The Fifth Child
A Wretched Enquiry
There can be few works of fiction that end with as many question marks as Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, a book published in the late-eighties. In this novella about a couple - Harriet and David Lovatt - who want as many kids as they can and where they have four kids before the fifth turns out to be monstrous, Lessing explores the possibility that this fifth child is a throwback, something of a sub-species. Visiting the doctor, Harriet says, "Well you saw him, didn't you? How do we know what kind of people -races, I mean - creatures different from us, have lived on this planet? In the past, you know? We don't really know, do we? How do we know that dwarves, or goblins, or hobgoblins, that kind of thing, didn't really live here?" Still later in the book, in its final pages, the narrator wonders: "Did Ben's people live in caves underground while the ice age ground overhead, eating fish from dark subterranean rivers, or sneaking up in the bitter snow to snare a bear or a bird - or even people, her (Harriet's) ancestors? Did his people rape the females of humanity's forebears?...Did he feel her eyes on him, as a human would?"
How can we square this with a comment found on the Website Waggish, where Lessing is seen as "notorious for deducing fictional circumstances from preconceived ideas"? This seems unfair, and yet one can understand where the criticism might come from. It appears unlikely that anyone who ends a short novel with a proliferation of question marks is a polemicist, but some might argue that anyone who writes a novel with numerous question marks is doing something other than writing fiction. Is there a place in the fictional world for the question to obliterate the dramatic, or should the purpose of a fictional work be to absorb any enquiry into the very form? Though Waggish attacks Lessing in the process of defending Coetzee (he is writing on Elizabeth Costello), we might bring to the stand Coetzee defending Lessing's sense of inquiry in her later work, after what he believed were earlier, more conventional and conservative novels. "Lessing was not blind to the basic problem, namely that the nineteenth century models she used were exhausted...[before] breaking entirely new ground with the formally adventurous Golden Notebook". As Lessing says of this early sixties novel, "I was involved not merely because it was hard to write - keeping the plan of it in my head I wrote it from start to end, consecutively, and it was difficult - but because of what I was learning as I wrote it...All sorts of ideas and experiences I didn't recognize as mine emerged when writing." (Intro, The Golden Notebook). She had a similar feeling writing The Fifth Child, yet an even more extreme one. "I hated writing it," she said in an interview with Mervyn Rothstein in The New York Times. "It was sweating blood. I was very glad when it was done. It was an upsetting thing to write - obviously, it goes very deep into me somewhere."
In these two works, The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child (perhaps her greatest of book length), Lessing appeared to have found space for the question, where Coetzee seemed to imply that the earlier work's questioning was constrained by the form. Hence, maybe one reason for Lessing's dismissive attitude towards those who insist on reading The Fifth Child allegorically is that such approaches find another way of avoiding the question. If conventional form contains and subsequently constrains the story, then would it not be even more frustrating to find that critics insist on reading the work allegorically after the event? When Lessing says in The New York Times interview, "'God knows how many things they've said this book is really supposed to be about. There are lists of them, each one laid down with total authority. One American writer said it was really about the Palestinian problem. My favorite is an Italian journalist who said what it was about was the migrant labor problem in Europe". While it is the complexity of the question that interests Lessing, she is met with the over-simplification of an answer in many variations. Why end a work with numerous question marks if it can be contained within an allegorical reading?
But does that mean we have to deny a perspective at all? There is a lovely phrase from the philosopher Stanley Cavell where he insists, "completeness is not a matter of providing allinterpretations but a matter of seeing one of them through." This has nothing to do with insisting the work is allegorically reflective, but instead personally revelatory. As Lessing says on the subject of reading in the introduction to The Golden Notebook, "you should be learning to follow your own intuitive feeling about what you need: that is what you should have been developing..." One shouldn't by trying to generate a thesis; merely to understand one's own response to an art work. Maybe the best way to express oneself and remain close emotionally and textually to the work is to muse over the nature of Lessing's questions. The very first comes three pages into the book as Lessing describes the couple who will give birth to that fifth child: Harriet and David. "So what was it about these two that made them freaks and oddballs?" It was their attitude to sex, the narrator tells us, as we see that Harriet and David are also throwbacks, figures behind their times and preserving a position that seems to have gone out of fashion: "I am sorry, I don't like all this sleeping around, it's not for me" Harriet says. A few pages later, after they've moved into the large dwelling that will house the large family they intend to have, Dorothy, Harriet's mother, wonders about these prospective additions to the world. "...If you were having six - or eight - or ten, I know what you are thinking, Harriet, I know you, don't I? - and if you were in another part of the world, like Egypt or India or somewhere, then half of them would die, and they wouldn't be educated, either."
