The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

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.

33 comments

  1. I found this one quite interesting, for, as you say, the pretty interesting questions it raises. In some ways it reminded me of We Need to Talk About Kevin in the manner it dealt with parental non-engagement and what that can do to a child’s development.

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    • I’ve heard of the Kevin book but have not read it. I have Sue Klebold’s memoir on my TBR. She was the mother of one of the Columbine school shooters. I was surprised that Lessing was able to get so much into a novella, but she tends to exceed at that length, in my opinion. “To Room 19” is more like a short novella or a very long short story, and that seems to be where Lessing shines. I read the novel The Cleft and found it way too long.

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  2. I have been reading up on Doris Lessing, I’m very easy to sidetrack when I don’t have work to do (and when I do). She wrote a lot of books. My interest in her arises out of the Canopus in Argos SF series, though I’ve read maybe half a dozen of her other books as well. Lessing left her own first two children – to be raised by their father – saying she didn’t want to be a frustrated intellectual like her own mother. But brought up her next child by another father.

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    • Interesting about her leaving her children with their father. I know this is a conversation we had a lot in my creative writing program. We’d get a visiting author every three or four weeks. Frequently, they would tell us (ok, complain) about how becoming a parent had utter ruined them as writers. Personally, I felt like those people likely shouldn’t have been parents and would have complained about their children regardless of their occupation. I’ve read essays and poems and stories by women about women who use motherhood as inspiration and motivation to keep writing. Of course, there were writers who said the refused to marry or have children because it would just ruin their work.

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      • When you think about it, having children is a really odd, counter-productive thing to do. Unless maybe you need free workers for the farm. Or an heir for your noble title. I don’t have either of things, but I’m sure glad I did (have kids).

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        • Mostly, I hear people say, “Well, you don’t want to be alone when you’re old!” I don’t know too many people hanging out with their 80-year-old nana as it is, especially if she’s in a home (assisted living or nursing). Are childless people not allowed to have friends? Neighbors? Relatives they didn’t grow inside their bodies?

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  3. I enjoyed your review of this book – honestly, even if it had been successful, I don’t think it would have been up my street, but it sounds like it addresses a lot of interesting topics and packs a huge amount into a short space.

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    • I think it was successful for me as a book to get me thinking, but not so much as a page turner or a work of entertainment. Lessing always has that vibe about her work, like it’s more educational that entertaining.

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  4. Holy hell this does sound like a horror novel. The horror for me, starts at having more than two kids, which god love em, I can’t understand how people do it. I never want to be outnumbered by children! That’s why my daughter’s only allowed to have playdates with one kid over at a time LOL

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    • You’re so funny! My brother and his wife had kids in pairs: 11 and 10 and then 4 and 2.5 — the pairs keep each other entertained, lol.

      It’s weird because in the novella the main character’s sister-in-law has a baby with Down syndrome and they are all so sorry for her, but once the Fifth Child shows up, all people can talk about is how sweet and nice the girl with DS is. Like, her birth was such a tragedy until these people got perspective. Now, what Lessing is trying to teach us there doesn’t QUITE sink in for me, other than be kind to all people. Unless “people” includes a toddler that will break your arm.

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  5. These people sound crazy – who sets out to have 8 kids regardless of their own healthy/ability/financial situation! (I mean, I know people do but I still think it’s crazy and possibly morally irresponsible to have more children than you can care for. But maybe that’s part of what Lessing was trying to explore.) This reminds me a little bit of We Need to Talk About Kevin which also explores a family where a kid is just a monster and how much fault falls on the parents. The mom in that one is kind of terrible too but these two sound even worse.

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    • When I was teaching at Catholic colleges like the University of Notre Dame and its sister school, Saint Mary’s College, it was really common for my students to be 1 of 8, 9, 10, 11, even 12. Then again, they would have wealthy parents, too. I once met a parent who talked about having to buy a mini school bus because she couldn’t even fit her kids in one van. So, it’s become oddly normal to me.

      There was this excellent split between the husband’s parents, who were providing him everything because they had money, and the wife’s parents, who couldn’t believe how irresponsible the couple was. Perhaps the conversation is about procreation and possibly being punished for our choices? Like I said, good book club pick!

