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“The shadow of the fifth”: patterns of exclusion in Doris Lessing’s «The Fifth Child»

Par Anne-Laure Brevet : Maître de conférences - Université de Bretagne Occidentale
Publié par Clifford Armion le 06/12/2011

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This study of ((The Fifth Child)) (1988) attempts to show that the eponymous character, a traumatic semi-human creature who neither assimilates into his ordinary family nor conforms to the demands of society impersonates a drive for disorder, chaos and violence undermining collective ideals. On the one hand, the fact that the alien child is not only excluded from family life but also from any type of “normal” human interaction, especially in ((Ben, in the World)) (2000), reveals hidden discordant notes that further lead to the disruption of his model family. On the other hand, as the symbol of a dark, destructive force fighting against enlightenment and progress, Ben’s inherently disruptive figure is a reminder of the two World Wars and the impersonation of social unrest. Through the various patterns of exclusion triggered off by his subversive presence, the fifth child reveals that the primitive dimension of the self and of humanity at large should be understood as part and parcel of human nature.


Counteracting the myth of the perfect home, Doris Lessing confessed in an interview that her horror story of a demonic, flawed child "was an upsetting thing to write." (Rothstein, 1988) Three years before The Fifth Child was published, Lessing gave a series of talks at the Massey Lectures in Toronto - later collected under the title of Prisons We Choose to Live Inside - in which she studied how society could unexpectedly revert to barbaric behaviour, especially in times of war when "we are permitted to be brutal and cruel", because "we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups." (Lessing, Prisons, 1986, 13-19) We tend to remain powerless when confronting those who enjoy wars or violence, and we choose to overlook the frightening, negative side of humanity, or else, when forced to see it, we find scapegoats and sacrificial victims.

Being "in the wrong place" (Lessing, Conversations, 1994, 235), the "Neanderthal" fifth child represents a negative force coming from the primitive past of humanity that modern humans have outgrown and dismissed. As a troll or a changeling, the main character sparks off exclusion, an instinctual response actually mirroring his innate inclination for "break[ing] everything up" (Conversations, 177). Indeed, one of the messages of the novel is that the more individuals and society at large reject the dark side of human nature the more they relapse into primitive barbarity.

According to Lessing, The Fifth Child is not about a specific social or political problem, it "bears the deep imprint" of "the terrible class system of castes and pigeonholing people, which is characteristically British." (Conversations, 194) When in the seventies "two peoples lived in England" (The Fifth Child, 1993, 30) who were like enemies, Ben Lovatt fell into the category described as "the uneducable, the unassimilable, the hopeless" (144-145), and could have been one of the "hungry and dirty and short-lived people" inhabiting "the encircling shadow city [...] of poverty and beastliness" (Lessing, The Four-Gated City, 152) that doomed the "four-gated city" utopia to destruction. As an individual, he may both reflect on a small scale a threatening element of reality that questions ideals and acts as an embodiment of "the nightmare of social collapse." (Kizer, 1988) As the unaccountable flaw ruling out "the sweetest dream", he appears to be the "shadow of the fifth", whose eery presence, like The Shadow of the Third in The Golden Notebook (1962), represents a distressful fantasy eventually causing individuals to separate.

Intruding into the symmetrical foursome made up by the Lovatt children, the unseemly fifth child disturbs a symbolically duplicated pattern which initially sprang from the vision of social harmony Lessing's autobiographical heroine had of a "four-gated, dignified city where white and black and brown lived as equals, and there was no hatred and violence." (Martha Quest, 1990, 163) Lessing has been using such a quaternary model to divide her main novels into chapters, such as the four notebooks in The Golden Notebook or the four chapters in each volume of The Children of Violence.  The appearance of a fifth is characteristic of the author's "passionate vision of contradiction" and "strategy of contraries"(Sprague, 1987, 86-88). A fifth section, movement or notion symbolically calls into question the existing pattern so as to break "the tendency of the human mind to see things in pairs" (Prisons, 24) and achieve synthesis. Within Lessing's "profoundly dialectical consciousness" (Sprague, 2), thought-provoking odd numbers are conflicting new forms casting doubt on common "structures of belief" (Prisons, 35) and creating an evolution from mainstream thinking about identity.

Comparable to Anna Wulf's dream of "the principle of joy-in-spite" (Lessing, 1993, 419) in The Golden Notebook, a disturbingly lively figure, half-man, half-woman whose aim is to inflict pain on the individual, the nightmarish fifth child is set on wrecking the seemingly natural collective happiness of the family.

