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The modern child and Romantic monstrosity in Doris Lessing’s «The Fifth Child»

Par Camille François : Doctorante et monitrice allocataire - Université de Picardie Jules Verne
Publié par Clifford Armion le 17/05/2011

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This study investigates the articulation between "child" and "monster" in Lessing's novella, linking the text to a tradition of contemporary fiction about the child in which the much beloved literary figure inherited from the Romantics has become a frightening other. We hope to understand the ((Fifth Child)) 's shifting boundaries between the monstrous and the ideal, the "real child" and childhood as a locus of adult desires, by tracing these dichotomies back to Romantic myths of childhood, or the distorted versions that have made it to our time.

"What makes the child so powerful an image of human creativity (...) is exactly what makes our darker visions of the child's mysterious nature and origins so terrifying." In her analysis of fictional childhood, tellingly entitled Demon or Doll (2000, 15-6), Ellen Pifer points out the contemporary writer's ambivalence towards the child, and insists that more often than not this ambiguity stems from an inability to distinguish between our fear for them and our fear of  them. No wonder then that their literary Golden Age - the Romantic period, when they were both introduced as literary figures, and turned into potent symbols of moral and poetical excellence - should be followed centuries later by an equally extreme, albeit reversed, positioning. Indeed, the uncomfortable pairing of child and monster staged in Lessing's 1988 novella, The Fifth Child, will not surprise the contemporary reader, who is used to being bombarded with contradictory images of the child: on the one hand, the nostalgic and idealized avatars of Romantic texts, and on the other, the modern-day fashion of the child as freak, monster, or ghost. Henry James' 1898 The Turn of the Screw was instrumental in establishing the latter trend, further explored by the likes of Golding or Greene, and nowadays largely circulated by contemporary gothic fiction and popular horror films. Bearing in mind this closeness of the unbearably dreadful with the uncompromisingly pure should help us understand Lessing's challenging text, and how it casts light on our modern understanding of the child as a literary figure. Indeed, the title itself, by singling out one child out of five, stresses a misleadingly simple dichotomy between the monstrous and the "normal", which appears more complex as we become aware of the filters of point of view and of the presence in the text of what René Girard has described as victimizing strategies (1982, 23-36). The old "lamb of God" image of the child seems indeed to have suffered so dramatic a rewriting as to have been replaced by that of the mythical scapegoat. What we must ask ourselves then is the reason for this nameless fear inspired by the child and the subsequent centrality it is given in the text - or why and how it has become a favourite gothic monster - but also, what is it a scapegoat for, and in what ways does this role as scarecrow stem from the old Romantic conceptions ? Janus-like, the Lovatt children, enclosed within a tale confusingly seen through the eyes of their mother, half show, and half remove from us their multiple faces, making it extremely difficult to tell the monster from the norm, the real from the fantasized, the other from the self - and just how much the warped interpretation of Romantic texts pervading our culture is to blame for these confused yet manichean perceptions of the child, is now ours to understand.

1. Definitely demon ? The child as monster

1.1 "In the cots, were - monsters"

At first sight, The Fifth Child  tells the tale of a monstrous child. Just why that child is branded as monstrous is a question invited by the text itself, since even Harriet, the child's mother and the only one to term him so, seems reluctant to utter the word, as the dash in the quote above testifies (98). If the word is problematic however, the text does provide us with a perfect illustration to a traditional definition of monsterhood. Gilles Bousquet writes (1985, 118): les formes monstrueuses présentent un certain nombre de caractéristiques récurrentes ( ...) : l'animalité, le composite, le morcellement, l'hyperbole ou la démesure". Of these, Ben seems almost too obvious an embodiment, as the fear he arouses in others stems most often from his straddling absolute opposites, blurring social categories. In him, the animal and the human become one (122-3) and he equally threatens to bring down the wall between the child and the adult - a wall only too dear to a society still keen on insuring the watertightness of those early blessed days. It is thus said of him that: "he doesn't look like a six-year-old, but much older. You could almost take him for a little man" (126) Here again, Pifer's insightful comment on the conflation of the fear for and the fear of  the child is relevant, as Ben seems to arouse the latter kind precisely because childhood is in him a threatened, shrunken territory. Finally, Ben brings nature too close to culture for comfort, as through him, the outside and the inside, the cosy world of the living-room and the threatening wilderness of the neglected garden merge into one :

[Harriet] woke to see Ben standing silently there in the half dark, staring at them. The shadows from the garden moved on the ceiling, the spaces of the big room emptied into obscurity, and there stood this goblin child, half visible. (115)

His monstrosity would thus be predicated less on simply moral or physical attributes than on the threat the child represents to a society built on binary oppositions - the repetition of "half " in the quote above stressing how anxieties focus on such intermediary positions. René Girard is well aware of how what he calls "l'indifférenciation" can produce monsters (1982, 51) and this phenomenon already gives us clues as to why Ben Lovatt, the child, embodies these social fears better than any other awe-inspiring figure might. Henry James had already emphasized the potentially horrific plasticity of the child in The Turn of the Screw - Miles and Flora are a cause of fright in that their innocence is compounded with unnatural knowledge (1993, 33) - and the tendency to blur traditional categories is also illustrated by the very name of one of the most emblematic literary children of the last century: Peter Pan.

