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It is assumed that you have read the book before reading posts in this thread, as the discussion might give away crucial points, and the continuous use of spoiler tags might hinder fluent reading of posts.

 

 

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

 

Product Description from Amazon

 

’Listening to the laughter, the sounds of children playing, Harriet and David would reach for each other’s hand, and smile, and breathe happiness.’

Four children, a beautiful old house, the love of relatives and friends, Harriet and David Lovatt’s life is a glorious hymn to domestic bliss and old-fashioned family values. But when their fifth child is born, a sickly and implacable shadow is cast over this tender idyll. Large and ugly, violent and uncontrollable, the infant Ben, ‘full of cold dislike,’ tears at Harriet’s breast. Struggling to care for her new-born child, faced with a darkness and a strange defiance she has never known before, Harriet is deeply afraid of what, exactly, she has brought into the world…

 

Welcome to April's book circle. I have read this book and am amazed at the number of points it raises for discussion.

 

A few questions/statements to start us off:

 

1. What did you think of this book?

2. What do you think about ‘The Dream’?

3. What do you think about Harriet as a mother and David as a father?

4. What do you think about David and Harriet’s marriage?

5. What are your feelings about Ben?

6. Ben’s first words were ‘I want cake’. What do you make of that?

7. How do you feel about Harriet's decision to return for Ben?

8. Who was your favorite/least favorite character? Why?

9. There is a sequel to this book, called Ben in the World. Will you be reading it? What about more books by Doris Lessing?

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1. What did you think of this book?

 

It is a very thought provoking story. Although it is a very short book, the number of themes it touches upon is really vast. At the centre of it there is David and Harriet’s ‘Dream’, that they have a houseful of kids and live happily ever after. However this dream of theirs could be best described as naïve, and at worse selfish. I was cross that the author made this book so short, although I cannot but admire her skills at packing such a number of different interpretations in so few pages, when it could have been longer and some aspects further explored and explained. Even the opening sentences, when Harriet and David meet, does not really let you get to know them much….no descriptions of the first dates together, first experiences…it reads as if they meet one minute, buy a house and are expecting a child all within a fortnight. The author does not use chapters - it is just one short uninterrupted story, which further gives it an air of breathlessness. This is probably intended to coax the readers read the book in one go. I would not describe this as a horror story, nor as exceptionally creepy or terrifying.

 

 

 

2. What do you think about ‘The Dream’?

 

 

Although in theory Harriet and David’s dream is idyllic, they definitely did not plan it out. They started a family at other people’s expense - especially Dorothy’s who ended up being a full time carer for the whole family, and James who had to support them financially, for so long. They seem immature in their expectations, and do not put any thoughts behind their actions, reasoning that ‘they would manage somehow.’ They are happy when the whole house is full of people, and it does not seem to matter that the financial burden gets bigger and bigger, because James is picking up the slack. It does not matter that the housekeeping chores are so much with so many people around, Dorothy can help, even though this leaves her with no time at all for her other children, and for herself. They pursue this dream when it stops making any sense at all - having more children just for the sake of it is wrong and even cruel , when each child is not given the nurturing he or she needs just because there is a newer model around. At times it feels as if it was a production type job, have a baby put -him in the baby room,- have another one, -move the first baby into the next room -put the new baby into the baby room.

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1. What did you think of this book?

 

I find it a very intriguing book indeed; I read it twice just after it was published and then gave it away, then was given a copy and read it again before giving it away, and now I have bought it again to re-read for the Reading Circle! Like Maureen, I do feel it could have been expanded into a much longer story without losing any of its impact, but every time I read it I am amazed at just what Doris Lessing managed to pack into such a short book.

 

2. What do you think about ‘The Dream’?

 

I have no objection to people having big houses and large numbers of children - if they can afford them! Again like Maureen, I found it quite incredibly selfish of them to expect their chosen lifestyle to be funded by James, and supported full-time by Doreen. When it became obvious that Harriet was not going to be able to cope, they should have stopped their reproduction then! I didn't feel that the children themselves suffered from this until Ben came along though. But for Harriet to suggest having another child after Ben? Quite amazing...

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Re 2 - Sometimes when you think about it, having children is a rather selfish decsion. When a couple decides to have a baby, it is always something they want for themselves - you never sort of think - ok, let's have a baby - to give a life to someone else...you always say we want a baby (obviously for ourselves :) ). I know it is a strange statement to make, but if you think about it, it is true isn't it?

