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 than he seems: he is described as “not normal,” a polite euphemism for the straightforward “Moony.” A longer short story of the Fifties is called “The Eye of God in Paradise,” and it illustrates the varieties of madness that color the mind of Harriet in The Fifth Child. A woman, a British doctor (with her male friend, another doctor), goes to Germany, six years after the war, and feels that the whole country, with its Nazi guilt and shamelessness, is deeply alien. They meet a German doctor, hideously scarred by war wounds and by the Nazi concept of normality; they escape from him to meet another doctor, a pleasantly eccentric old fellow, in charge of a mental hospital: he paints frightening pictures, and sometimes becomes a patient in his own hospital. The British visitors realize that he was in charge of the place during Hitler, and that he was in sympathy with the Nazi policy of euthanasia for those considered unfit to live; he now only reluctantly preserves many unfit patients. One of them is a five-year-old boy in a straitjacket, “glaring and grinding his teeth.”

This powerful image recurs, thirty years later, in The Fifth Child. But before Ben is put in a straitjacket, we must consider the preamble to the horror story, conventional in both horror movies and literary macabres: the normal, happy family is presented, upon whom falls the alien; the vampire or the curse of the mummy. The first third of The Fifth Child tells of life before Harriet bears Ben. This prologue begins in “the greedy and selfish Sixties,” among English middle-class people who hold that Harriet and her husband, David, are too young to get married (she is a virgin of twenty-four) and to produce children so steadily—four between 1966 and 1973. “Amazing!” they think, to be such old-fashioned people in this new, terrible world. The news is “blasting from the radio. Bad news from everywhere: nothing to what the news would soon become, but threatening enough.” In their little town, near London, “brutal incidents and crimes, once shocking everyone, were now commonplace,” with threatening, disrespectful street-corner boys, vandalized telephone booths and house burglaries. (This is our first hint of a socio-political fear, a sort of class fear.) Many kinsfolk come to stay at the house of Harriet and David, in summer holidays, at Easter and Christmas, all marveling at “the safety, comfort and kindness” of this neo-Victorian family and at Harriet and David’s willingness to produce four children.


Since I myself fathered four children in the Sixties (and we were rather younger than Harriet and David), I cannot share this amazement, but I recognize the milieu in which such things were thought to be amazing. Neatly, economically, Mrs. Lessing introduces all the grandparents (David’s parents are divorced and remarried), sisters and other relatives, noticing the tiny class distinctions between them. The “shabby highmindedness” of David’s mother and her husband—unambitious academics, “looking like benevolent haystacks”—is contrasted with “the cynical good humor of the rich,” offered by David’s slick father and his wife. Harriet’s mother and sisters “scale rather lower on the yardstick” of the English class system: they all know this, but hardly ever refer to it, except when one of Harriet’s sisters says, laughing seriously about a grandparent’s plan: “Typical upper-class ruthlessness!” In her earliest fiction and memoirs as an amused stranger Doris Lessing used to make fun of such English discriminations: now she writes as someone more knowing.

After this cool, almost flat, prologue comes the fifth child, the disturbing pregnancy and the frightening baby. Everyone knows, irrationally, that there is something wrong with Ben (so thinks Harriet) but they can’t put their finger on it: there must be a label—and they search for euphemisms. Among more rational words, like “hyperactive” and “abnormal,” words of folklore are skillfully dropped into the characters’ thoughts and scraps of conversation: troll, dwarf, changeling, gnome, and (from a more modern mythology) alien. While she was pregnant, Harriet kept dreaming of laboratory-bred monsters, hybrids of lion and dog, tiger and goat. Her husband tries to tell a fairy tale to the older children, but it turns unpleasant: a girl’s reflection in a stream becomes that of an unfriendly girl with a nasty smile, trying to drag the mortal girl into the water. The baby Ben drains his mother dry, bruising her breasts, and she puts him on the bottle. Harriet’s sister, who has a mongoloid daughter, murmurs: “I’d rather have poor Amy.”

Fewer guests come to stay: they are frightened of Ben, who is believed to have killed a dog and a cat. Harriet takes a short holiday with her husband, leaving Ben with her mother: returning, they find the older woman badly bruised. “The doctor said he was normal,” complains Harriet. “He may be normal for what he is,” says the grandmother, “but he’s not normal for what we are.” Ben’s “Mongol” cousin looks at him uneasily, just as animals do, frightened of “this other afflicted one…. But did he know himself afflicted? Was he, in fact? What was he?” When Ben bangs a tray with a stone, Harriet thinks of him “hammering metal, forging something…deep under the earth, with his kind.” The father says: “He’s probably just dropped in from Mars…. He certainly isn’t mine.”

The grandparents insist that Ben must go into an institution. A van comes to take him away, and his brothers and sisters are pleased and excited, though one asks fearfully: “Are you going to send us away too?” Another explains: “They are sending Ben away because he isn’t really one of us.” This rational phrase of exclusion is much used by Margaret Thatcher. Harriet decides that it is her duty to visit the institution and everyone is annoyed with her: she feels she is being treated as one who has committed a crime, not one who has suffered a misfortune. She finds the institution, a sort of medical Dotheboys Hall in the north of England, and this scene is realistically macabre, persuasively horrific. It is a euthanasia center, private and unauthorized, with a ward full of unwanted, freakish children, pumped full of drugs and waiting to die. She finds Ben, a four-year-old boy, naked under a straitjacket, smeared with excrement. We remember the boy in the German madhouse from Mrs. Lessing’s earlier story.