The other troubling element about the fifth child's monstrosity has to do with point of view choices. Since the text is told mostly from Harriet's perspective, and since she is constantly harping on about her utter inability to understand how her son feels, we cannot but distrust her deductions of moral monstrosity based on the physical horror that is Ben. Muffled, the child undergoes a form of ventriloquism as his mother puts words in his mouth, intentions in his head :

He sat shivering, like a wet, cold dog, in spasms, and he went through a series of movements (...) he briefly bared his teeth to snarl - but then checked himself ; he lifted his chin, and his mouth opened, and Harriet saw that he could have emitted a long, animal howl. It was as if she actually heard this howl (...).  (122-3)

Her resort to animal comparisons to express what she cannot understand, and her final interpolation, show how much the beast is created by the fear, rather than the opposite. To this effect, the verb "seem" is often used by the narrator as a warning to the reader to distance himself from Harriet's hermeneutic short-circuits: "His small cold eyes seemed to her malevolent" (64). In the end, horror seems, rather than the overall genre of the novella, to be a discourse inside which the Lovatts try to confine their child, Ben being a reversed representation of his parents' fears for the child. Harriet herself has to admit to not recognizing, at birth, the demon she had feared was in her (60), a fact on which Nadia Rigaud provides an enlightening comment : "La diversité des formes que [le monstrueux] assume n'est qu'avatar de la polarisation multiple de l'angoisse humaine" (1985, ix).  Through the child then, Lessing's fable hints at our inability to define what is monstrous, and reminds us that there are no absolute monsters, that they are only ever someone else's monster.

1.2 Encountering otherness

If the child so easily turns into the monster of adult texts, it might also be on account of its absolute otherness: childhood being an irretrievable state, it is a fine line between the beloved object of nostalgic longing, and the appalling territory lurking in forgotten regions of our minds. "Alien" is indeed one of the terms most frequently used to describe Ben (62, 76 etc.) and to his mother, he is monstrous because he is so utterly different that he resists interpretation: "There was horror, too: which is what Harriet felt, more and more. (...) It was hard to make out what he did think of other people."  (70) This is the fundamental difference she draws between this child and his adorable brother Paul: "Harriet knew everything Paul was thinking, feeling. But Ben - she had to try to guess." (138). This fantasy of transparency, as though the mother really could have unmediated access to her child's every thought, is a common enough adult delusion, and the fact that Ben, because of his unpredictability, obviously debunks the myth, makes him a perfect victim. In a way, what makes Ben stronger as a subject, or as a fictional character - this resistance to meaning, this independence - makes him most repellent as a child, whose characteristics must comply with adult desires. James Kincaid, in his provocative analysis of our neurotic relation to the child as symbol and as individual (1992), tells of how adults, in their yearning for lost childhood, desire nothing else than to know the child, in both the modern and the biblical sense of the term: to appropriate it in an absolute way, to leave nothing hidden from them. Opaque, inviolate, Ben thwarts this longing, and refusing to be assimilated, is thus othered into an alien, a monster. In the following excerpt for instance, Harriet renounces calling him normal, because he will not let her appropriate his body the "usual" way : –

She did make a point of going to him every day (...) and taking him to the big bed for a time of petting and play, as she had with all of them. Never, not once, did he subside into a loving moment. He resisted, he strove, he fought (...) But for a while she did try hard to make him ordinary. (69)

Opposite to the strong, solidified freak child, are the other children, closer to their mother's fantasy of eternal dependence as the passive verbal forms in the following excerpt show :

The day he stood alone, by himself (...) he roared out his triumph. All the other children had laughed, chuckled, and wanted to be loved, admired, praised, on reaching this moment of achievement. This one did not. It was a cold triumph, and he staggered about, eyes gleaming with hard pleasure, while he ignored his mother.  (73)

More worrying still, and confirming the relevance of Kincaid's work, is the recurrent sensualized description of little Paul as something to be physically enjoyed - another pleasure spoiled by Ben's physical repulsiveness, the warranty of his independence :

"Is little Paul still as delicious as he was ?" (...) Little Paul, so cuddlesome and funny, was always on somebody's lap (...). (67-8)

Faced with this resistance of one child to their desires, the adults of the text react in two opposite ways. The first one, as previously said, is to assert the child as other: the rest of the children are thus deemed safe, as the status supposedly insulates Ben. However, several times in the narrative, Harriet's desperate need for a recognition of Ben's otherness is thwarted by the assertion on the part of other adults (mainly doctors) that "there's obviously nothing much wrong with him." (67). Although this positioning might seem against their own interests, Attridge's understanding of otherness provides an explanation for this refusal to recognize the other as such. He defines the properties of otherness as twofold: first, because of its intimate ties with the self (there can be an other only in relation to it), it demands a redefinition of "the field of the same" (2004, 24); and second, with the encounter comes an ethical responsibility, since there can in the end be no self without an other safeguarded as such (2004, 125-7). Acknowledging the other then always means accepting both "contamination" and moral involvement, which is precisely what the adults of the text do not want. Both attitudes thus appear to be unsustainable, and faced with the impossibility either to ignore the freak child, or to assert him as other in such a way that he remains at a safe distance, what the narrative uncovers is the horrifying proximity of the fifth child to the other four. Harriet and David may use the word "alien", the other "does not come from outer space"... (Attridge, 2004, 30)

1.3 Shifting roles, unstable signs

"We can say that the other's arrival destabilizes the field of the same, or that the destabilization of the field of the same occasions the arrival of the other." (2004, 24) Attridge's insistence on the reversibility of the equation draws our attention to the closeness of these two fields, or to relate it to our text, to the way in which Ben was already contained in the other four children. If Harriet strives - in accordance with the title - to point to one unique source of fear, when reading carefully backwards, one realizes that much of what became more visible with Ben because of his excessive nature was already present in subdued forms with the other four. Harriet's pregnancies for instance, if reaching a climax of pain and apprehension the fifth time, were already shrouded in an atmosphere of dread and already foretold the arrival of something possibly threatening to the mother's happiness, as the initial love-making episode in the new home shows (15-6). Significantly, the similarity reaches its high-water mark when the Lovatts decide to send Ben away to be committed. From the living-room, they safely observe their two elder children becoming the nightmare that is Ben, something alien which does not fit in the usual boxes: –

