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 give up their idealist hopes of integrating Ben into family life. The novel’s ambiguity about which actions are idealistic and which are pragmatic shows the difficulty of knowing, in the moment, what’s right. Despite this ambiguity, though, Lessing seems to ultimately imply that David’s approach—basing actions on a wide view of a situation—leads to better results.
At the beginning of the book, Harriet and David are two very practical people who find they have a common impractical desire between them: to raise a large family with as many as ten children. They marry quickly and buy a big, expensive home that they can only hope to afford if they work for at least two years before having children. While this plan may seem pragmatic, David and Harriet display their underlying idealism when Harriet quickly becomes pregnant—instead of downsizing, they decide they’ll “manage somehow,” despite the mortgage being beyond them. Almost immediately, they diverge from the pragmatic plan they have set out for themselves, believing naively that everything will work out because they are so happy together.
In this moment, Lessing also begins to distinguish between Harriet and David’s diverging pragmatism. While David is committed to working as much as possible to get the family back on track financially, Harriet seems content to accept financial help from David’s father and help with childcare from her mother. After Ben is born, these differences between Harriet and David’s ideas of pragmatism become even more pronounced. When Ben sprains his brother’s arm, kills both a small dog and a cat, and then makes gestures toward strangling a larger dog, David’s stepfather Frederick insists that there is no other choice than to put Ben in an institution because of the danger he poses to others. This is a decision based solely on pragmatism: he believes it is better to save the other children than to save only one. Harriet, still hoping that her child might be saved, is unable to accept this decision, and so David takes charge of arranging an institution to take Ben. When a car comes to take Ben away, it is David who has packed his bags and who wrestles him into the vehicle, taking the advice of the more practical members of their extended family.
Harriet and David experience the ideal family environment after Ben is taken away, enjoying their children in a way they’ve been unable to before. Harriet, however, is troubled by the idea of how Ben might be treated in the institution and she insists on visiting him. When she arrives, she finds Ben naked but for a straightjacket on a urine-soaked cot, drugged and unconscious. It becomes clear to her that he will die quickly in this place, and she decides to bring him home. Though she finds this choice pragmatic (due to her narrow view, which considers only Ben’s needs), David considers this to be an idealistic decision based on a fantasy that Ben can be rehabilitated and coming at the expense of every other member of the family.
Once Ben returns home, chaos reigns and the family is ripped apart. With Harriet’s version of pragmatism beating out David’s, each of the other children becomes consumed by fear and frustration at Ben and, one by one, they leave the house. Meanwhile, though Harriet maintains her hope that Ben might find a way of existing in the world with compassion and purpose, Ben remains indifferent to the family, falling into the company of a street gang. This tragic ending implies that, though neither the choice to leave Ben in the institution nor the choice to bring him home would have been ideal, pragmatism that takes into account the sum total of factors in a situation, rather than narrowly focusing on one aspect, would have had better results.
Idealism vs. Pragmatism ThemeTracker
Idealism vs. Pragmatism 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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”