A question Lessing's work often asks is what are we entitled to and what we can expect, and shows how life creates the space for these justifiable expectations, or counters our assumptions. When in The Golden Notebook the narrator offers up a possibility for a short novel, she explains that it is about a man, around fifty. He is a bachelor "has had a couple of dozen affairs, three or four serious. These serious affairs were with women who hoped to marry him, they lingered on, in what were really marriages without formal ties, he broke the affairs off at the point where he had to marry them." Though he is the antithesis of Harriet and David, he is nevertheless one of Lessing's figures of entitlement, someone who believes he can dictate the terms of his own life, just as Harriet and David buy a house rather as they might stage a play: with the idea that they are in complete control of the script. But it is as if such assumptions contain within them an element of their own destruction. The character Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook isn't too different from Georges in her brilliant short story, 'The Habit of Loving', a man who cracks when a woman he loves no longer wants to be with him, as he begins to wonder how he has treated people over the years. Harriet and David tempt fate too, on the basis of that large family they feel entitled to have in the large house they feel entitled to live in - no matter if it is possible only because of the financial help of David's very wealthy family. It is an example of life not always following the script, but it also leads often in Lessing's work to the question of how does life refuse to follow it: positively or negatively.
If Lessing has proved an important writer connected to the feminist movement, it is partly through the positive: how she shows women trying to emancipate themselves from social expectation; or through the negative as she shows them oppressed and caught in colonial imperatives. In her debut novel, The Grass is Singing, she opens the book with a brief newspaper report announcing the death of what will become the book's central character, Mary Turner, a woman "found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime." The novel explores her life, a life with no exit: "Of course, I am ill...I've always been ill, ever since I can remember. I am ill here". "She pointed to her chest..." she says near the end of the book. In The Golden Notebook, one of the main characters says to another: "Four men, and I haven't even flirted with them before, have telephoned to say their wives are away and every time they have a delightful coy tone in their voices. It really is extraordinary - one knows a man, to work with, for years, then it's enough that their wives should go away for them to change their voices and they seem to think you're going to fall over yourself to get into bed. What on earth do you suppose goes through their minds?" A sense of entitlement might be the answer to the latter question, and whether Lessing is despairing at the conditions many women live in, optimistic in trying to create a space for women seeking freedom, jaundiced about many men's sense of sexual expectation, or damning about a life of entitled assumption, what seems to matter most of all is finding a position that does not take life for granted. In her book on Afghanistan in the eighties, The Wind Blows Away Our Words, Lessing interviews one Mullah who says: "The Women were free before The Catastrophe [the Russian Invasion], they could choose to be veiled if they wanted and some did; or to wear jeans and sweaters if they wished...Looked at historically, Islam has improved the situation of women: you have to look at certain laws in historical context. You seem to forget that you in the West have only recently, in the last half century, emerged from a bad situation as far as women are concerned." Lessing seems to let the statement stand, not because she agrees or disagrees with the mullah's comments, but she almost certainly wouldn't disagree with his remarks about women in the West. The assumption that the West has the high-ground requires looking through a very narrow historical window.
One reason why The Fifth Child asks so many questions is that it wants the broadest vista available. Even superstition shouldn't be ignored. "After Ben [the fifth child] was born, they had not yet resumed love-making. This had never happened before. Making love during pregnancy, and very soon after pregnancy - this had never been a problem. But now they were both thinking. That creature arrived when we were being as careful as we know how - suppose another like him comes? For they both felt - secretly, they were ashamed of the thought they had about Ben - that he had willed himself to be born, had invaded their ordinariness." Though Waggish seems to see in Lessing a writer with preconceived notions about the world that she insistently sticks into her fiction, we're more inclined to see a writer calling into question many of those preconceptions. She wants to accept any number of possibilities, even the most absurd, because the assumption is much more complacent than the improbable.