Two small figures, indistinguishably unisex in their many-coloured padded jackets, trousers, woollen caps, emerged from the black under a holly thicket, and came forward. They were Helen and Luke (...). (91)

The underlined terms, together with the late revelation of the children's identity, show how easily crossed the border is between what they call monster and what they worship. What makes this alienness palatable then, is the fact that Helen and Luke remain, to paraphrase Kincaid, satisfactory food for adult desires, even though they represent the same wild threat as their ugly brother:

The parents sat down on a sofa, facing the doors, which burst inwards, and there they were, two slight, elegant little creatures, with flaring red, frost-burned cheeks and eyes full of the excitements of the dark wilderness they had been a part of. (91)

Desperate for us to take the full measure of the parallelism before Ben is done away with, the narrator goes so far as to use the same words and images for the two kinds of children. We are thus told of Ben that: "He would suddenly, for no reason [Harriet] could see, take off and run into the garden, and then out the gate and into the street."  (76). We have seen how this inability to understand and thus to possess the child was what turned him into a dreaded alien subject, but if the direction is reversed, Luke and Helen mirror exactly that which is unacceptable in Ben: "Then, suddenly, for no obvious reason, they came racing up to the french doors." (91) Whether the movement be inwards, towards culture, or outwards, towards nature, it remains the same worrying crossing of boundaries, the same un-reasonable act which was before deemed criminal... But nowhere is the parallelism more thought-provoking than between lovely little Paul, the candy-child, and monstrous, troll-like Ben, for the conflation between the best loved and most child-like of the four, and his deformed and dangerous double demands a re-evaluation of the modern child, of the puzzling closeness of our desire for them and the fear they inspire in us. Nadia Rigaud explains :

(...) l'observation (scientifique), l'analyse psychologique, ont forcé à reconnaître que le monstrueux, ce n'est pas l'Autre, mais soi, dont l'Autre est, au mieux, le Double (...) une telle prise de conscience amène à ne plus sentir tellement la distance qui sépare, que la ressemblance qui rapproche - constatation encore plus effrayante (...). (1985, viii-ix)

More than Ben himself, what scares the Lovatts then is the similarity he forces them to see between him and the other four children, such as Paul's failure as a social being: "He's not learning anything, he's a real mess. He's worse than Ben !" (130) With little Paul, who psychologically harms Ben as much as the latter physically threatens him (138-9), Lessing shows how shifting these subject positions are, how "monster" and "other" are not definite, objective qualities but discursive wiles which conveniently separate and segregate, when actually hunter and prey are constantly switching places.

2. A dreadful prophet: the child as scapegoat and symptom

2.1 The emissary victim

True to its protean definition, Lessing's monster overspills. And the consequence of this chronic instability is to leave us wondering: why sacrifice one child, when all are so disturbingly similar ? René Girard's work provides an explanation, by stressing how scapegoats are chosen on the basis of what he calls "les signes victimaires",  rather than on account of their differences from the society they belong to - it is indeed precisely because they represent what its members shamefully conceal that they can have a cathartic function. As to the "signes victimaires", they are characteristics branding the scapegoats as potential outcasts, and which, though unthreatening in themselves, make believable their being identified as the source of all evils (Girard, 1982, 37). In Ben's case, his backwardness and physical repulsiveness make him an ideal sacrificial object, the perfect means of cleansing society - and more specifically the other children - of any unpleasant feature. Thus does Ben offer a comfortable alibi for little Paul turning out to be a disappointment:

The naturally high-spirited and friendly child was becoming nervous and irritable. He had fits of tears or rage, throwing himself on the floor screaming, or battering at Harriet's knees, trying to get her attention, which never seemed to leave Ben.  (81)

Kill one child to save childhood: a stance Girard describes as the unstoppable process of collective bad faith (1982, 10). Point of view choices are thus again of paramount importance: towards the end of the narrative, Harriet remembers all that has happened to her family, and her capacity to self-mythologizing is quite astounding. She reconstructs the events we have just read, producing Ben as the sole reason for chaos, brought suddenly by the proverbial stranger in an otherwise harmonious family:

(...) she heard the laughter of small children, their voices; and then the wide shine of the table seemed to darken, and there was Ben, the alien, the destroyer. (155-6)

Looking back however, the text appears riddled with hints of division and dissatisfaction long before Ben's birth. Even before the first child was born, David and Harriet were already excluded from society: called "criminals " (22) or "freaks and oddballs " (9) on account of their attitude to childhood, and consequently their inability to fit in a modern, capitalist society, they were the monstrous, alien forms, threatened at any time with ostracism. Hence the necessity for them to find a goat to send to the desert with their sins on its back: far from dividing, Ben - or rather his sacrifice - is the necessary means of cementing his parents to a community hitherto uncertain of whether to accept them. The shift in space dynamics around him provides a telling example, as we are first presented with watertight divisions: adults and children don't mix much, and the latter are often relegated to highly symbolical peripheries - attic or garden (39, 68). Also, apart from close family members, the exchanges between the outside and the inside of the Lovatt fortress are few and controlled, as proves their rejection even of close neighbours, who feel "excluded " (26). However, with Ben, this segregated microcosm undergoes a deep upheaval as children and adults now share the same space - anywhere Ben is not (72) - while David's connections with the outside world tighten, as he spends more and more time away working rather than in the more contained family unit: a new cohesion is born around the child's metaphorical tomb.