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I had a technical hitch buying this from Amazon so haven't got it yet either. Will catch up!

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3. What do you think about Harriet as a mother and David as a father?

 

David has two sets of parents, and he makes sure he is as different from them as possible. He sets out to cancel out both sets’ deficiencies as he saw them. He does not seem to feel love or bonding with any set, and this perhaps sets the foundation stone for his ‘Dream’. He also has no real relationship with his sister, whose character and outlook are totally different to his. He has no friends to speak of, and spends much of his childhood in his room - the one at his mother’s house. When he gets older this pattern is still there - he has no close friends (at least any that are mentioned in the story) or even any casual friends who he hangs out with. In his role as a father however, he did not succeed where his own father did - he could not provide for his family, and where his mother did - being practical and knowing what his children needed. Overall I do not think he had much of a relationship with all of his offspring, he spent a lot of time at work, or commuting to and from work, leaving him with little time to play with or enjoy his kids.

 

Harriet’s childhood is not really discussed, we are told that her mother is happy with her life, and that this presumably assured Harriet that family life is what she wants. She embarks on this venture with a vengeance - she became pregnant on the day that they acquired their house. Motherhood is not difficult for Harriet, as long as she has her mother’s help, her father-in-law’s financial support, David’s love and approval and a healthy, perfect baby. She argues that having a large number of kids is only alien to people in this part of the world, that people in India or Egypt all have a large number of kids, and sees this as a right - hers and David‘s. Her immaturity does not let her realise that the number of kids she wants to have will have a direct impact on the quality of life of all the family. Bringing more kids into the world because she thinks it is her right is both selfish and cruel. All of her pregnancies were difficult, but not as much as her fifth pregnancy. This pregnancy, for starters, was not unconsciously planned as the others were. From the very beginning a cloud loomed on their otherwise perfect horizon. This foetus Harriet labelled as different and not normal, a label which stuck. In her third month, Harriet started to feel rejected by David, and blamed the foetus. When she was five months along she went to her doctor to get a confirmation that her foetus was not normal, perhaps to assuage the way she was feeling about it. She used to say that she distrusted the pill as a form of contraceptive, but had no qualms at all about taking tranquillizers while she was pregnant, even to the point when she increased the dose beyond which must have deemed safe by her doctor. This is another thing she did not think much about - how much did these drugs contribute to the way Ben is? She started to think of the foetus as the enemy within her, thinking of phantoms and chimeras, not exactly loving and caring thoughts of a mother-to-be. Her mental image of the creature inside her was of a creature not of this world, or at least, certainly not of this time.

 

Later on, when baby Ben was born, she had really difficult decisions to make. Her time with Ben was given at the other children’s expense - especially Paul, who did not have much nurturing from his mother. Should she give Ben up? She could not do that - when David put him in an institution, her conscience would not let her rest and she brought him back home, a decision which ultimately cost her her family.

 

The way Harriet thought was not logical at all. Her fifth pregnancy was different than the others, hence her child must be different, a changeling, a beast.

 

Harriet also voiced the thoughts that Amy was a punishment to her sister and her brother-in-law, because their marriage was failing, and that Ben was their punishment because they dared to want it all. Not all mothers love their children, and Harriet, although she loved her other children, simply did not have the same connection with Ben as with the others, a fact that she felt guilty for, and ultimately she traded her love and relationship with the others to Ben‘s presence in their lives, as a sort of atonement.

 

 

 

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It's always interesting to see how we all see stories so differently, Maureen; while you see it that Harriet didn't love her child and therefore don't consider it to be a horror story, I see it that she did indeed give birth to a throw-back to Neanderthal times and so very much think of it as a horror story! :)

 

3. What do you think of Harriet as a mother and David as a father?

 

As a parent, I tend to take the view that most parents are doing the best they can in the circumstances, and that whatever they do will be judged to be wrong by their offspring until they grow up and have offspring of their own, at which time they will hopefully become forgiving of whatever mistakes have been made!

 

In that they both loved their children and treated them well, I think they were good parents. However, Harriet ultimately made the choice to be a good mother to Ben and was therefore not available to be a good mother to the rest of her family. David worked hard and did his best to provide, which I think is what a good father does.

 

My judgements about them are more about them as people - David was not able to fund his family on his own, as they had chosen a lifestyle that was beyond their means, and Harriet needed practical help from her mother to manage the household and family she had chosen to have.

