Dan Sandman

23: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 03/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Fifth Child by Doris LessingHarriet and David meet at an office party. They buy a big house together and have four children. For a while they are reasonably happy, putting on parties for their extended family during the holidays. But when the fifth child Ben is born ‘not like other children’, the family idyll begins to tear and fall apart.

This short novel, which was followed years later by a sequel, was written in 1988. It is themed around family breakdowns, the British obsession with social class and the social problems surrounding children with extreme learning difficulties. In many ways it can be seen as a reaction to the often cited Margaret Thatcher quote: ‘There are individual men and woman, and there are families.’

Whilst still in their twenties, Harriet and David aspire to be ‘happy’ in the conventional, conservative sense. The fifth child upsets their plans to become the ideal middle-class family; he is an uncontrollable force placed within a controlled environment. Class influence might be able to send Ben away to an institution — where he would be imprisoned, sedated and eventually murdered by a system which is unable to cope. Money from wealthy relatives can be given to ship the other children off to boarding school out of harm’s way. But the problem of Ben goes beyond the usual coping mechanisms of British society in the 1980s. At every point, the family and the system fail to help the fifth child integrate with the world.

He therefore gravitates towards alienation.

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