Somehow however, the scapegoating of Ben is not completely successful. We never reach the state described by Girard of social purification, as Harriet retrieves the sacrificial victim from the pyre. The reasons for this may be twofold. Girard points out the first:

(...) le principe de substitution sacrificielle est fondé sur la ressemblance entre les victimes actuelles et les victimes potentielles (...) Mais cette ressemblance (...) ne doit pas déboucher sur une confusion catastrophique (...). (2002, 22-4)

As previously explained, it seems that in the case of the child, the good is too similar to the evil, the victim to the executioner, for there to be a proper sacrifice. Then, the other necessary condition for it to take place - the willingness of the persecutors not  to look their victim in the eye (Girard, 2002, 15) and thus know it to be a symbol of their own failings - is compromised by another quality of the child: the need to know it arouses in those who dare to look at it. Worshipped as a prophetic figure by the Romantics, the child seems now to be both hated and desired for this very same reason: it tells too much, but its form of telling being also a way of hiding, it makes one both shun and crave the news, and if David is "careful not to see " (105), Eve-like Harriet cannot but take a peep, thus stalling the sacrificial machinery and setting in motion in its stead a possibly destructive process of unveiling.

2.2 Playing hide and seek : the fascinating o/abject

Reminding one of the etymology of the word "monster" (from the Latin, monere : to warn, but also monstrare : to show), Ben is at the centre of a pattern of criss-crossing gazes, yet possesses the peculiarity of gazing back. Defining voyeurism according to Freud, Kincaid explains how in the case of the child, the gaze is usually one-sided (2002, 304): the adult looks upon its beauty, appropriating it in so doing, assigning it also, Foucault would say, to the peripheries defined by the highly political nature of this gaze. But with Ben, the hyperbolical and perverted child, the voyeuristic gaze is replaced by a game of hide and seek played out between adult and monster: first, if Ben's repulsive appearance pre-empts any form of physical desire, he still arouses in the adult looker-on a desire to possess that which is different: "Harriet knew that sometimes people went up to look at Ben, out of the fearful, uneasy curiosity he evoked" (73-4). In all likelihood, this "uneasy curiosity" comes from the fact that the child has long been considered a specula naturae - a mirror of nature (Boas, 1990, 14-5): as metaphorically and literally closer to the Origin, it still holds the tempting if fallacious promise of uncovering ancestral truths about our "naked, or original, selves" (Pifer, 2000, 3). Given that since the Romantics, science has more than hinted at the rather unflattering nature of such truths, it is hardly surprising that modern men should look at Ben with one eye only, both wanting to know and not to know, as Dorothy is here shown to do:

She was absolutely still and intent, fascinated, almost hypnotized, but there was repugnance there, too. And fear ? (64)

For indeed, the prophetic quality of the child now serves first and foremost to remind us, through its own unfinished nature, of our closeness to that animal part of us which it is the social part's role to cover up. Ben, the enormous child, working as a magnifying glass, threatens to uncover this secret, thus also exposing the social structures in question as contextual artifices (Girard, 1982, 35):

Ben makes you think - all those different people who lived on the earth once - they must be in us somewhere (...). (137)

In this way, he perfectly matches Julia Kristeva's definition of the abject:

Il y a, dans l'abjection, une de ces violentes et obscures révoltes de l'être contre ce qui le menace et qui lui paraît venir d'un dehors ou d'un dedans exorbitant (...). (1980, 9)

Contrary to the simple object then, which provides a comfortable way of defining oneself a contrario, the abject constantly threatens to collapse the boundaries between us and it. This accounts for the text's two-way gaze: if Ben is constantly looked at and described (126, 145, etc.), it can be understood as an attempt on the adult's part to outstare the child, to assign him a fixed meaning that would block his questioning virtue. In L'œil vivant, Jean Starobinski finds in etymology a justification for this strong link between looking and supervising, controlling :

(...) regarder est un mouvement qui vise à reprendre sous garde (...) comme s'il était animé par l'espoir (...) de reconquérir ce qui est en train de lui échapper. (1961, 11)

However, what might have worked with other children is here repeatedly defeated by Ben's abject dimension, which will not leave the lookers-on unscathed, and promises as Kristeva reminds us, some kind of revelation (1980, 16). Slowly then, Ben develops as a dreaded figure less because of his physical appearance - people do look on - than because of his "watchful, alien eyes" (145) promising an encounter with the unbearable:

His eyes were on one face, then another: whomever he was looking at became conscious of that insistent gaze and stopped talking; or turned a back, or a shoulder, so as not to have to see him. (75)

A key scene illustrates the appalling nature of this submission to the child's gaze, so unusual for the adult. The play on light and darkness in the quote below both emphasize the prophetic nature of the child, and the unpleasantness of what is revealed, showing once again how what people fear in Ben's look is not what they see of him, but what he shows them of themselves:

From the high skylight fell a distorted rectangle of light, and in it stood Ben, staring up at dim sunlight  (...) in one leap he had reached the dark at the edges of the eaves and vanished. All [Harriet] could see was the obscurity of an attic that seemed boundless. (...) He was crouching there, staring out at her... She felt the hair on her head lift, felt cold chills (...) Ben...' putting into the word her human claim on him, and on this wild dangerous attic where he had gone back into a far-away past (...). (140)