1. A tale of trauma and destruction

As Debrah Raschke points out, The Fifth Child is "a fairy tale turned sour" (Raschke, 2003 10) and in the first forty pages of the novel there are unmistakeable signs that the couple's magical recipe for having created "this miracle of a family" (26, 40) is not viable. First, the Lovatts' conservative ideal goes against the current of the nineteen-sixties as the couple opposes both the sexual freedom and the progress on the condition of women made by birth control. With their old-fashioned ideas about home-making and having "a lot" (18) of children, the wife playing the part of the Victorian "angel of the hearth", the couple ostensibly set themselves apart from the outside world which is shown in the news as increasingly invasive. Within a decade, mugging, burglary, gangs of youth, vandalism, people losing their jobs (29-30) threaten to break through the insularity of the personal sphere, and as Roberta Rubenstein notes, "the world is not a lovely place." (1988). The overall pessimism of the times seeps into the Lovatts' "fortress" or "kingdom" (30), and its impending destruction is announced by the birth of Harriet's sister's Down syndrome child ("There was a cloud, though" 28) when the family's happiness is at its highest.

The utopian model of the family is encapsulated in tableaux of the house full of relatives, parents and children gathered together at times of religious festivals in order "to immerse themselves in safety, comfort, kindness." (30) Ironically, even though the household represents "conservative" values (Gardiner, 1989, 7), it smacks of the leftist communes set up in the seventies (25, 27-8, 31-2). "Happiness, in the old style" (28) recalls the dream of a return to nature in The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). The house appears particularly heavenly during the last Easter family gathering before Ben is conceived, the Easter eggs collected by children heralding new life to come:

The morning had slid past. It was midday. Sun struck the edges of the jolly red curtains, making them an intense orange, sending orange lozenges to glow on the table among cups, saucers, a bowl of fruit. The children had come down from the top of the house and were in the garden. The adults went to watch them from the windows... (39)

Captured in this tableau, the geometrical "lozenges" of orange light filtered through and projected by the curtains convey the idea of the passing of time as well as the richness of the hour, as a memorable family gathering is set in the locus amoenus of the kitchen. The bowl of fruit like a cornucopia has the same aesthetic function as the "yellow and purple dish of fruit" in chapter XVII, part 1 of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), which harmoniously binds family members and friends together, bringing "them into sympathy momentarily" (Woolf, 1982, 90). In The Fifth Child, the transient perfection conveyed by the light is followed by an image of separation of the children from the adults who watch them through windows. Both themes signal the main pattern of exclusion in the story, which is the gradual "estrangement" (Lorna Sage, 1988) from one's kith and kin.

Initially, David may well be the real monster in the household. A conventional breadwinner, he proves to be very unsupportive of the family. With his out-of-character, irresponsible, "unscrupulous" way of "taking possession of the future in [Harriet]" (15), he disregards her wish to delay having children. Critical of his own mother for not being maternal, he also rejects his wife once she has "disobeyed" him by rescuing Ben from the institution.

Ben is like a growing tumour in the thriving family, alienating everyone. Because of his malevolent ways and curious shape, his inhuman strength and animal needs, he wreaks havoc to the middle-class idyllic retreat, and the family soon becomes "full of division" (88) before falling apart (119). Is he evil? It is difficult to say: he is cruel, but not out of spite. The children avoid him, lock their doors at night, and eventually all of them prematurely leave the house. Ben's traumatic presence acts as a principle of reality for the family. Home was sought after as a shelter. But now one has to escape from it because the direst sort of reality has crept in: potential danger, incommunicability, lack of control and horror. The novel most graphically shows the gradual psychological damages incurred by Paul, the fourth child, and the narrative is so true-to-life that the reader empathizes with his plight (119, 131).

Most of all, the mother undergoes one trauma after another, all the more so as no-one seems to understand her ordeals. Going through a series of four pregnancies had already been difficult for Harriet, but her fifth unwanted child drives her insane with pain, the incredibly strong foetus striving to "tear its way out of her stomach" (49). Whether the traumas she endures are physical or moral, she bears their brunt within her inner self and is unable to put them into words. Harriet's individual truth about Ben is systematically rejected as subversive by any type of institution, even the one where Ben is placed, thus showing the "rejection by the normal for what was outside the human limit."(128)

