Doris Lessing appears to me this writer who wants to make a point with her fiction. The Fifth Child has the same aim. A novella coming in at 133 pages, this wee book is touted as horror by The New York Times Book Review. But is it? I mean, Lessing’s work is always terse and typically ends up with someone dead or wandering off into the mists like a newly returned gorilla. But is that a horror story?
Harriet and David are two weirdos for their time. It’s the 1960s, but these two think that by carefully controlling themselves and abstaining from fun, they can make the perfect family. Eight children is the plan post-marriage, so the newlyweds buy a house they absolutely cannot afford. David’s father and step-mother begin footing the bill, while David’s mother and step-father shake their heads at what a careless, thoughtless son they have.
Harriet’s first pregnancy comes too soon. She’d planned to work for a few years to put aside some money for their future brood, but bang, one lazy Saturday in bed and she’s with child. Although it’s the 1960s, both Harriet and David (they’re like one person, they’re so similar) do not believe in the Pill. It’s no good to go around screwing with nature! Then comes another baby and another and another. Four children is too much for Harriet to handle, so her mother moves in. And when pregnancy #5 is made known, Harriet’s mother and David’s mother both shake their heads. What an irresponsible couple, how they so love to rely on the labor and money of others!
Throughout the fifth pregnancy, Harriet is aware that it feels like her fetus, even at three months along, is trying to bust its way out. Doctors shrug and decide maybe they’re off a bit with the due date, but experienced Harriet knows something is weird. She’s so restless that she takes to running to keep this horrible uterine creature at bay, but only finds peace when she eats sedatives.
New baby Ben arrives at eight months and weighs eleven pounds. He’s a malicious beast baby, purposefully abusing Harriet’s nipples when he breastfeeds and wailing like a troll, which can be heard throughout the massive house. The other children have taken to locking their bedroom doors from the inside at night.
Ben has plenty of weird qualities, like eating raw chicken and crazy strength, but Harriet wants to force this kid into familial citizenship, even as its members pull apart until David separates himself off with his “real” children and Harriet sides with Ben. Harriet and David lose themselves as the unit they were.
As a horror story, The Fifth Child fails. I can see how young mothers would be frightened by it — pregnancy is a total crap shoot — but Ben isn’t manipulative enough to convince me he has some ulterior motive or plan. He may break the arm of another child at school or kill all the pets in the house, but those moments are seldom in the arc of his life. And why does he hurt or destroy? No reason presents itself, making the character feel random.
As a discussion generator for a book club, I can’t think of a better work than The Fifth Child. Is Harriet right to defend Ben at the expense of her other children and spouse? Should Ben have been left to die in an asylum to prevent him harming someone in the future? Are the parents simply embarrassed by the challenges their unique son presents, and should he be blamed for “destroying” their happy home?
Lessing suggests Ben may have be the product of some race of people who were long ago wiped out, but a recessive gene brings someone like them back every so often. Or, did Harriet and David bring this “monster” upon themselves by engaging in negative thoughts (something they privately accused Harriet’s sister of when the sister had a baby with Down syndrome). On a more realistic level: should people who cannot afford to have children continue to reproduce at the expense of others? As Ben ages and participates in crime (possibly rape), are his parents responsible for his actions because they didn’t let him die when they had the chance?
There are loads of hot-button issues here: socialism, eugenics, elitism, mental health, nurture/nature, doctors failing to listen to female patients, parental blame (I’m reminded of the parents of school shooters and how society accuses them of raising monsters, though Lessing’s book was published ten years before Columbine).
Ultimately, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing raises engaging questions about what responsibility we each have to others, and at what cost, and parental complicity. For those reasons, the novella functions more like an enjoyable fictional case study around which to discuss social philosophy.