In a split second, the threatening wildness is no longer that of the child only, but of Harriet's own house, her attic, in which gazes - and thus symbolic positions - have been reversed. As abject creature, as monster, Ben is then doomed to be both hated and valued for the special brand of desire he awakens in men. The book thus closes on a string of questions gushing out from Harriet, who initially only had answers, and opening this series of questions is a reciprocal gaze through which the novella sketches a new kind of "child-loving", possibly stronger even than that described by Kincaid, and in which the desiring adult is now the child's helpless prey:

He sometimes looked at her while she looked at him(...) She would put into her gaze these speculations, these queries, her need, her  passion to know more about him (...). (156)

2.3 Freudian fable or Gothic tale ?

When considering Ben's value as (un)desirable mirror, the temptation to read this text as a Freudian fable is great indeed: the fact that the child has since Freud come to stand for what is both part of us and forgotten, both key to who we are yet unrecognizable, makes Ben a tantalizing embodiment of what psychoanalysis calls the repressed. He is indeed that strange yet familiar voice desperately trying to make itself heard above the reassuring drone of mundane chatter, the ripple on an otherwise smooth social surface: "Sometimes a yell from Ben loud enough to reach downstairs silenced a conversation." (73) Ben would be that truth children and grown-ups alike have almost literally locked inside a cupboard, and the fact that his four siblings do lock their doors at night to be spared his sight (115) or that after he has been "suppressed" (held in the institution where monstrous children are hidden from society), his violence and wildness increase tenfold, strengthen the parallelism. Indeed, Jerrold Hogle reminds us how the repressed often returns with a vengeance when it has not been properly addressed (2002, 3).

And yet, turning The Fifth Child into a Freudian fable might mean reading the text against itself, which seems not only to want to flout Freudian interpretations, but to denounce some of their implications. Several times in the narrative, childhood is presented as the customary hermeneutic key to any subject, waiting only for the clever analyst to open new doors of meaning. However, the narrator - who is elsewhere unobtrusive enough to make his few comments all the more powerful - ironizes on the Freudian myth of childhood as ultimate truth, and its correlate: the child's nature as knowable. When patronizing gossips dismiss Harriet's old-fashioned ethics for instance, the narrator's ironic use of "enlightened" shows how Freudian rhetorics lead them down the same narrow-minded path as older generations:

With the same chilly contempt that good women of her grandmother's generation might have used, saying, "She is quite immoral you know," (...) so did the enlightened girls of now say to each other, "It must be something in her childhood that's made her like this." (10)

And again on the very next page, Harriet's proud interpretation of her stable childhood as the explanation for her well-defined values (11) is similarly given the lie by the narrator telling us how David's less happy upbringing with divorced parents led him to exactly the same desires and world view (12). In the end, the novella draws a picture of Freudian theses ironically close to the Romantics' conception of the child as prophetic object and transparent subject...

In the face of the inadequacies of Freudian discourse to really talk about the child instead of simply producing new fantasies (Blum, 1995, 6) or rehabilitating the old ones in a scientific guise, rebranding the text as Gothic might do it more justice, since the literary genre - which has often used the language and concepts of psychoanalysis - allows for more ideological freeplay. Incidentally, it has the advantage of shifting the focus from the child proper, to the monster, ghost or its anomalous equivalent, working not as an absolutely transparent key to meaning, but as an ambivalent and unsolved symptom of something deeply wrong, something half-hidden and half-shown, playing hide and seek :

These hauntings (...) frequently assume the features of ghosts, specters, or monsters (...) that rise from the antiquated space (...) to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view. (Hogle, 2002, 2)

In these narratives, which refuse to be prescriptive and always leave their readers the option to evade what they guess at (Hogle, 2002, 19), the child is not an answer or revelation, it is a sign - a postmodern ghost-like child instead of the Romantic God-like one.

3. Identifying the other monster: Romantic childhood

It remains difficult to understand why the child polarizes so many of our most fundamental fears - how it can be both hated so much and loved so deeply as evidenced in Lessing's novella - without returning to the Romantics, since the topoi that were created then still conspicuously haunt contemporary fiction (McGavran, 1999, 12), not the less so when they have visibly been distorted along the way by centuries of literature.

3.1 An error of nature

One of the founding myths of the Romantic child as it is understood today, is its privileged relation to nature, emphasized in Rousseau's 1762 treatise on education, Emile, where the French philosopher insists on the importance for children to be initially moulded outside of society - and thus preserved from potential corruption - before being reunited to it. "Tout est bien sortant des mains de l'Auteur des choses, tout dégénère entre les mains de l'homme" (Rousseau, 1966, 35) do we read on the very first page, and even though for Rousseau the final goal is an education which can produce fit social subjects, many of his ideas proved an ideal breeding ground for primitivism at a time when men felt increasingly cut off from nature by the Industrial Revolution. The French philosopher's theses thus fed the development of somewhat binary and Old-Testament-like conceptions of nature, the child and the primitive as prelapsarian, society being a necessary evil synonymous with fall from grace, which it was the "noble savage" 's duty to regenerate. Lessing's narrator, seemingly on a crusade against such ideas, draws a picture of the Lovatts so infused with these Romantic longings that it is hardly worth pointing them out: dissatisfied with a modern society that doesn't accommodate their dreams of a return to nature, they decide to move away from the city, and buy "a large Victorian house in an overgrown garden" (13). A few years on, seeing their elder children come back from the garden with rosy cheeks, David and Harriet draw the following picture of themselves:

(...) two adults, sitting there, tame, domestic, even pitiable in their distance from wilderness and freedom. (91)