The description of Harriet's awful pregnancy reminded some early reviewers of The Fifth Child of Rosemary's Baby, the 1968 film by Roman Polanski, where a woman seems to be giving birth to a demon. But as Christine Jordis pointed out when the novel was published in France, "ni démon ni sabbat ne viennent bouleverser [l']histoire" (Jordis, 1990). Yet, the heroine appears to be "hag-ridden" (51), and her husband thinks that she is "possessed" (52) and nowhere "near herself" (43). Whilst the "hidden being" (52) in her womb is jocularly referred to as "a wrestler" (50) by Harriet's brother-in-law William, she soon finds herself fighting "the enemy", "this savage thing" (51), "this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive." (53) She imagines it to be a monster and has terrifying demonic visions of it ("hooves, claws", 52). Once Ben is born Harriet's alienation continues differently, the horror story starting with the description of Ben who "does not look like a baby at all" (60). Involuntarily she becomes severed from the other children because all her attention is focused on Ben. Her struggle for survival, announced before the birth (53), is to continue until middle age when Ben leaves the house.

Harriet is not only shocked at Ben's monstrous behaviour when he is an infant - deliberately hurting her when breast-feeding and spraining his brother Paul's arm against his cot - or a toddler - when he kills the family's pet -, she finds herself guilty at her own unacceptable thoughts. When Ben stands on the windowsill she wished she had come too late (73), or when he escapes into the street, she seems to pray for him to be run over by a car (77). She also is affected by "the censure from others [that] makes her feel responsible for having brought into the world a being who systematically shreds the affectionate family bonds she and David have labored with love to create." (Rubenstein, 1988) Instead of pitying Harriet for having "suffered a misfortune" everyone despises her by for having "committed a crime" (94). She is held responsible for having broken the role pattern of the group and clearly becomes "a scapegoat" (141). She remains constantly unsupported, especially by the medical profession, which refuses to acknowledge Ben's difference in terms that would make sense to her. The closest they can come to terms with Harriet's wish to "name" the child's difference is to tell her "it is outside [their] competence" (127), emphasizing the gap between the two incompatible realms of science and the supernatural. The only thing Harriet can do is watch how people react to Ben, and so the last doctor she shows Ben to, Dr Gilly, a woman, eventually looks horrified both at Ben the alien and at his mother "who had given birth to" him (128), hence making her rejection manifest through body language.

Whilst the fifth child is not officially excluded from society at first, he gradually becomes so as people apprehend him on a subliminal level of reminiscence - he embodies the archetype of the villain.

2. The odd child out and shadow

Harriet is tormented by the recurring question about the nature of Ben, "What is he?" (66). Ben is literally inconceivable, hence Harriet's horrible pregnancy. He is an alien, a monster, a changeling, a throwback, "a Neanderthal baby" (66). His irredeemable difference sets him apart. At the end of the novel Harriet thinks he is doomed to be looking for "another of his kind" (153) for the rest of his life. This theme is developed at the end of Ben, in the World where "poor Ben" - as he sometimes pathetically calls himself - is the loneliest possible being. Frescoes of a lost tribe in the Andes show what could have been his kin. In a sense, Harriet sees him as a permanent mystery, often wondering how he perceives the world around him "with those peculiar eyes of his", and what he thinks. She imagines that "Ben's people were at home [...] deep underground in black caverns lit by torches" (146) in an uncertain and unscientific picture of the Ice Age that summarizes her utmost fears. His people might have been "sneaking up [...] to snare a bear [...] or even [Harriet's] ancestors" (156). In an interview with Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, Lessing said that she was influenced by the anthropologist and poet Loren Eiseley's essay The Unexpected Universe (1969) in which he imagined having seen an Ice Age girl. "He speculated that the gene could have come down through the centuries." (Lessing, 1988)

As the odd child out, Ben is also the "oddball" who can only consort with gangs of young delinquents. At moments of comic relief in the story, the youths call him "Hobbit, Gremlin, Dopey, Alien 2"(114). As a matter of fact, everyone in the family is afraid of him, especially Harriet when she goes up to the loft to look for him in his den ("she was rigid with terror" 140) or when she realizes he is prying on his parents' sleep in their bedroom. Yet she is the only person who can tame him. By threatening him to put him back to the institution, she manages to make him obey her, like a dog ("Ben, down" 131, "like a frightened dog", 128) - his similarity with dogs is emphasized in Ben, in the World. His instincts are to devour raw meat, to be unable to love and to be loved, as his surname Lovatt ironically suggests. He seems to be especially violent and destructive towards females. As a toddler he badly bruised his grandmother's cheek and forearm (79) and when at school appallingly attacked a little girl and broke her arm (121). This particular event made his mother conjecture his role in the gang of thugs when they broke into a shop - he could well have been the one who had beaten up the postmistress and "left [her] unconscious" (152). Harriet later suspects him of being a rapist, and manifests constant fear about his procreating, thus reviving the lost gene of his race. As a sexual being Ben is even more of a threat (136-7; 156).

