Friday, November 27, 2015

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

She said to her own children, "Please look after Amy.  Never leave her alone with Ben."
"Would he hurt Amy the way he hurt Mr. McGregor?" asked Jane.
"He killed Mr. McGregor," Luke said fiercely.  "He killed him." 
"And the poor dog," said Helen.  Both children were accusing Harriet.
"Yes," said Harriet, "he might.  That's why we have to watch her all the time."  
Front cover of copy I read
At Rutgers University back in the late '80s I took a class on science fiction, and was assigned to read Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell.  I did not read it.  (As I think I have mentioned before, if we judge a student by his grades, I was a good student--I graduated with High Honors--but if we judge a student by how much important knowledge, how many valuable skills, and what sort of work habits he acquired, I was a terrible student.)  Since then, of course, I have seen Lessing's books on the shelves (the hardcover editions of those Canopus in Argos books are very handsome) and heard about her occasionally in the news (she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2007, died in 2013) and have wondered when and if the time would come when I would give some of her work an honest try. Well, the time is now!  At the West Des Moines Public Library I saw the slender paperback The Fifth Child, a 1989 Viking edition of the 1988 novel, and found the back cover text enticing. It was time to take the plunge.

It is the Swinging Sixties!  David, a thirty-year-old architect, and Harriet, a twenty-something graphic designer working in sales, meet in London and marry.  David and Harriet are "eccentric," considered "oddballs" by their peers because they are not sexually promiscuous (Harriet suffers the contempt of women her age because she is a virgin) and have old-fashioned ideas about family life being the foundation of happiness.  They marry and buy a big Victorian house in the country and set out building a large family.

David and Harriet's house becomes a gathering place for their extended families, where legions of relatives will come for weeks-long visits around Easter and Christmas and during the summer.  Of one picnic outing we are told "The house party filled five cars, children wedged in or on the adults' laps."  David and Harriet are happy, their belief in the primacy of family life vindicated, their massive home a fortress of safety in a world, that of the early '70s, which is sinking into a period of rampant crime and instability.  Of course, sacrifices must be made for family; David spends four hours a day on the train commuting between their haven and London, and brings extra work home; Harriet and David must endure everybody's criticisms of the couple for having too many kids (four in six years); and they become financially and psychologically indebted to those family members who give them money and stay with them for months at a time helping look after the four darling children, little Paul, Jane, Luke and Helen.

Back cover of copy I read
Then comes Harriet's fifth pregnancy. The fetus is unusually large and energetic, causing Harriet such pain she comes to considers it "a monster," and "an enemy." In the face of the skepticism of her doctor and family she insists this pregnancy is "absolutely different" from her earlier babies. Exhausted and irritable, her relationship with David, once so close and warm, is strained ("At night, David heard her moan, or whimper, but now he did not offer comfort, for it seemed that these days she did not find his arms around her any help") while the criticisms leveled by the extended family and from those outside the family are redoubled.      

Harriet's fifth child, named Ben, is born in a hospital, unlike the four previous children.  Harriet declares that he looks like "a goblin," or "a troll," or "an alien."  Ben is very strong and seems to develop at an unusually rapid rate, rarely crying and learning to stand and walk without going through any intermediate crawling stage.  On the other hand he seems to be of low intelligence.  From day one Ben gives everybody the creeps, and his sinister escapades as he grows vindicate their instinctive fears--he harms one of his siblings, then stalks and kills a small dog, and then a cat! The people who used to throng the big house for weeks during holidays stop coming. The four "normal" kids live in terror of their weird and violent little brother.  Harriet is bombarded by insistent suggestions of what to do about Ben that leave her feeling that people blame her for the problems the little freak presents.  Ben has ruined David and Harriet's happy life together!  

David and his wealthy relatives take charge and Ben is briefly sent to a mysterious institution in the moors of northern England, liberating the family from the monster's oppression.  But Harriet is guilt-ridden, and when she visits the institution and sees the hideous conditions Ben is living in (constrained in a straight jacket and by powerful drugs, spending all day mindlessly lying in his own excrement) she brings him home. David and the four normal kids feel betrayed by Harriet; she has chosen the monstrous Ben over them.  As the years pass the four normal kids contrive to move away to boarding school and/or with relatives, while David buries himself in work, leaving Harriet alone in the huge house with her fearsome offspring.  