However, their naive vision of nature as a well-meaning great provider is not even an accurate rendition of Romantic texts, and James McGavran reminds us how Wordsworth's Prelude for instance testifies to his being, among others, aware that "the life and innocence of nature are also the death and corruption of nature" (1999, 3-4). Intent on proving how unsustainable the young couple's blindness to these ambiguities is, the narrator shows in the opening pages how they have constructed a reassuring but artificial picture of nature, shielding them from more ominous outdoor realities. When Harriet is introduced for instance, she is described in terms of her relation to a dead, manufactured, and therefore tame natural world: "She stood near a vase of dried grasses and leaves and her dress was something flowery." (8) - something both David and her try to preserve even though a less auspicious wilderness is knocking at their window :

(...) outside, the autumn was establishing itself in flying leaves that sometimes hit the windowpanes with small thuds and bangs, and in the sound of a rising wind. But the curtains were drawn, warm thick flowered curtains. (21)

The "thick flowered curtains" are self-explanatory in their attempt to cover up the darwinian waste their children will very symbolically soon force them to confront: several pages on, after Ben's birth, nature does show quite a different face:

Children's voices rose sharp and distant from the dark winter garden. On the same impulse, David and Harriet (...) pulled back the heavy curtains. The garden held dim shapes of tree and shrub (...) a shrub that was starkly black with winter, lit twiggy growths that showed a glitter of water, and illuminated the white trunk of a birch. (90-1)

For indeed, the correlate to this conception of the natural world, is that human nature itself - as best seen in the child - is innately good, and David and Harriet thus need not fear but may go forth and multiply... Offering "an indictment of the romantic idyll and the dangerous illusions it fosters " (Pifer, 2000, 129), Lessing grants their wish and leaves them to deal with the implications of giving birth to a "noble savage". Soon enough, their demanding dream comes crashing down as the fifth child, ideally romantic in his closeness to nature and ignorance of social wiles, is very far from that described by Rousseau, thus revealing, behind the idyll, a markedly different wish for a civilized child, one who can learn and mature and grow:  "the enemy - so she now thought of this savage thing inside her " (51). In a complete reversal of Emile, their offspring is shown less in danger of being corrupted by society than of corrupting it, hence, when all else fails, his being locked up away from his parents' guests (73).

Interestingly, as the text uncovers the Romantic mechanisms behind the Lovatts' vision of childhood, narrative sympathy develops for the wild child, who is neither exonerated from being potentially dangerous, nor made to bear alone the responsibility for Lessing's complexification of nature. Never really cleared from the accusations brought against him of strangling cat and dog (76), he is also repeatedly ill-treated, and described after his internment as "blue with cold" or "starving" (104-5). In other words, if Lessing refuses to make him the victim of society Frankenstein's creature is in Mary Shelley's novel - which would be returning to a form of Romanticism - she turns him into a tragic figure eliciting both pity and awe, and testifying to the darker side in man's nature just as the many adults' cruelties towards him do (see for instance his grandmother Molly's devouring figure page 88).

3.2 Romantic hubris and anagnorisis

Measuring the extent to which the Lovatts' Romantic aspirations mediate their relation to the child, one sees how, if the monster-child is too big for the limitations set by nature, he can be construed as a sort of poetical retribution for the excesses of his parents, in their similarly boundless, unnatural faith in nature. Not only the cause of excess then, the symbolical figure of the monster is also its consequence:

Le monstre est alors la preuve impitoyable du péché contre nature, châtié par le courroux divin, ce qui permet à Dieu de réaffirmer sa toute-puissance (...). (Boucé, 1985, 100)

Ironically enough, David and Harriet transgress by too much devotion (Pifer, 2000, 131) and if an unusual form of hubris, it highlights how the excessive investment of hopes and values in the child can lead to its becoming as unpleasantly disproportionate as the dreams that made it. Before Ben is conceived then, all the signs of his parents' hubristic intent are there, from the number of children they hope to have, to their careless disregard for financial and biological realities:

Both, somewhat defiantly, because of the enormity of their demands on the future, announced they "would not mind" a lot of children. (...) the mortgage of this house would be beyond them. But they would manage, somehow. (...) She was at the height of her fertility. But they made love, with this solemn deliberation. Once. Twice. (...) again.  (13-15)

A close analysis also reveals how the words "big" and "enormous" are used more often to describe the mother's excesses than her child's monstrosity: "the trouble with Harriet is that her eyes have always been bigger than her stomach" (34), Dorothy ventures, voicing in her simple words what her daughter will eventually have to acknowledge (141): how her husband and herself got their just deserts.

For Harriet does learn, and this is perhaps one of the most striking features of recent fiction about the child: how it somehow often turns into a Bildungsroman for the grown-up in the story. The child is no longer the hero learning the difficult path to maturity - the adults are, who must grow out of their idealizing vision and become reconciled to reality. It will then not surprise us to see both David and Harriet described as children in spite of their ages at the beginning of the narrative (he is 30 and she is 24): he has a "round and candid face " (8) and still lives with his parents (12) while she has retained her sexual innocence (9). From her childish vision of both life and the child then, Harriet progresses literally and metaphorically, as she journeys to the institution where Ben agonizes, to retrieve her son from that labyrinthine hell (96), and finally see things around her for what they really are. As Pifer explains:  "such passion to know, has radically transformed Harriet from the happy "innocent" she once was. (...) she sacrifices (...) the idyll for engagement with reality"  (2000, 144)

Among the things learned, is a refusal to take words - and with them, concepts - about the child, for granted: since Ben forbids a confident use of phrases like "the baby's room", now between inverted commas (79), their usual connotations are gradually detached from such words. Challenging her ready-made expectations about the child, Harriet is also forced to review her notion that other children, if they like Ben, must do so only for need of a foil:

She discovered that "Ben Lovatt's gang" was the most envied in the school, and a lot of boys, not only the truants and drop-outs, wanted to be part of it. (146)

Ben might not be the Romantics' prophetic saviour, but he allows the anagnorisis much needed by the real "children" in the novel: Harriet and David Lovatt.