In spite of his "domestic terrorism" (Rowe, 1994,103), the fifth child may not be responsible for his unconformable nature, which his mother tries to keep under control, and his urge to kill his brother is not as deliberate as his father's premeditated attempt at infanticide on him. Harriet views Ben's presence as a kind of divine punishment inflicted on her couple by fate for being too proud of their own happiness (141), a notion angrily refuted by David. If Ben is definitely a curse to his parents, far worse than his cousin Amy, the lovely and loveable Down syndrome child (81), he is also less unnatural than Frankenstein's man-made creature.

What he really seems to be transgressing is indeed human nature, in the sense that he is too overtly on the side of nature, being both animal-like and somewhat supernatural. As Harriet's mother Dorothy says, "he may be normal for what he is, but he is not normal for what we are." (79) The awful vitality he displays goes against a benign vision of human nature, making him "the diametric opposite to Rousseau's natural man" (Weeks,1988).  Even though he seems to be more of an animal than a human being, he has the characteristics of both, which makes him ambivalent. To Harriet he is "the nasty little brute [she doesn't] want to kill"(67), and although she is unable to love him, she pities him. As a mother, her duty is to protect him because he is "a little child, [....] our child" (90), a statement ferociously denied by David. When drugged unconscious in the institution and lying in excrement, he appears to be "pathetic", an aspect extensively dwelled upon in Ben, in the World.

There is no home, no welcoming place for this strange human beast, no matter how hard he tries to struggle against his instincts. If he gives a sense of estrangement to everyone near him it is because he is an outsider - he is lost, displaced, exiled wherever he goes. Rejected by his siblings as "not really one of us" (93), a phrase incidentally repeated by Margaret Thatcher during the eighties, he is cast away from the family scene and also politically unacceptable, unable to fit in any rationally organised social group. Ben may be related to the "Dark Continent", this unknown part of Africa feared by British colonists as a hidden subterranean force. Ben's character could be regarded as an allegory of revenge against conventional 'white' society. As a creature of darkness, "a blotch of shadow" (140) - he lurks in the dark corners of the attic - he is also an instrument of poetic justice avenging the people excluded from the Lovatts' smug household.

Contrary to some monstrous animals appearing in Lessing's science fiction, as for example the terrifying rat-dogs in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) or the admirable cat-dog in The Memoirs of a Survivor, Ben is a compound of three different categories - the natural, the supernatural and the human. The natural and supernatural aspects of him are merged together and represent the uncontrollable, evil, but necessary facet of the self, and of humanity at large, as C.G. Jung has it, the "shadow". Martha Quest exploring her unconscious thoughts at the end of The Four-Gated City discovers it (Lessing, 1990, 561) when her reasonable self becomes "swallowed by its shadow", the reverse, evil side of herself she calls  "the Devil" or "the Self-Hater" (Lessing, 1990, 566). In addition, Paul and Ben can be viewed as archetypal doubles, so that their opposed brotherly figures reveal the good and evil faces of a Janus-like human nature (Paul's "cuddlesome and funny [...] real nature" is "overshadowed by Ben", 68). Mostly, the shadowy dimension of the self is revealed in a story told by the father to his children not long before Ben is born:

Suddenly the little girl found she was alone. She and her brother had lost each other. She wanted to go home. She did not know which way to walk [...] She wandered about for a long time, and then she was thirsty again. She bent over a pool wondering if it would be orange juice, but it was water, clear pure forest water, and it tasted of plants and stones. She drank, from her hands.' Here the two older children reached for their glasses and drank. Jane interlaced her fingers to form a cup.

She sat there by the pool. Soon it would be dark. She bent over the pool to see if there was a fish who could tell her the way out of the forest, but she saw something she didn't expect. It was a girl's face, and she was looking straight up at her. It was a face she had never seen in her whole life. This strange girl was smiling, but it was a nasty smile, not friendly, and the little girl thought this other girl was going to reach out of the water and pull her down into it. . . (55-56)

This episode may be compared to Jung's vision of archetypes:

The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one's shadow [...]. Whoever looks into the water sees his own image, but behind it [...] sometimes a nixie gets into the fisherman's net [...]. The nixie is an even more instinctive version of a magical feminine being whom I call anima [...]

