The Fifth Child
Doris Lessing’s terse and chilling novella is not recommended for the maternity ward. It may stir up deep-rooted fears in men as well as women, in sons as well as mothers. It is a tale of a mother who cannot love her son. Harriet fears Ben, even when he is still kicking in the womb, even when he is feeding greedily at her breast. She comes to think of him as “weird” or “evil” (though she does not use these words) and so do other people, she believes, though they will not admit it. The idea is familiar in folklore and mythology—the changelings of the British Isles, the abiku of West Africa. Pasiphaë kept her monster son, the Minotaur, in a prison, to act as a sort of executioner. Jocasta exposed her accursed son, Oedipus, to die on a mountainside. “Euthanasia” nearly puts an end to Ben, Harriet’s baby, too.
Fortunately, the book could not be turned easily into a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby or The Bad Seed, though it bears some resemblance to the genre. It is more like The Turn of the Screw in that, as we read, we wonder whether there is anything really wrong with the child or whether the woman is deluded. Both possibilities are chilling. When James’s followers attempted such a story, they called it a macabre. The first response to The Turn of the Screw (if read in unwary youth) is straightforward, bewildered horror, later the problem is posed—evil, bewitched child or mad, maddening woman? Lastly, one asks what kind of fear is James playing with, and does James himself know?
Doris Lessing has long been adept with a frightening Jamesian ambiguity. A useful essay by Professor R.P. Draper of Aberdeen University compares her 1971 novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, with The Turn of the Screw. (Is mad Watkins cured and restored to the real world, or is he stunned into conformity with the world’s madness?) She has an aptitude for both “the realistically reportorial and the visionary fantastic,” Draper says, truly. She is ambiguous about madness and the experience of being “alien.”
With her African background, Doris Lessing was pleased to feel alien in England, and she wrote amusingly about this in the 1960 miscellany, Alienation. She wrote her more realistic stories as a straightforward socialist, opposed to British colonialism and white-skin mastery—but there was also a more metaphysical streak, an implication that “normal life,” dull Englishness, was in need of something alien, from the bush or the jungle. The natural world and the people of Africa, like Moses in The Grass is Singing, or Mr. Dollinger in the play of that name, were presented as intrusions to be welcomed as well as feared. This mood looks forward to the intrusion of the alien, Ben, in The Fifth Child.
So does another story of the Fifties, “Plants and Girls,” about a “disturbed” white settler boy in Africa, whom the other children call “Moony,” and who is more dangerous…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.