Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child Essay

Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child Essay

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In her novel The Fifth Child, published in 1988, Doris Lessing examines how one couple’s search for happiness has tragic implications. In this case, the couple, David and Harriet, and the family are slowly destroyed by the presence of the fifth child, Ben, who is unattractive, shows no emotions or attachments to other people, and is destructive. The other children in the family seem to be able to cope on a normal, socially acceptable level, but Ben never seems to be able to grasp acceptable behavior. Significantly, the novel never explains the cause of Ben’s abnormalities. While Lessing does not supply the reader with a cause, one explanation I found is in psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is explicit in his belief that neuroses, some of which are displayed by Ben, are generally developed in childhood and that they are the result of problems in the relationship between the child and the parents. This is clearly seen when he writes, “’The complicated emotional relation of children to their parents – what is known as the Oedipus complex…was the nucleus of every case of neurosis’ (25 Nicholi).” In what follows, I will show that the cause of Ben’s lack of development and social psychoses is caused by the way he is treated by his parents.

Early in the novel we are told that Harriet and David meet at a business party and they quickly realize they are ideally suited for each other. They soon marry and settle into a beautiful suburban home. They are also quick to begin their family, having first a son, then two daughters, and another son. Their large country home becomes the center of family gatherings and parties, which Harriet particularly enjoys. She is worn out from her four young chi...


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...normal and pathological.

While it is clear from a psychoanalytic standpoint that Ben’s condition is a result of his parent’s lack of love and nurturing, it is also important to look at what caused Harriet and David to treat Ben this way. In trying to form a perfectly happy life, they failed to account for things that were out of their control. They initially blamed the close ages of their children and Ben’s disposition, but it seems that their resentment of Ben came from a deeper resentment of their own unfulfilled dreams of perfection. As their lives became less perfect, indeed, increasingly chaotic and tragic, they treated Ben with less love. Harried and David, and their four other children, may have had a better chance for happiness if Harriet and David had not made such an attempt to achieve, and even force, a happiness that was absolutely perfect.

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