 

However, I can't decide if I am being too harsh with them on the grounds that I think they are educated, intelligent and "should have known better". Nowadays, of course, they would have had access to vast amounts of cash and childcare vouchers through the tax credit system even if David was on a good wage. And if they were a family where neither of the parents worked and the household was chaotic and the children (however many) barely cared for, very few people would criticise them out loud, no matter what they felt inside for fear of being labelled politically incorrect or judgemental. In addition, I do know quite a few "middle class" families where the parents help out both financially and practically in order that their children and grandchildren have the lifestyle deemed appropriate, and nobody seems to think twice about it.

 

It seems to be the amount of children they had rather than the practicalities of Harriet and David's life that makes me feel critical of them!

Edited by Ooshie

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It's always interesting to see how we all see stories so differently, Maureen; while you see it that Harriet didn't love her child and therefore don't consider it to be a horror story, I see it that she did indeed give birth to a throw-back to Neanderthal times and so very much think of it as a horror story! :)

 

 

That's true Ooshie, and that is what I love about these circles - the different facets of the story, each one as percieved by a different individual.

Regarding Ben, I do think he was emotionally handicapped in some way or another...so I think Harriet gave birth to a handicapped child. I would love to know what was really really wrong with him....

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I would love to know what was really really wrong with him....

 

In the sequel, Ben in the World, you get to learn more about Ben's behaviours and thought processes. At the end of the book (I think) you see what he thinks of himself, and what his response to this final realisation is. It's another very short book; I haven't checked how long the gap was before she wrote the sequel, and don't know whether she always had it in mind, but I do feel they could easily have been published in one book.

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1. What did you think of this book?

Initially I found the book hard to get into, and thought it was my wobbly mojo playing up. I then realised that it was the writing making me feel unsettled and anxious.I finished the book just before I went to bed, and I had to consciously place my thoughts in a happier place as I found them going to very dark places in my mind.

 

2. What do you think about ‘The Dream’?

The dream of 'we will create a family' David and Harriet, and their ungrateful dependency not only on his father's money, but additionally her mother's extraordinary assistance really rankled me. Thanks were occasionally given, but it never felt genuine; it was as if they felt that everyone should assist them in fulfillig their desires, no matter the cost to any. It's great to have had a shared dream, but I found their blinkered pursuance of their dream selfish and disturbing. It also meant that when Ben came along, they couldn't cope with any aspect of his existence.

 

3. What do you think about Harriet as a mother and David as a father?

Awful! Their ability to parent didn't seem to extend beyond babyhood. Not only could they not financially provide for their children, they also couldn't take care of the practical and emotional needs of the children. The neccessity for James' money and Dorothy's extensive help was all taking place before Ben was born, so really raises questions about their parenting for me.

 

Harriet's drug taking throughout the Ben pregnancy was deeply disturbing. She did that, but wouldn't seek proper professional help following her own doctor's careless disregard. The question that kept coming back to me as I read was to what degree did her drug taking create the boy that Ben would become? I was still unable to answer that by the close.

 

With both David and Harriet I found them to be ineffective. They wanted and pursued more than they could cope with, and inappropriately felt superiority over everyone who might disagree with them. Neither took effective steps to help Ben in a constructive and loving way, and neither properly helped their four older children. Each child aside from the damaged and neglected Paul had to take their own steps to escape home, with each heading off to a different family member where they felt they would be loved,noticed and cared for.

 

Harriet redeemed herself a little in my mind when she rescued Ben from the appalling conditions of the 'home' he had been sent to, but again did so little to help the situation; if one doctor said nothing could be done, she left it there and didn't seek a different doctor, a different solution.

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1. What did you think of this book?

Initially I found the book hard to get into, and thought it was my wobbly mojo playing up. I then realised that it was the writing making me feel unsettled and anxious.I finished the book just before I went to bed, and I had to consciously place my thoughts in a happier place as I found them going to very dark places in my mind.

 

I kept thinking about this book and could not settle into another book straight away. I kept going over the whole story again and again in my mind.

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Doris Lessing is a phenomenal writer to be able to create such an impactful piece in so few pages. I am yet to shake off the discomfort I felt last night. The book sits as a shadow just beyond my right shoulder, almost tangible. *shudders* Great writing.

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4. What do you think about David and Harriet's marriage?