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      • Interesting! Most of the Catholic families I know have pretty average-sized families, although I know large families are encouraged within the Catholic Church. There are definitely Protestant denominations that encourage that too though I’ve honestly never understood the Biblical argument for it. The families I know personally that are larger than average size have made lifestyle decisions to support that. Like living in cheaper areas, making other sacrifices etc. And they’ve all kind of taken it one kid at a time. I just can’t imagine deciding I’m going to have 8 kids and then to keep having children when it’s clearly too much. You’re right, this sounds like an excellent book club pick!

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        • I think it’s easy to be a “good” Catholic when you’re wealthy. Where I come from, people hear that you have four kids and they are SHOCKED! When we moved to South Bend, Indiana, it was weird to have “just” four kids.

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          • There are definite regional differences! For a while we lived in an area where it was super unusual that we hadn’t had kids yet or weren’t immediately planning to (we’d been married about a year and a half) and many families had 5+ kids. Where we are now four would be a large family and anything more would be unusual!

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  6. Great review, this was so interesting to read! Despite all the fascinating questions you say it raises though I have to admit I was disappointed when you mentioned it failed as a horror story. That’s the possibility I was most drawn to from the premise! Sadly the moral quandaries of parenthood don’t appeal to me much at the moment, and I would’ve liked a story more focused on Ben’s “evilness” and motives thereof… I’m glad you found more of interest to focus on here when that proved lacking, though I don’t think it would be the right fit for me.

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    • Ben would do creepy things, like kill the dog or break another kid’s arm, but it wasn’t like I was waiting in horror for him to smother his parents in their sleep or anything. Lessing has a tendency to write fiction that’s supposed to teach you something and not so much to entertain. With her shorter works I find this successful, but I read one of her novels and thought it dragged.

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  7. While this review was interesting this book appeals to me in absolutely no way. Ugh. It did seem like a horror book because each point ye made was one more nail in the coffin of hatred. Glad ye found it to be a worthwhile reading enterprise. And it does seem like a lot was packed into a very short work.
    x The Captain

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    • I’ve read your feelings about children before, so I know where you are coming from. The interesting thing is that it sounds like the parents are just as “evil” as their son Ben, and perhaps the grandparents, too, for supporting this family in their unreasonable goal to procreate beyond their means.

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  8. Oh God, this brings back awful associations… I had to read this in HIGH SCHOOL – what was my teacher thinking?? I have blocked out specifics but I HATED IT. And it’s funny that Cathy brought up We Need to Talk About Kevin, as that is ANOTHER book I absolutely HATE. We read it in my book group years ago, right before I was trying to get pregnant. I couldn’t even finish it. As a matter of fact, from this point on I publicly declare that I refuse to read another book about a “monster” child. I’m DONE. 🙂 See, all the caps – strong feelings!

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  9. This does indeed sound like a great discussion book! I’m actually kind of intrigued given it’s short length, even if it’s not quite horror.

    It does sound like it deals with some hard topics though so I’m a little unsure. Fantastic review!

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    • The story really brings home what a crap shoot life is, and how what we want isn’t guaranteed to us if we simply behave well. One could even make the argument that having more children that a family can care for is behaving poorly. I think it’s worth a read. It’s very human.

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      • If not behaving poorly it’s definitely irresponsible. Does religion factor into this anywhere? I know a lot of religions don’t believe in birth control.

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        • This couple wasn’t religious, and that would have been my first thought, too. It was just a number — eight — that they decided on. But when the 5th child came and made their lives so miserable, everything was brought into focus: this life they created, the choices they made, how poorly they thought of a family member with Down syndrome and now how they’re looking at her more kindly.

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  10. Okay. I confess I read your Sunday Lowdown before I read this post. Therefore, I’m conflicted about my comments. I feel compelled to pick one side or another when it comes to whether this novella in interesting. I don’t have kids, but I can imagine that Harriet must be going through something difficult. The challenge, based on the small pieces of information from your review, is that Harriet seems unlikable while the reader sees Ben as a “monster” without the same loving parental perspective Harriet might have. I guess, without reading it myself, I cannot form an opinion.

    You’re right that this would be good book club fodder. And, probably the only situation in which I’d read it.

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