3.3 The substance and the shadow

Behind this adult "innocence" as Pifer calls it, lies a fundamentally binary understanding of the child which seems to have been born with our interest for it, and to still determine the way we relate to it. "Substance" on the one hand, "shadow" on the other, in the words of James Barrie at the end of his novel The Little White Bird  (2006, 213); or the child on one side, childhood on the other, as seen by Charles Lamb (Cadilhac, 1993, 136) - whatever the names, the seminal difference between the beloved ideal and the insufferable, disappointing biological creature is always there, and the higher the former, the lower the latter. Blum's book is almost entirely set on denouncing the opposition's unfortunate consequences in the real world, the fictional one, and the field of psychoanalytical studies. Stressing how "the child increasingly becomes a repository of both individual and social fantasy" (1995, 247), she draws the following conclusion:

The child's inadequacy is in a sense structurally predetermined. It is necessary, for the fantasy to subsist, to cast the actual child as inadequate instead of recognizing the fantasmatic child as fantasmatic. (1995, 3)

In other words, because the concept of "child" has been so heavily loaded with Romantic expectations of regenerating society and righting all the wrongs that adults have either done or undergone, by comparison, the real child is almost always a failure, or worse - a monster, when it too obviously shows the ideal for what it is: unrealistic. Now if the child has become such an apt vehicle for adult hopes and dreams, it may also be because for the nine months preceding its birth - and sometimes even before that - it exists mainly as an imagined being. This excessive investment in fantasized creatures, denying their real counterparts the attention they deserve, is well illustrated in the first pages of the novella, where Harriet and David buy a haunted house - haunted not by your traditional ghost, but by their unborn children:

(...) the great table, with heavy wooden chairs around it - only four now, but more stood in a row along the wall, waiting for guests and still unborn people. (21)

Reverting the normal order of things, which would suppose adapting their reality to actual people, the Lovatts create the reality first, into which their offspring will have to mould themselves. No wonder then that children be so often found in contemporary horror stories, of which they are either the ghosts, or the monsters.

Indeed, the Lovatt children can be said to belong to two separate categories: Ben, who is too solid, too "substantial" to let himself be turned into a ghost, an empty shell housing adult desires - and the other four, mere ectoplasms without very distinct features and accommodating better their parents' ideals. Ben thus becomes the hyper-real, too visible child (in tune with the etymology of "monster") who does not match adult projections:

(...) the new-comer [was] of a different substance, so it seemed to Harriet. Partly this was because she was still responding to the look of him with her memories of his difference in the womb (...). (62)

On the contrary, the other four merely hover through the book, transparent almost to the point of non-existence: direct speech is the exception rather than the rule for them ("Wails and protests from the children" 50), and more often than not they have to share a voice: "'Oh yes, yes yes' clamoured Luke and Helen" (39). As opposed to the fifth child, they are also very little described and seem almost not to exist as bodies, always lumped together as they are in a collective identity and seeming to interest the grown-ups relatively little:

A crowd of children played in the garden (...) Then all the older children in the house were put into the attic, where they could make as much noise as they wanted (...). (68)

Strangely, it is Ben who saves them from completely disappearing, by pointing out, through their kinship, their potential and as of yet unseen complexities: until then, their value was mostly to compensate for David's unsatisfactory childhood (12) or to act as a social magnet by bringing people to the home. But Ben's arrival, the very real horror of him, forces his mother to ask a question she had never asked about the other four: do I love this child ? Paul is a good example of Ben's real-izing influence on his siblings: being the most beautiful child, little Paul seems at first the most threatened with disintegration. He never puts on weight (129) and is described by the adults with words emphasizing his dangerously unreal dimension: "the wonderful three-year-old, enchanting, a charmer " (78). However, Ben's presence quickly blurs the too perfect image, and uncovers behind it a real child, one who can psychologically wither (131) and is thus eventually given more attention than the first three brothers and sisters.

"After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven't remembered the others for hours." (79) says Harriet as the thought dawns on her of her other children's vaporous status. This is the function of Ben's very Bakhtinian body: described with no complacency as "[leaving] behind him a thin trail of urine " for instance (123), he reminds his parents as a repellent and thus visibly independent body of the necessity for the child to exist as a separate entity and not simply as "a potential space for the adult imagination " set up by the Romantics (Blum, 1995, 3), for between ghost and monster, the latter might not be the most worrying form. In the end, Lessing might be said in this book to give birth to a real child: the labour is painful and difficult, and the child ugly, but it has been freed from centuries of literature.