 

 

I think that although on the outside everything seemed hunky-dory, these two people did not have a healthy relationship with each other. Both wanted a partner who could help them fulfil their own personal agenda, and they found this in each other. However I see their union as cold and calculating. David just wanted a wife and a mother to a houseful of his children. Harriet wanted a large family and a husband who could bring home the bacon and give her the idyllic life she pictured during her teenage years. In her third month, Harriet started to feel rejected by David, and blamed the foetus. David felt she was not keeping to the rules of their relationship - which says a lot about their marriage. Ben’s birth affected this arrangement of theirs very much. Their feelings towards each other changed and their actions and outlook to life took a dark turn.

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Hey guys? Anyone else want to comment?

 

I'll be back with some answers soon I've just started to read the book so hopefully wont be too long :)

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Yes me please!

 

1. What did you think of this book?

 

It was an OK and slightly quirky story. It ended quite suddenly and unexpectedly for me, I was only up to 47% on my kindle, I was like "What?" The rest was extracts of her other stories, haven't read those yet but her book list looked interesting.

 

2. What do you think about ‘The Dream’?

 

I think they were a little selfish . Although David wanted independence from his father he was quite happy to accept his money, and Harriet could not have coped without Dorothy. This early part of the novel did invoke some strange feelings in me as I spent 20 years with a woman who just wanted to keep having babies even when it meant the end of our marriage.

 

3. What do you think about Harriet as a mother and David as a father?

 

In as far as they did not mistreat the kids they were OK. And as long as the kids they had were normal kids, they would have been fine. But they soon came apart as soon as they got presented with a real challenge. Harriet failed the other children especially Paul when Ben came along. David was too distant and dreamy. Yes I agree with everyone else that they were inadequate as parents.

 

4. What do you think about David and Harriet’s marriage?

 

 

Well in fairness all marriages are an experiment aren't they? These two had never dated anyone else so had never tried anybody else on for size. They did not seem to have much understanding of the other nor any real passion for each other. David seemed most concerned that the kids should all have their own bedroom to hide in like he did. I liked his father a lot better.

Because they did not have to struggle financially really (because of his dad) they didn't have to put much effort into the marriage. I guess a lot of couples are like that, they can sail on for years without the bubble bursting, but they are really like individual people living together rather than real partners.

As soon as they hit a big problem they fell apart very quickly. However faced with a little caveman I would have done more than David did; I would have left home and took all the other children with me the night Harriet bought Ben back, to protect them all. Harriet made her choice.

Edited by vodkafan

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Hey guys? Anyone else want to comment?

 

Sorry Maureen, my Mum's in hospital and I have been on antibiotics since Thursday for a wisdom tooth problem that isn't getting any better, so I haven't been firing on all cylinders :(

 

However faced with a little caveman I would have done more than David did; I would have left home and took all the other children with me the night Harriet bought Ben back, to protect them all. Harriet made her choice.

 

I agree; Harriet chose to sacrifice the rest of her family for Ben, and I too think David should have removed the rest of the children from the danger posed by Ben as soon as he was brought back into the home.

 

4. What do you think about David and Harriet's marriage?

 

They both wanted the same thing from life, "The Dream", and I think a shared goal is as good a basis for marriage as any other. Until Ben came along they got on perfectly well and had a close (if rather too productive!) physical relationship. So I think their marriage was perfectly good. It fell apart very quickly after the birth of the Neanderthal Ben, but I think many, if not most, relationships would have.

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Sorry Maureen, my Mum's in hospital and I have been on antibiotics since Thursday for a wisdom tooth problem that isn't getting any better, so I haven't been firing on all cylinders :(

 

I'm sorry to hear that Ooshie - wishing your Mum a speedy recovery and hope your tooth is not giving you any more grief.

 

 

. However faced with a little caveman I would have done more than David did; I would have left home and took all the other children with me the night Harriet bought Ben back, to protect them all. Harriet made her choice.

 

 

I agree; Harriet chose to sacrifice the rest of her family for Ben, and I too think David should have removed the rest of the children from the danger posed by Ben as soon as he was brought back into the home.

 

 

I think that Harriet's decision to bring back Ben was influenced by her feelings of guilt over his abandonment. It is difficult to take the best decision in that situation, but I think they should have tried to find alternate care, perhaps a day care for troubled children, or some sort of therapy would have worked out better. Some would argue that that is what she did with the motorcycle gang - perhaps as that was the only option available?