Only when props and crutches are broken, and no cover from the rear offers the slightest hope of security does it become possible for us to experience an archetype that up to then had hidden behind the meaningful nonsense played out by the anima. This is the archetype of meaning, just as the anima is the archetype of life itself. (Jung. 1967-79, par. 44-66.)

The father's embedded narrative resonates with the metaphorical description Jung gives about the first stages of individuation, that is, the discovery of one's identity, starting with "the meeting with one's shadow" on the reflecting surface of the pool. Harriet recognizes herself immediately in the "strange girl" smiling at her with a "nasty", sarcastic smile. It is the reverse side of herself, her personal unconscious and shadow (56). But the "nixie" - an "unfriendly" water sprite from the German mythology - Harriet has caught a glimpse of, once she is completely alone in the woods and there is no sense of security left, also impersonates the "anima", the feminine principle of the seducer, the mermaid. In Jung's theory, the anima works as the counterpart to the male unconscious (animus) and the image of seductive femininity it represents belongs to the "collective unconscious." In the passage, Jung elaborates on the nature of the anima by calling it "the archetype of life itself." As an oxymoron ("meaningful nonsense") and given its altogether negative and complementary nature, the discovered archetype is not to be rejected or suppressed but has to be accepted as part of the self.

If the metadiegetic tale functions as a mise en abyme in the novel, it is to announce the natural though unexpected event about to take place. The alien child makes its appearance in order to crystallise an aspect of each individual parent unknown to them so far - Harriet's "shadow" and David's "anima" are to "materialize" (57) out of the darkness of the pond - a strange word their children do not understand. It is a dark, opposing force lying in their mother's womb. Subverting the usual fairy tale model, the story introduces the children to an unknown, frightening element that will disturb the course of their lives.

Lastly, David's tale mirrors the general symbolic meaning of The Fifth Child, which is associated with the quest for identity (Jung's "process of individuation") and the acceptance of one's human condition. The description of nature replacing the fairy tale elements is not all negative, as for example the pool of fresh water smelling of plants, instead of the pool of orange juice, appeals more to children because it is more true to life and they can imagine drinking from it. The nature theme strikes a chord that continues in Ben, in the World. It is mainly in the second novel that Ben's experience of loneliness and rejection for being too "natural", like an animal brought to bay, paradoxically endows him with humanity. Similarly, the little girl in the tale represents Harriet's sense of isolation from the rest of the family ("she sat cold and lonely in the kitchen," 140), when looking after the "angry, hostile little troll" (69). The "alien country" (108) he comes from and where his mother chooses to follow him, knowing full well no-one ever encourages her to, evokes Thomas Hobbes' "state of nature." It is a hideous condition of war and chaos where individual freedom reigns without rules and the "life of man" is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes, 1984, part 1, chapter 13, paragraph 9).

– The fact that the nasty face reflected in the lake represents the violent side of humanity as unknown to the main character up until the fifth child makes his appearance is symptomatic of Lessing's prophetic visions of a new generation turning against their elders and against society at large.

3. The "child of violence"

When interviewed by Mervyn Rothstein about The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing insisted that it was her intimation of the impermanence of happiness that had made her "destroy [...] this rather attractive family in the novel."

I do have a sense, and I've never not had it, of how easily things can vanish. It's a sense of disaster. I know where it comes from - my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this.  And after all, it's true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children. (Lessing, 1988)

This particular statement echoes previous ones Lessing made about her "fascination with war, and the First World War in particular" which is "central to [her] life and writing" (Briggs, 2008, 1). Lessing's fiction is fraught with the anxiety contained in the news. The individual conscience is shown to struggle against the negative influence of hallucinatory images of endemic violence and wars pervading the collective scene. Indeed, not only do Lessing's five autobiographical novels entitled The Children of Violence project onto her generation the trauma of being born immediately after the First World War, but also most of her works relentlessly convey the horrors witnessed by her shell-shocked father during what he called "The Great Unmentionable" (Martha Quest, 1990, 40).

Even as a child I knew [my father's] obsessive talking about the Trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. So I had the full force of the Trenches, tanks, star-shells, shrapnel - the lot - through my childhood, and felt as if the black cloud he talked about was there, pressing down on me. (Lessing, 2008, 170).

The First World War was an endless source of shock, trauma and bereavement among the British population, all the more so in the inter-war period as the government did not keep its promises to aim at a fairer society and "make Britain a fit country to live in" (Lloyd George, 1918). According to the historian Arthur Marwick, World War I "hit British consciousness with traumatic force, leaving bitterness and cynicism in its train." (Marwick, 1971, 1) The population who was "psychologically wounded" felt betrayed by governments and institutions.