Harriet decides to take Ben home, and the orderlies give her drugs and a needle, because Ben is so strong. Everyone is angry that Harriet has rescued her son: “She had gone to alien country with Ben.” She explains: “They were killing him”; but her husband will not forgive. They begin using the Pill, which they had formerly despised as unnatural. Harriet manages to get Ben house-trained and she puts him in the charge of the gardener’s boy, for “she knew that people understood very well—that is, if they weren’t experts, doctors.” This big boy and his mates take Ben around with them, on their motorbikes, and they matily call him nicknames of folklore and modern, Disneyland fantasy: Dopey, Dwarfey, Alien Two, Hobbit, Gremlin. They persuade him to go to school—as they had all done, though school was irrelevant to them: “He could not learn. But the Authorities would never recognize this, or acknowledge that they did.”


A teacher says that Ben is a good little chap—hyperactive, perhaps? The odd man out in the family? She has a troubled look on her face, expressing what Harriet calls ” ‘the other conversaton’—the real one.” When Ben is violent to another pupil, Harriet threatens him with a return to the institution. He understands that, all right: he understands many things, how to get food, traffic lights, hurting, and punishment—but he doesn’t understand what we call morality. Harriet goes to see a specialist, who explains: “The problem is not with Ben, but with you. You don’t like him very much…. You resent the fact that Ben isn’t clever.” Then Ben walks in. “He’s not human, is he?” suggests Harriet. From another planet? Dwarves and hobgoblins, maybe they existed once: perhaps he is a throwback. The specialist looks at Harriet with what appears to be “horror of Harriet who had given birth to Ben.” The authorities are seeking rational diagnoses and euphemisms, refusing to recognize what “people understood very well, if they weren’t experts.”

The screw keeps turning, without letup. Harriet’s other children drift away, going to boarding school, staying with grandparents. We move from “the greedy and selfish Sixties” to “the barbarous Eighties” and it is time for Ben to go to the big boys’ school: he will soon be an adolescent, a sexual being, goes the rational talk. But he’s not on the same clock as we are, says Harriet (with her new mythology): he remembers his own kind. “We are being punished,” she says. Her husband snaps, rationally, “It was a chance gene.” He might have used rational words like autistic, psychopath, or schizophrenic, with their changing definitions. (I have just heard, on the BBC, an Israeli play about a mother raging against the labels and euphemisms pinned on her child: suffering from Down’s syndrome, a retarded child, that mongoloid kid, that special child….) Harriet’s way of thinking, says her husband, leads to “pogroms, witch-burning, angry gods, the Middle Ages.”

In 1986 Ben is eleven. Strangely enough, he seems to fit in all right with “the uneducable layer of boys” in his large school: he brings them home, fifteen-year-olds, and seems to dominate the gang. Harriet, at first, assumes that these big boys accept Ben because he is even more crude and awkward than they are—but she finds that Ben’s gang is envied and admired by other pupils. Her fantasies grow ever more otherworldly. Watching the boys, she imagines Ben among “his own people,” deep underground in black caverns, lit by torches.

At the same time, she is coolly observant like a worried schoolmistress; she notices the brutish television the boys watch, the alien food they eat, Chinese and Indian, pita and pizza. She has a feminine, perhaps feminist, antipathy to these young, modern males. She notes the “revolutionary” remarks they make: she sees them once, on the television news, with Ben in their midst, part of a crowd at a riot in north London. Sometimes she thinks they have been out burgling and housebreaking, for they seem so flush with money, so secretively excited. They could find a hideout anywhere in the slums and ruins of the inner cities. Ben could disappear and Harriet might see him on the news, in Berlin or Buenos Aires, rioting or seeking his own people, his own kind.

There is no climax to this accomplished tale of terror, just a prospect of accumulating, never-ending fears. The Fifth Child might be read as a prophecy of a coming anarchy, to result in a new sort of fascism—a phenomenon that would need metaphysical fantasies for its interpretation, no less than rational argument. She has an extra twist, which Henry James did not use: perhaps Ben is not abnormal, not alien, in our modern world. He may be unacceptable to Harriet’s kind, the supposedly superior class in Britain, Europe, and the United States; but he is welcomed, as a leader, by members of the inferior class—“the uneducable, the unassimilable.”

These reckless, immoral barbarians, Mrs. Lessing seems to be suggesting, can cope efficiently with the machinery of modern urban life: they can form mobs and boldly riot and make life insecure for people like Harriet—and there must be millions more of them in the third world (in the Middle East, say, where Mrs. Lessing was born, and in Africa, where she lived for thirty years). Ben is one of the more dangerous barbarians and the authorities are not yet ready to isolate him and destroy him; but they gloss over the danger with euphemisms, while Harriet is left in the shrinking world of her own class, trying to console herself with the mythology of Ben as a throwback to the Nibelungs. This is another fear that Doris Lessing is playing with—a modern version of the Victorian fear of the mob. Her ambivalent fable is a witches’ brew of conflicting fears, some metaphysical and occult, some apparently rational, and that conflict, notwithstanding Lessing’s otherwise great distance from Henry James, is what brings the book nearer to The Turn of the Screw than to Stephen King.

This Issue

June 30, 1988