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5. What are your feelings about Ben?

 

One thing that I was hoping to get an answer to was what wrong with Ben. We are told that he looked different, was very strong, was hungry all the time. He is continually described as a Neanderthal, a throwback to earlier times, a troll and a goblin. He is described in a number of colours - his eyes were yellow green, his body was yellow, his face was yellowish white when he cried. His head was oddly shaped, and he had no social skills at all. Sometimes the descriptions seem to be some sort of Cephalic disorders, plus a severe case of autism, plus a bad case of ADHD, plus destructive behaviour and a streak of cruelty. We are told that he killed a family dog when he was just a few months old - which is really difficult to believe, and the family cat when he was slightly older. When he started to speak, he did so in a sort of robotic whole sentences, not like normal kids do. He loves no one in his family and no one loves him. At the age of three or so his mother started to leave him with John, a youth she employed to help in the garden and later as a sort of carer for Ben. This is Ben’s first connection with a human being.

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Well in fairness all marriages are an experiment aren't they? These two had never dated anyone else so had never tried anybody else on for size. They did not seem to have much understanding of the other nor any real passion for each other. David seemed most concerned that the kids should all have their own bedroom to hide in like he did. I liked his father a lot better.

 

It's true, all marriages are an experiment, however in my opinion, both David and Harriet saw in each other a small similarity and that was the basis of their union. They felt different to their circle of aquantancies at work and in their community, and decided to get married without first getting to know each other well. Sometimes going through a tough experience can make a relationship....or break it. In this case the relationship suffered - perhaps because it did not have a solid foundation.

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5. What are your feelings about Ben?

 

One thing that I was hoping to get an answer to was what wrong with Ben. We are told that he looked different, was very strong, was hungry all the time. He is continually described as a Neanderthal, a throwback to earlier times, a troll and a goblin. He is described in a number of colours - his eyes were yellow green, his body was yellow, his face was yellowish white when he cried. His head was oddly shaped, and he had no social skills at all. Sometimes the descriptions seem to be some sort of Cephalic disorders, plus a severe case of autism, plus a bad case of ADHD, plus destructive behaviour and a streak of cruelty. We are told that he killed a family dog when he was just a few months old - which is really difficult to believe, and the family cat when he was slightly older. When he started to speak, he did so in a sort of robotic whole sentences, not like normal kids do. He loves no one in his family and no one loves him. At the age of three or so his mother started to leave him with John, a youth she employed to help in the garden and later as a sort of carer for Ben. This is Ben’s first connection with a human being.

 

I automatically accepted the book's premise that Ben was a throwback to Neanderthal times, and each time I have read the book I read it on that basis although I had noticed in the Amazon reviews that people had different ideas about that. During the discussion here I became interested in what the Doris Lessing's intention had been - whether she had indeed meant Ben to be taken literally as a Neanderthal or whether that was just how Harriet felt when faced with this child - and found the following in an interview (I will put it in spoilers in case people think it will ruin the discussion!):

 

 

BILL MOYERS: … as I listen to you talk, I think of what to me is perhaps-- for me, the most moving and revealing … of your works. It's The Fifth Child. I mean, this infant in Harriet's womb. Who turns out to be a savage thing. A monster. I can't read that, without being reminded of what you're talking about. The fragility of happiness. You create this attractive family. And then you destroy it.

DORIS LESSING: I wanted to write a version of that very ancient fable. You know, the fairies put a-- an alien into the human cradle. That was-- only, instead of being a fairy, he's a throwback to some past race. And someone would be perfectly viable on a hillside, in a cave somewhere. Put him into a-- a-- civilized life. And of course, you would destroy it. So, I created Ben. Which-- well, it's a pretty horrible book, isn't it?

 

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4. What do you think about David and Harriet’s marriage?

Initially I thought they were tremendously well matched, with a shared vision of their future. It slipped somewhat when they had unprotected sex in their new house that first time which they both knew would lead to pregnancy. This was depsite knowing they could not afford to take on this house with one wage alone. After that I developed a more critical view of them, with their grapsing take from their parents, the superior attitude they maintained over their siblings and their ignorance and neglect of not only Ben, but his abandoned brothers and sisters.

 

As has been said here, as soon as their marriage experienced a genuine problem their supposed unity fell apart. Throughout her last pregnancy Harriet felt rejected by David,and later David's solution to the family's problems is to spend more time away from the house and all his children.

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