Though much of Lessing's work can have the feel of a case history, it has within it a probing question that does not expect to be answered by analytic means. When the narrator opens 'To Room Nineteen' with "This is a story, I suppose, about a failure of intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence", so as the story looks into their life we're told that "they married amid general rejoicing, and because of their foresight and their sense for what was probable, nothing was a surprise to them". By the end of the story the wife will be in the process of gassing herself in the room of the title: the failure of intelligence not at all the inability to think clearly; more that there always other thoughts potentially capable of taking one over, thoughts not easily contained by intelligence as it is usually defined. It's as if the Rawlings' marriage was based on intelligence but didn't take into account intuition - didn't acknowledge enough where this intelligence might be coming from, if we think of Henri Bergson's useful differentiation between intellect and instinct. "Instinct, on the contrary is molded on the very form of life. While intelligence treats everything mechanically, instinct proceeds, so to speak, organically. If the consciousness that slumbers in it should awake, if it were wound up into knowledge instead of being wound off into action, if we could ask and it could reply, it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life". (Creative Evolution)
It is as if both the Rawlings and the Lovatts plan their lives with great intelligence, but they cannot be privy to the power of instinct. Thus, in 'To Room Nineteen', some animal force overcomes the central character. Susan "found that she was prowling through the great thicketed garden like a wild cat: she was walking up the stairs, down the stairs, through the rooms into the garden, along the brown running river, back up through the house, down again..." She seems to have returned to her instincts just as Ben never leaves his behind. It is the instinct that briefly seems to overcome the doctor when Harriet says to her "'He's not human is he?' Dr Gilly suddenly, unexpectedly, allowed what she was thinking to express itself...She was a handsome middle-aged woman, in full command of her life, but for the flash of a moment an unlicensed and illegitimate distress showed itself, and she looked beside herself, even tipsy."
In Much of Lessing's most interesting work (in The Golden Notebook, in The Grass is Singing, The Fifth Child and numerous stories), Lessing seems to write with the tone of grave intelligence contained by the need to understand an aspect of our instincts, as if wondering like Bergson what those secrets might be. It makes sense that Lessing would be dismissive of those who seek an allegorical meaning for The Fifth Child - is not the intelligence trying once again to intrude on the investigation into instinct? Instead of joining Lessing in the search for meaning, by asking their own questions, the critics instead arrive at a metaphorical answer, perhaps a little like the doctor in The Fifth Child. Earlier in the discussion with Dr Gilly the doctor says, "'I'm going to come straight to the point, Mrs Lovatt. The problem is not with Ben, but with you. You don't like him very much.' 'Oh my God', exploded Harriet, 'not again!'" The doctor wants to contain the problem of Ben within conventional notions of parenting, and Harriet explodes rather as Lessing does when someone turns her novel into a metaphor. These assumptions (social conditioning or literary metaphor) are means by which we escape comprehending our instincts, instead of getting closer to them. Near the end of The Fifth Child, when Harriet asks herself whether his people raped the females of humanity's forebears, she wonders also whether this led to "making new races, which had flourished and departed, but perhaps had left their seeds in the human matrix, here and there, to appear again, as Ben had? (And perhaps Ben's genes were already in some foetus struggling to be born?)"
Ben has forced upon her the type of questions most people wouldn't ask, and most people might not even ask even if a child like Ben happened to be born to them. After all, David buries himself in work as if in sand, and most of the other members of the family can't understand Harriet's reaction to Ben, and are happy when at an early age he is sent off to a care centre. "In the days that followed, the family expanded like paper flowers in water. Harriet understood what a burden Ben had been, how he had oppressed them all, how much the children had suffered...But now Ben was gone their eyes shone, they were full of high spirits." Ben is out of sight and out of everybody's mind but Harriet's. She has to see him, and so takes a long drive to the north of England, and finds him "on a green foam rubber mattress..." "He was unconscious. He was naked, inside a strait-jacket. His pale yellow tongue protruded from his mouth. His flesh was dead white, greenish. Everything walls, the floor, and Ben - was smeared with excrement". She decides to take him home, no matter how it will impact on the rest of the family.
