinking, I wonder what the mother would look like, the one who would welcome this—alien.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”