Reading Lessing's text, if at times disturbing for the drastic reappraisal it demands of our understanding of the child - and through it of human nature - is a sobering experience. It tells of the growing distrust in contemporary writers towards imagination and fantasy, which, extolled by the Romantics, and still uncritically so sometimes in popular culture, can wreak havoc in the case of our relation to childhood for instance. It explains equally excessive love and hatred for the child, or the conflation of our fears for and of  it not by a quality of the said child, but by an adult tendency to overinvest in it. It talks to us also about the new routes explored by contemporary writers about children: how more and more, they tend to deny us the pleasure of complacent reads about the child, and exact from us instead the right to upset our dogmatic beliefs about it - a necessary violence for texts which can also prove quite painful to write, as the author herself acknowledges (Rothstein, 1988). This is arguably not a book you eagerly return to to indulge in a journey of the mind back to a happy childhood - nor is it simply a diverting horror story, providing the expected thrill. The horror is too metaphorical, it tells too well the upsetting story of our relation to the child, and beyond it, to any form of otherness: our denial of its proximity to us, and our attempt to make it conform to pre-established schemata of thought, risking the very existence of these others in the process. Cleverly too, it refrains from dismissing past forms of literature as sentimentalizing the child, a wrong our "enlightened" century would set right: Lessing asks more questions than she gives answers, and her text points out unexpectedly how the Freudian discourse on the child is less a revision than a new version of Romanticism in the excessive emphasis it lays on the child. Pretending to make it a centre, both discourses actually de-centre the child, for by being the object of adult gazes, it is denied the position of looker-on and is thus abjected - or thrown off - into the peripheries of language, of power, of reality. Barely existing, as the shift of the Bildungsroman's focus to the grown man also shows, the literary child is a reminder of how little used we are to seeing or hearing its real counterpart. We are mostly present in the form of discourses in society the fifth child tells us, and when a real flesh and blood child ventures on the scene, all stop and shiver, not knowing how to deal with it, fascinated yet wanting to avert their eyes. If the child has taken so many monstrous shapes in recent fiction, it may be because, in the current ideological mould, its main alternative would be the ghost, and as its etymology suggests, only the monster has "substance" enough to be noticed.


Primary sources

BARRIE, James. 2006 (1902).The Little White Bird. Fairfield: 1st World Library.

JAMES, Henry.1993 (1898). The Turn of the Screw & The Aspern Papers. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

LESSING, Doris. 2007 (1988). The Fifth Child. London, New York, Toronto and Sydney: Harper Perennial.

ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques. 1966 (1762). Emile ou de l'éducation. Paris : Garnier Flammarion.

SHELLEY, Mary. 1994 (1818). Frankenstein. London: Penguin.

Secondary sources

ATTRIDGE, Derek. 2004. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge.

BLUM, Virginia. 1995. Hide and Seek: The Child between Psychoanalysis and Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

BOAS, George. 1990 (1966) The Cult of Childhood. Dallas: Spring Publications.

BOUCE, Paul-Gabriel. 1985 « L'imagination des femmes enceintes et le monstrueux au XVIIIe siècle » dans Le Monstrueux dans la littérature et la pensée anglaises. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence.

BOUSQUET, Gilles. 1985. « Figures du monstrueux et récit fantastique au XIXe siècle » dans Le Monstrueux dans la littérature et la pensée anglaises. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence.

CADILHAC, Micheline. 1993. « Quelques aspects de la conception romantique de l'enfance » in L'enfance dans la littérature et la civilisation anglaises. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'université de Provence.

GIRARD, René. 2002 (1972). La Violence et le Sacré. Paris : Hachette.

GIRARD, René. 1982. Le Bouc Emissaire. Paris : Grasset.

HOGLE, Jerrold E. (ed.). 2002. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

KINCAID, James. 1992. Child-Loving: the erotic child and Victorian culture. New York and London: Routledge.

KRISTEVA, Julia. 1980. Pouvoirs de l'horreur ; Approche de l'abjection. Paris : Seuil.

McGAVRAN, James (ed.). 1999. Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

PIFER, Ellen. 2000. Demon or Doll: images of the child in contemporary writing and culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

RIGAUD, Nadia. 1985. « Introduction »dans Le Monstrueux dans la littérature et la pensée anglaises. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence.

ROTHSTEIN, Mervyn. June 14, 1988. "The Painful Nurturing of Doris Lessing's Fifth Child" in The New York Times.

STAROBINSKI, Jean. 1961. L'œil vivant. Paris : Gallimard.

Going further

- a French website on the monster figure in literature and cinema, aimed at high school teachers with further links to related topics and websites :


- a seminal analysis of the child figure in literature from the Romantics up to the 20th century, explaining and contextualizing the development of its myths and topoi.

COVENEY, Peter. 1967 (1957). The Image of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

- a key historical approach to the child and modern childhood, accounting for the status and value it has acquired in our society.

ARIES, Philippe. 1960. L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien régime. Paris : Plon.

- a relatively recent and very helpful study on the part played by Romanticism in the development of the child figure in literature.

PLOTZ, Judith. 2001. Romanticism and the vocation of childhood. New York:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Excerpt from The Fifth Child

I would advise studying pages 154-156 from the edition quoted above: from "The expanse of the table soothed her " to "according to inner patterns neither she nor anyone else could guess at ". At the very end of the book, Harriet uses the big kitchen table as a mirror to look back upon all that has happened to her family.

Suggested questions

1 - What image(s) of the child is/are reflected in the table, with what symbolic meaning ?

2 - How different is this Harriet from the "innocent " one at the beginning of the narrative ?

3 - What does the similarity of aspect between the table and Harriet suggest ? How can it help us to understand what drained her of that "invisible substance '" ?

4 - Comment on the image Harriet conjures up, as opposed to the one she sees in the table. Why do you think she needs to "lean back " ?

5 - Comment on the role of focalization, on how it mediates our understanding of Ben in the last few lines.

6 - Identify the three different ways in which Harriet "sees" the child in this excerpt.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Camille François, "The modern child and Romantic monstrosity in Doris Lessing’s «The Fifth Child»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2011. Consulté le 22/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/the-modern-child-and-romantic-monstrosity-in-doris-lessing-s-the-fifth-child