If Lessing searches out the instincts of the species, she does so within the context of human ethos. Throughout the second half of the book Ben remains an ethically inert figure and this puzzles and scares Harriet. One evening she goes up to the attic room and sees him there: "She could not make out what he wanted, what he felt...he heard her and then she saw the Ben that this life he had to lead kept subdued." "'Ben,' she said softly, though her voice shook. '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 that did not know human beings." She cannot reach Ben with social values, but she seems to meet him nevertheless. Where the rest of the family see a dangerous brute who kills a friend's dog, and, later, at school, breaks a girl's arm, Harriet needs to see a child who is both from her womb and also from the core of being. Thus if one invokes Bergson's notion of the secret, it is no less useful to evoke a remark by Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace. "human life is impossible. But it is only affliction which makes us feel this." When Harriet wants to visit Ben in the institution she is made to feel like a criminal, she thinks. "Ever since Ben was born it's been like this, she thought. Now it seemed to her the truth, that everyone had silently condemned her. I have suffered a misfortune, she told herself; I haven't committed a crime." Has Harriet been afflicted with a misfortune? Yet this misfortune, in the form of Ben, is also a certain type of awareness.
While the rest of the family want to ignore what Ben represents, Harriet cannot leave his existence alone, and of course by extension neither can Lessing. Where Waggish sees Lessing as writer of preconceptions, is it not fairer to insist she is a writer interested in questioning the preconceptions of others? Harriet and David are nothing if not characters of preconception at the beginning of the book, as they don't only conceive a family but preconceive one too. As they announce the number of children they will have, how they will fill the large house with these children they haven't yet had, so one sees that these again are entitlement characters, people for whom life is expected to follow a given course. When Harriet says she is suffering a misfortune, she isn't wrong. Ben is a product of her womb but hardly a fault of her own. However, when one suffers from an affliction, as Weil couches it, the issue is how one then absorbs it. Where David refuses to acknowledge what he has brought into the world; Harriet does, and so the book explores much more vividly Harriet's reaction to the child than David's. Where David sees no more than a child who has blighted his happy home, Harriet sees a figure that hasn't only entered the inner folds of her family, but also represents the outer reaches of the human. Ben is a misfortune to the family, but maybe closer to an affliction for Harriet; if an affliction is what makes us aware of our wretchedness. "The recognition of human wretchedness", Weil says "is difficult for whoever is rich and powerful because he is almost invincibly led to believe that he is something. It is equally difficult for the man in miserable circumstances because he is almost invincibly led to believe that the rich and powerful man is something." Comprehending the wretched out of affliction is what Ben's presence in Harriet's life allows. She "had not let Ben be murdered, she defended herself fiercely, in thought, never aloud. By everything they - the society she had belonged to - stood for, believed in, she had no alternative but to bring Ben back from that place. But because she had, and saved him from murder, she had destroyed her family. Had harmed her life...David's...Luke's, Helen's Jane's...and Paul's." What Harriet does is she absorbs her misfortune as an affliction, and it's as though it allows her to acknowledge the wretched. Near the end of the book Harriet says to David: "'We're being punished, that's all.' 'What for?' he demanded, already on guard because there was a tone in her voice he hated. 'For presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because we decided we would be." David angrily disagrees, and yet she insists this was no chance gene. "'I don't think so', she stubbornly held on. 'We were going to be happy! No one else is, or I never seem to meet them, but we were going to be. And so down came the thunderbolt.'"
However, out of unhappiness comes the wretched. This isn't the sort of mere unhappiness Harriet proposes people she knows suffer from, but closer to an awareness of mankind's secrets in the Bergsonian sense, and that the afflictions that potentially sit within us. Some may see in Lessing's work a polemicist determined to push a point, but better to see her as a writer trying to figure out what it means to be human not only rationally, but irrationally also, and how it sometimes takes an affliction, a shock to one's system of values, to see how wretched existence can be.
© Tony McKibbin