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 nature creates some problems that cannot be explained or solved, the trajectories of the family’s older children demonstrate that nurture is still crucial, particularly for children who are naturally better adjusted.
David and Harriet’s fifth child, Ben, is different from his happy and well-adjusted older siblings, and the novel attempts to untangle why Ben is the way he is. David and Harriet’s first four children are compassionate, well-behaved, and content with their lives, which reflects well on the way they’ve been parented. However, Ben—who was raised in the same environment—seems to lack an essential empathy, killing a dog, a cat, and inflicting pain on his siblings and caregivers with little remorse. The glaring difference between Ben’s character and that of his siblings raises the possibility that Harriet and David have had little effect; perhaps Ben is naturally troubled and his siblings are naturally good. Further suggesting that Ben’s personality might be a product of nature, Lessing demonstrates that violence and discontentment have plagued him since he was in the womb—Harriet’s pregnancy was a difficult one, as she was in constant pain from being pummeled from the inside.
However, Lessing does hint at familial circumstances that have soured since the births of their first four children, which leaves open the possibility that Ben’s environment shaped him, even if subtly. By the time Ben is born (unplanned), some animosity has developed among the extended family who are increasingly burdened (in the form of finances and childcare) by the growing brood. Since the extended family is so involved in the lives of Harriet and David’s children, it’s possible that this discontent has infected Ben or made him feel unwanted, perhaps through his receiving more fraught care than the other children had. Despite this, Ben’s sweet siblings and the longstanding nature of his problems point readers to the conclusion that Ben’s problems are likely caused more by nature than by his family environment.
Though Lessing seems to favor the explanation that nature is more responsible for Ben’s difficulties than nurture, she does not dismiss the importance of nurture to raising healthy and happy children. The stress of Ben’s threatening presence in the house means that Harriet gives much of her time and attention to only Ben, trying in vain to nurture away his issues. Though her attempts to nurture Ben fail to change him, her resulting inattention to her other children affects them deeply. David and Harriet’s fourth child, Paul, is the child that suffers the most. Born sweet and good-natured, he is deprived of his mother’s love early on when Harriet turns her attention to her difficult pregnancy and then to the volatile child that results. Paul develops emotional “disturbances” because of this imbalance in attention, but not even his problems attract Harriet’s attention—they’re often relegated to the category of “normal,” which means they receive less attention than Ben’s issues.
Even the children who are less affected by Harriet’s inattention become disillusioned by family life. By the end of the novel, all of the children but Ben have left David and Harriet’s home, opting to live with their grandparents or attend boarding school to escape a stressful familial environment. Meanwhile, Ben—the recipient of the majority of Harriet’s care and attention—is on the cusp of being subsumed by a street gang.
David and Harriet have lavished attention on their naturally troubled child but have failed to change him, while their failure to nurture their other four children has unintentionally overcome the good natures they were born with, destroying their family. By nurturing only one child, they end up isolating their other children and pushing all of them away. This irony encapsulates Lessing’s dark view of nature and nurture: while nature can doom a troubled child, nature can’t necessarily save a sweet one, so it’s best to nurture children strategically.
Nature vs. Nurture ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Nurture Quotes in The Fifth Child
“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.
“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.
One early morning, something took Harriet quickly out of her bed into the baby’s room, and there she saw Ben balanced on the window-sill. It was high—heaven only knew how he had got up there. The window was open. In a moment he would have fallen out of it. Harriet was thinking, What a pity I came in…and refused to be shocked at herself.
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.
“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?”
Paul was even more difficult than Ben. But he was a normal “disturbed” child, not an alien.
“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.”