First edition cover
As a teenager Ben becomes involved with a violent gang of thugs, not returning home for days at a time, and as the novel ends Harriet wonders if he will end up in prison, or somehow survive by his wits a member of the criminal underground.

The Fifth Child is a good mainstream novel about the family and maternity and the choices and sacrifices people (women in particular) make, the dilemmas individuals and families face in their efforts to achieve happiness while trying to stay true to their values and do the right thing. Harriet, by leaving Ben in the institution where he soon would have died, could have preserved for herself, David, and their four ordinary kids the happy and healthy life they had before Ben burst onto the scene.  But, as a mother, and as a decent person, she felt compelled to rescue Ben, sacrificing her own happiness, psychologically damaging her other children and even putting the rest of the community at risk (Harriet has every reason to believe teen-aged Ben has been organizing robberies, participating in riots, and even raping women.)  

Lessing was not shy about associating herself with the science fiction community, and The Fifth Child has at least one major SF theme.  Harriet strongly suspects Ben is some kind of genetic throwback, representative of a forgotten race that flourished thousands of years before Homo sapiens, a people who perhaps lived underground and raided and raped human settlements, tainting the human genetic pool.  I'm not sure this element was well-integrated into the book as a whole, which is very realistic; it kind of comes off as hinting Harriet is some kind of crackpot.  

The Fifth Child seems pretty strait forward, and Lessing doesn't use difficult words or employ any unusual or challenging narrative techniques. But is there some kind of point, some kind of symbolism or statement I am missing?  Lessing was a member of the Stalinist British Communist Party in the 1940s and '50s--does this suggest we should see Ben as representing the proletariat, acting out because he is smothered by the middle classes?  Is Ben the product of the bourgeois decadence of the '60s or the neoliberalism of the '80s?  (Clues: adolescent Ben hangs out with uneducated young men who can't or won't find steady work, and members of teen-aged Ben's gang of criminals mouth revolutionary slogans.)

Could Ben represent the Third World, the inexplicable and oppressed "other?"  The many descriptions of Ben as some kind of alien or goblin brought to mind Kipling's phrase "half-devil and half-child" and the idea that misbehavior by non-whites is evidence of white responsibility, either that whites (as Kipling suggested) have a responsibility to civilize non-whites or that such phenomena as revolution, terrorism, and corruption in the Third World are the result of Western meddling and exploitation (what people sometimes call "imperial blowback.")  There is a scene in which we see that teen-aged Ben's gang eats, almost exclusively, foreign food (pizza, tacos, Chinese, Indian), perhaps a signal that Ben is analogous to non-British peoples in some way.

(The problem with these theories is that I didn't notice David and Harriet doing anything that led to Ben being a dangerous monster or suggested they deserved to have their family life wrecked.  The novel could perhaps be seen as a refutation of "society made me do it" explanations for crime--Ben was just "born bad" and his parents and siblings, and all those animals, are just his innocent victims.)   
Another possibility is that The Fifth Child is "about" the decay of English life, the rise in crime and social unrest suffered from the late '60s to the '80s.  Rather than being a throwback, perhaps Ben represents the bleak future of England.  The centrality of motherhood to the novel, and Harriet's essential blamelessness might be a response to commonplace arguments that poor parenting is to blame for the social ills (crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, etc.) that dominated discussion in late-20th century society.  I thought Lessing was using television as a sort of indicator of societal decay.  Before Ben is born the family almost never watches television, but Ben and the fourth child, Paul, who is arguably the character most psychologically damaged by Ben (among other things, Ben tries to strangle him at one point), watch TV religiously, as do Ben's gang of violent thieves.  

An entertaining novel that has me digging for clues.  The direct, understated, even detached, style is quite effective.  A worthwhile read.  After finishing it, it came to my attention that in 2000 a sequel to The Fifth Child appeared, entitled Ben, in the World. I'll try to get my hands on a copy soon; I'm curious to see how Lessing portrays Ben in a different milieu.

No comments:

Post a Comment