‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing is a story about David and Harriet Hovat, who want to have a large family. They plan to have at least 6 to 8 children and accordingly purchase a big house to live in the countryside. According to their plan, Harriet has four children Luke, Helen, Jane and Paul, and she is pregnant again with her fifth child. But her parents and in-laws disapprove of her being pregnant again, and Harriet also feels the stress of the earlier pregnancies, this unplanned pregnancy, sleeplessness and trouble with finances, and during this pregnancy, she also felt a lot of pain compared to the earlier pregnancies.
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Finally, the baby is born with much difficulty and pain in the eight months; the baby weighed 11 pounds, was quite muscular and ugly, with hair all over his body. Harriet didn’t like the baby; she felt the baby was a goblin, the outcome of some genetic imbalance. They named the baby Ben; Ben was unusually strong and active for his age. One day when Paul, the boy born before Ben, goes into Ben’s room and Ben twists Paul’s hand so hard that he screams out. One day Harriet finds Ben balancing himself on the sill of the window. After Ben was born, not many guests came to the Horvat’s house as they used to come; all of them had some excuse for not coming. One day some guests bring along their dog with them, and Ben plays with the dog the whole day, and one fine day they find the dog dead. A similar thing happens to a cat after some time; now Harriet is troubled and goes to the vet to find out the reason for the death.
When David and Harriet went on holiday’s with the children, usually Harriet’s mother Dorothy looked after Ben, but one day she suggested that they send Ben to the institution, but Harriet was against the idea and didn’t like sending Ben to an institution. But one day, everybody decides that Ben has to go to the institution in England, and they send him there. All of the family members are very happy, except Harriet. She feels that it is not right to send Ben because the institution was found to be giving huge doses of medication to the children doubled with physical abuse. Harriet brings back Ben from the institution to home.
Ben grows up and tries to copy his older siblings. Luke and Helen leave the house to go and live with their grandmother, and after some time, Jane also leaves the house. But Paul stays on, and he feels miserable, as he feels that Ben gets all the attention and is neglected; because of this feeling, Paul is taken to the psychiatrist for treatment. Paul and Ben were always at loggerheads as they hated each other; one day, Harriet even finds Ben trying to strangulate Paul. Ben becomes friendly with John, and they get along very well, but after some time, John leaves, and Ben makes friends with another boy Derek at school. Derek was a big boy and usually came home and spent a lot of time with Ben. But later, Harriet finds out that Derek had lead Ben into bad company and that he was moving around in a group that was involved in different illegal activities. At times Ben even didn’t come home for many days; this worried David and Harriet a lot. One fine day David and Harriet decide to move away from the place, as Ben was always away and nobody knew when he would come home. Ben, with his fighting and furious nature, manages to destroy the entire family.
The Characters of Harriet and David are very interesting; their dream of having a big family and staying in a large house has a selfish turn, as they manage to buy the large house with the help of David’s wealthy father. And they manoeuvre the people around them in such a manner that they use them to their advantage. Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, helps a lot in bringing up all the children. But the happiness of the family takes a turn as soon as Harriet becomes pregnant the fifth time, what with sleepless nights and severe stress. Harriet and David are self-centred people, and it is evident from the beginning. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have reckoned with other people for making their dreams come true. Harriet is sandwiched between Ben and her other children, and in between these two, she couldn’t do justice to either of them.
Ben is a problematic child from the beginning, always fighting and shouting; even though Harriet gave him all her attention, he falls into bad company and leaves the house. In the beginning, Ben was thought of as a child with some handicap, but he was a normal child with a not so good physical appearance, and perhaps his behaviour was the outcome of what he saw on the faces of other people and their feelings towards him. Perhaps Ben would have been a normal and well-behaved child if only people did not react the way they reacted on seeing him. Even Paul would have had no problems had his mother given him proper attention and love.
As children grow older, they develop their own identities and have their own minds. Therefore children need proper nurturing to grow into well behaved and respectable adults. Even though Harriet loved her child, she was in a predicament, and probably this was the outcome of her dilemma.
Dorris Lessing, The fifth Child, Scholieren.com, 2007. Web.
Dorris Lessing, The fifth Child, Discussing Books, 2007.
Dorris Lessing, The fifth Child, Literature Annotations, 2007.