The fact that Lessing pictures violence and shows pessimistic views about society testifies to the Great War's inescapable influence on her fiction. Striking scenes of fighting and destruction consistently appear in the futuristic worlds she called "space fiction." The most horrifying vision is undoubtedly the nightmarish carnage between mythical animals witnessed by the schizophrenic hero of Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Post-apocalyptic tableaux of cities ruined by war appear in Briefing and The Memoirs of a Survivor, recalling the ruins of the London houses destroyed during the Blitz, an indelible burden of memories recorded in the opening of The Four-Gated City. In The Fifth Child, the passage (98-9) describing the misshapen children abandoned in the institution where their parents discard them as monsters brings to mind a vision of the atrocious physical damages caused to the soldiers during the First World War, as painted for example by Otto Dix (Card-Playing Cripples, 1920).

As a "child of violence" Ben is in turn traumatised by his stay at the unmentioned "place" in the North of England, and traumatising towards his family, bringing the seeds of discord, materialising some socially unacceptable aspect of reality. Moreover, he reproduces what goes on at a collective level, where "the children of violence" represent the consequence of what society bred during and after The First World War. As "the barbarous eighties" (129) is the backdrop to Ben's gang of delinquents, Lessing's pessimism about the younger generations foretells a nasty future in a similar style as Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962). In The Memoirs, for example, the population is terrorised by gangs of five-year-old children whose precociously unaccountable violence impinges a hopeless vision of society on the reader. So does The Good Terrorist (1985), where a rehabilitated squat shelters a gang of young activists who plot and carry out a deadly bomb attack. In the case of the Lovatts, Lessing brings to the fore not so obviously the consequences of war but a state of war happening in the microcosm, and by so doing reveals that societal violence springs from any kind of institution. By pointing at the sinister aspects of family values, the novelist suggests an interpretation of what causes violence at all levels of society, that is, the loss of individual freedom through group mentality. Viginia Tiger claims that Lessing's fiction of the late eighties such as The Making of Representative for Planet 8, The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child are "cautionary" texts because they "challenge political extremisms, championing [...] individual independence, moderate iconoclasm in the face of ideologies." (1990, 89)

Indeed, the first steps towards "individual independence" commit to observing how violence and exclusion are connected so as to come to terms with what they entail and eventually find a way to oppose them.

4. Subversive lineage as a way to self-discovery and individual freedom

Quite clearly, David and Harriet's plan to have so many children ties them down to a not so enjoyable number of family duties. Compared to their normal children playing wildly in the garden, the two adults in the kitchen are  "sitting there, tame, domestic, even pitiable in their distance from wilderness and freedom." (91) As Roberta Rubenstein claims, "in [Lessing's] fiction sexuality and the family are exposed as bondages that the individual must break through." (1979, 228) Above all, the couple is not free because they are involved in enforcing the rules of family establishment. Those who do not fit the model they embody are regarded as deviant and are expelled.

Until Harriet breaks up the family cohesion by transgressing its tacit rules when retrieving her last son, she and David are not free individuals or subjects but "fulfil their role as perfect specimens who will guarantee support for the dominant ideology." (Waterman, 2006, 11) In spite of being literally excommunicated by her husband for making a decision against his will, Harriet never manages to overcome their overly close relationship where their single identities are merged into one defining and immutable entity - us ("That is the kind of person we are, and there's nothing we can do about it, for better or worse." 153).

The psychiatrist R.D. Laing who explored the dynamics of group relationships in the late sixties started with showing how families create patterns of exclusion basically by opposing a sense of "us" to an outside enemy referred to as them. He showed that "some families live in perpetual anxiety of what, to them, is an external persecuting world." (1990, 74) The "protection" the family offers is based on a "terror" of the outer world some of its members generate so as to control its cohesion as a group. By calling such frequent and questionable family practices "violence" and "terrorism", Laing moves on to explaining how the person is sacrificed to the other members of the community. "We" are all harbouring a similar "presence" which makes us gossip and discriminate against the "Other." In the long run, it is this primitive sense of collective identity that creates dangerous borders between people, inducing exclusion or even war (Laing, 78). But the least dissention can easily make groups crumble down - and any schism is bound to dissolve the "we" entity. In the novel, the fact that Ben embodies the fantasy of outside danger infiltrating home when his gang squat the house and that neither he nor his mother are really one of us makes the family fall [...] apart (119).

