The Fifth Child is a potent and suggestive piece of writing. It is first and foremost a criticism of the British society on different levels. Doris Lessing’s vision of this society is stern, satiric and bleak.
Some of the major themes tackled in this book include the importance of family, the Swinging Sixties, tolerance, the role of women, motherhood, sacrifice, loneliness,rejection, violence, fear, and more.
The Swinging Sixties:
- In the unconstrained atmosphere of England in the late 1960's, Harriet and David Lovatt defy the "greedy and selfish" spirit of the times with their version of tradition and normalcy: a large family, all the expected pleasures of a rich and responsible home life, children growing, Harriet tending, David providing. Even as the days’ eventstake a dark turn - an ominous surge in crime, unemployment, unrest - the Lovatts cling to their belief that an obstinately guarded contentedness will preserve them from the world outside.
- Two social misfits as they do not partake in what the 60’s had on offer.
- Lessing describes David and Harriet as “conservative, old-fashioned” in the midst of the rebellion of the 1960s. Like their generation,David and Harriet engage in a rebellion, but it is a reactionary one. They disapprove of the lax morality of their era and the feeling that “the spirit of their times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them……to diminish their best selves.”
- David and Harriet aspire to a life of “pleasant suburbia”. They are not swept up in the social causes of their peers, and theirrejection of the sexual freedom offered by late 20th century society is symbolized by their denouncing of the Pill.
- Lessing has a keen eye for the paradoxes of the free love decade. She notes, not without humor, that Harriet, as a 25-year-old virgin, was treated with the type of bitchy solicitude usually reserved for women with “loose morals.”
- Financial problems (part of the reality of thosetimes) as they survive mainly with money from David’s parents and help from Harriett’s mother Dorothy.
- Harriet and David exemplify a modern bourgeois ideal: lots of kids, big Victorian suburban house, station wagon and such. But the ideal is built on dependency and is oblivious to the world around it. Anyone who owned a house that large in the 19th century, had at least oneservant and one nanny to help run the household.
- By focusing on the irresponsibility of the middle class, Lessing is able to comment on the nature of class conflict in Britain. Most of the Lovatt children conform to society, but Ben’s malevolent presence forces them out of the house to live with relatives. David and Harriet are left with only their youngest children: Ben and the sensitive Paul.Ben becomes a force for revolution within the home, and a window on the discontent around it. His rebellion causes Harriet to neglect Paul, whose quiet grace infuriates Ben. Lessing’s parable of class conflict demonstrates that in a society which is determined not to accept deviance, everyone suffers.
- The birth of this strange, violent, misfit child into a “normal” family is Lessing’s way ofobserving that the middle-class is responsible for the existence of the underclass and must accept responsibility for its behaviour, whether brutal or apathetic. Savagery, according to Lessing, is a direct result of the selfishness and blindness of middle class existence. By choosing not to involve themselves in the social changes of their era, David and Harriet are guilty to attempt to ignore theimperative for those changes. “We are being punished,” Harriet says, “for presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because We decided we would be….And who paid for it? James. And Dorothy….We just wanted to be better than anyone else, that’s all.”
- This selfishness is couched in a desire for so-called normality. The paradox that Lessing uncovers is that the violence and brutality of...