Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Doris Lessing, "The Fifth Child"



Read from September 30th to October 08th, 2013

My rating:


It was the summer of 2013 that a friend of mine, who’s an English teacher, asked me how I would teach “The Fifth Child”. Since I didn’t know about the book or have it, she sent me a PDF copy and here I am, after an unsettling but fascinating reading, asking myself the same question: what key of lecture could I offer? Because it is, undoubtedly, worth reading. A little masterpiece about the fragility of happiness and the illusion of the security provided by family, as the author herself said in an interview:

''I do have a sense, and I've never not had it, of how easily things can vanish. It's a sense of disaster. I know where it comes from – my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this. And after all, it's true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children.''


This “sense of disaster” becomes Ben, the main character of this urban gothic story that shows not only how we get used to our misfortunes but how we even protect and nourish them.

I remember Freud said somewhere that society is not comfortable with happy families, because, being strongly attached to one another, they tend to cut themselves off from others. That’s why civilisation imposes all sorts of taboos, laws, customs and other restrictions that ultimately separate the members of the family.

Is Ben the embodiment of war and other evils society continuously pours over the individual? Or is he truly the embodiment of all unhappiness man tries to fight during his life? Or maybe the unknown that irrationally frighten us so much we need to reject it without really looking into it?

For here he comes, like a bad apple, in a family that, despite all pessimistic predictions, was living the dream, in a big house full of family and friends, sheltered till then from the “storms of the world”. Here he comes, the “Neanderthal baby”, the troll, the goblin, the gnome, result of who knows what primitive gene lost in his parents bodies. Not wanted, not expected and definitely not loved, he insinuates into the Lovatts’ life, changing it forever:
'The trouble is, you get used to hell,' said Harriet. `After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven't remembered the others for hours.

Isn’t it like that misery strikes? Like an incurable disease, it appears in the middle of joy, takes over little by little until it becomes the absolute king of a brand-new sorrowful kingdom. Why? Because it is more natural for mankind to suffer than to be happy. Or so Harriet thinks:

She said to David, 'We are 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.'
And once acquainted with grief, it is almost impossible to separate from it. That could explain why Harriet cannot bear the thought of Ben trapped in an institution that would ultimately kill him, even if she had wished him dead many times, and goes and rescues him, thus finalizing the family breakdown:

Around and around and around: if I had let him die, then all of us, so many people, would have been happy, but I could not do it, and therefore...

So, to return to my previous questions: is “The Fifth Child” about the vocation of misfortune which seems to be the fate of humanity? Or is it about the external pressures, social, political, even medical ones that would determine this misfortune? In other words, is the evil within us or outside us? Moreover, do we indulge in our suffering, wherever it comes from?

Because, unfortunately, one thing is certain: there is always a Ben somewhere waiting in the background, ready to spoil things. Beware if you can!

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