As the tale disturbingly works its way through the destruction of the Lovatt family when the children increasingly grow distant from their parents and leave the house, the reader is faced with the most unconventional questioning that makes him wonder about the meaning and legitimacy of family itself.  "Family and society represent attempts to ward off all that is wild, destructive, unreasonable. But Lessing suggests that these controls, these apparently benign attempts to make life secure and bearable, may in fact spawn the monstrous." (Gray, 1988).

The materialization of a monster child has subverted family values, resulting in the gradual estrangement of the children from their parents, especially between Ben and his mother, literally perverting mother-and-child relationships. But in the painful process of coming apart, the mother's individual self has been strengthening and maturing. As David Waterman has it, the presence of the Other "is a means towards self-knowledge." (2006, 89) Indeed, if the mythical fifth child is an instinctual force overhauling preconception and existing truths, the developments in his story disclose a rite of passage to maturity, a theme that Lessing started in The Golden Notebook, continued in The Summer before the Dark (1973) and expanded in most of her fiction.

The shadow cast by the fifth child shattered idealistic thoughts about happiness, the positive result being that he also destroyed the family's self-centred habit of being blind to other people's misfortunes. Upon splitting the family, the parental couple and also the mother's personality, "the fifth" is a reminder that such splitting and cleaving as Jacques Lacan envisaged about the subject may also lead to structuring or re-structuring the self. As the main character of The Golden Notebook discovered:

I want to be able to separate from myself what is old and cyclic, the recurring history, the myth, from what is new, from what I feel or think that might be new [...] ...there is a crack in that man's personality like a gap or a dam, and through that gap the future might pour in a different shape - terrible perhaps, or marvellous, but something new [...] But sometimes I meet people, and it seems to me the fact they are cracked across, they're split, means they are keeping themselves open for something. (Lessing, 1993, 416)

At the end of The Fifth Child, Harriet realizes that if she wants to carry on living she has to leave the house in order to separate herself from the burdensome past it represents ("She was a ferment of need to start a new life. She wanted to be done with this unhappy house." 153) The house as an inclusive symbol of shelter, the positive centre of community life and blossoming up of children's personalities - such as in many Lessing novels including The Sweetest Dream (2001) - finally appears as a transient hosting place, prematurely to be discarded as an empty shell. As Harriet gazes at her aged reflection on the polished surface of the large wooden table she contemplates a more inclusive image of herself that makes her at last understands that "her passion to know more about" Ben has taught her to grow and to move on.

Harriet's never fulfilled wish to humanise Ben primarily meant that she wanted to have him recognise her as his mother or rather as the image of a nurturing mother. But the story shows that this very image is also a myth. Her behaviour with Ben is revealing of a possessive streak also to be found in her husband's behaviour, which is, she says, about possessing happiness ("a fierce possessiveness that Harriet liked and understood" (24). Indeed, when the normal young children escaped from their parents' possessive control to become "part of some old savagery in the garden" (91), they appeared to the adults as "two alien forms of life." But as they returned to greet and embrace their parents they became "their children" (92) again, the episode acting as a foreboding of more estrangement, more loneliness to come for Ben and his mother (137).

Undoubtedly, Harriet's struggle to understand Ben's nature is inextricably linked with Ben's struggle for independence from her. Not only love is excluded from their relationship right from the start, but also she is unable to bring him any moral comfort because she has to threaten him regularly about putting him back in the institution, which terrifies him (123). What is between Ben and his mother has to do with vital functions. She saves him from the institution and helps him get over his internment by teaching him social skills to overcome his natural urges. Despite Harriet's efforts, an unbridgeable gap widens between them ("he ignored his mother" 73), and later between Ben and the world, a void, and an unquenched desire for social interaction whose metaphor is Ben's voracity. In 1953, Lessing wrote Hunger, a short novel about a black young man who quite impossibly craves for social recognition in a racist colonial South African state. The hungry outcast is led to acts of violence, but his longing for knowledge and education eventually saves him from the underworld.

The marginalising process Ben goes through both in this novel and in its sequel, leading to the separation of all the family members, is one of the many issues Lessing raises when she links the microcosm with the macrocosm and the personal with the collective. By revealing how subversive of commonly acceptable family patterns lineage can become, this short powerful novel may be regarded as an apocalyptic bildungsroman in reverse, a gothic rewriting of The Children of Violence which focuses on the formation of the personality experienced through the painful severing of family ties.


