The Fifth Child, 1988 - Information about the Book
An interesting thing about THE FIFTH CHILD. When I wrote it, it never occurred to me that young people would like it. For instance, in Italy the Italians set up a literary prize and called in novels from all over the world. The judges got it down to a final 20 and sent them to schoolchildren and asked them which they thought should win this prize. They chose THE FIFTH CHILD. Since then, when I go around lecturing and meet teachers and librarians, they always tell me how much the children like that book. Don't ask me why. Right now I am writing a sequel to it. This is actually because of the suggestion of my German publisher, because that book did very well in Germany. It was on their bestseller list for weeks and weeks. This one is called BEN, IN THE WORLD, and all I can say is that it is a very sad story. I have finished the first draft and now am working on the second. Many people have said to me that my character Ben is evil. All I see is that he is a creature out of context, because he would have been perfectly all right on a hillside or in a savage group, but you put him in a middle-class family and he is totally destructive. So now I have become extremely sorry for this poor creature. Often people don't like sequels, so I am taking a bit of a risk. Doris Lessing said at a chat at Barnes&Noble, January 20, 1999, about THE FIFTH CHILD:
The novel raises a host of questions about human variation and its societal treatment; the tyranny of the visual in the establishment of normalcy and social power; the constructedness of the normal and the deviant, defective, or abnormal; and the gap between professional diagnoses and family realities. The chapters on Ben's institutionalization are riveting, distressing, and handled in a complex fashion. Neither the institution nor its staff are demonized, nor is Harriet's rescue portrayed as a unilaterally heroic act.
Students argue passionately over who is most at fault, Harriet, David, or Ben himself, and such debates are highly illuminating not only about how we conceive parental (and especially maternal) responsibility but also how we conceive the rationing of family and social happiness and whether it should be decided on a Utilitarian or other model. Lessing makes it impossible to establish the objective nature of Ben's difference, and whether we are meant to read him as an archetype, a figure of science fiction (an atavism or a product of maternal impressions), a metaphor for the construction of racial, ethnic, or class difference, or a figure of social realism (a mentally disabled, physically atypical, or autistic child; a child with disabilities produced by maternal drug use).
Ben resembles Robert Louis Stevenson's Edward Hyde ("Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), a figure of "nameless deformity" and physical vigor who distresses people for reasons they find hard to articulate. He also compares productively to Victor Frankenstein's creation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The novel is an excellent addition to courses on disability studies or medical ethics and teaches well alongside Michael Béérubé's Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child.
Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Excerpted, with permission, from the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database at New York University School of Medicine, © New York University.
- Bad News For the Nice and Well-Meaning by Carolyn Kizer, New York Times, April 3, 1988.
- The Painful Nurturing of Doris Lessing's 'Fifth Child' by Mervyn Rothstein, New York Times, June 14, 1988
- The Fifth Child received the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy. In the nomination of the books students play a leading role.
- See also the sequel Ben, in the World