Eiseley, Loren. 1969.The Unexpected Universe. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651 (1984). Leviathan, The English Version. Oxford: Howard Warrender ed.

Ingersoll, Earl, G. ed. Conversations. 1994. Princeton, New Jersey: Ontario Review Press.

Jung, C.G. 1967-79. Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works 9. Princeton: Pantheon/Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press.

Laing, R.D. 1967 (1990). The Politics of Experience. London: Penguin Books.

Lessing, Doris. 1952 (1990). Martha Quest (The Children of Violence, vol. 1,). London: London: HarperCollins.

--------------------- 1953 (1994). The Sun Between Their Feet (Collected African Stories, vol. 2). "Hunger". London: HarperCollins, 238-378.

---------------------1962 (1993). The Golden Notebook. London: HarperCollins.

---------------------1969 (1990). The Four-Gated City (The Children of Violence, vol. 5,). London: HarperCollins.

--------------------1971 (1972). Briefing for a Descent into Hell. London: HarperCollins.

--------------------1974 (1976). The Memoirs of a Survivor. London: Pan Books.

--------------------1986. Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986.

--------------------1988 (1993). The Fifth Child. London: HarperCollins.

--------------------April, 3, 1988. Interviewed by Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, Sunday New York Times Book Review.

--------------------- June, 14, 1988. Interviewed by Mervyn Rothstein. "The Painful Nurturing of Doris Lessing's 'Fifth Child'".  New York Times.

---------------------2000. Ben, in the World. London: HarperCollins.

---------------------2001. The Sweetest Dream. London: HarperCollins.

---------------------2008. Alfred and Emily. London: HarperCollins.

Marwick, Arthur. 1963 (1971). The Explosion of British Society, 1914-70. London: Macmillan.

Rowe, Elizabeth. 1994. Doris Lessing. London: Macmillan.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Rubenstein, Roberta. 1979. The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing, Breaking the Forms of Consciousness. Urbana, Il. : University of Illinois Press.

Schlueter , Paul. 1975. A Small Personal Voice: Doris Lessing. Essays, Reviews, Interviews. New York: Vintage.

Tiger, Virginia. "Cultures of Occupation and the Canadian [Con]script[ion]: 'Lessing changed my life'" in Sprague, Claire ed. Nine Nations Reading. 1990. London: Macmillan, 89-101.

Waterman, David. 2006. Identity in Doris Lessing's Space Fiction. Youngstown, New York: Cambria Press.

Woolf, Virginia. 1927 (1982). To the Lighthouse. London: Granada.

Going further

Briggs, Marlene A. Winter-Spring 2008. "'Born in the Year 1919': Doris Lessing, and the First World War, and The Children of Violence". Doris Lessing Studies, Vol.27 Nos. 1&2, 3-10.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. 1989. "Collapsing Class: Doris Lessing and the Fearmonger Shop". MLA.

Gray, Paul. March, 14, 1988. "Home is Where the Horrors Are". Time.

Jordis, Christine. 1-5 avril 1990. « L'utilisation du mythe. » La Quinzaine Littéraire.

Kizer, Carolyn. April, 3, 1988. "Bad News for the Nice and Well-Meaning". The New York Times Book Review.

Lloyd-George, David. Monday, Nov 25, 1918. "The Election. Prime Minister on the Issues. 'A Fit Country for Heroes.' Dissolution Today." The Times.

Mullan, John. 14 avril 2008. Video interview of Doris Lessing. The Official Website of the Nobel Prize.


Sage, Lorna. May, 31, 1988. "English Novelist Exploits Gift of Estrangement". Houston Chronicle.

Sprague, Claire. 1987. Rereading Doris Lessing. Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Raschke, Debrah. Winter 2003. "The Fifth Child: From Fairy-Tale to Monstrosity." Doris Lessing Studies, Vol. 23, No 1.

Rubenstein, Roberta. July 1988. " Enfant Terrible", The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 10-11.

Pivot, Bernard. 24/12/1981. Apostrophes : Doris Lessing. Television show on books.

Archives de l'INA :


Sage, Lorna. May 1988. "The Gift of Estrangement." The Houston Chronicle.

Weeks, Brigitte. March, 27, 1988. "Conjuring Up Some Very Dark Specters." The Houston Post.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Anne-Laure Brevet, "“The shadow of the fifth”: patterns of exclusion in Doris Lessing’s «The Fifth Child»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2011. Consulté le 30/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/the-shadow-of-the-fifth-patterns-of-exclusion-in-doris-lessing-s-the-fifth-child