In Doris Lessing’s novel The Fifth Child, there are two main characters that are unaware of some, if not most, of the things they do. This unconsciousness the characters experience is what leads to inevitable conflict in the story: the distance that grows between the members of the Lovatt family. These unconscious actions and thoughts in the characters that leads to the division in the Lovatt family also brings up the question in the novel of who is truly to blame for the misfortune in the previously supposed perfect family.
The most obvious character that is unaware of the entirety of his actions is none other than Ben. From the start, the boy seems to never know his own strength; Ever since conception, Ben has been harming Harriet by making her extremely moody and irritable, but also physically hurting her from the inside by supposedly kicking harder than a child should. As Harriet was giving birth to Ben, she noted that “she was bruised — she knew it; inside she must be one enormous black bruise . . . and no one would ever know,” (Lessing 48). It is an unspoken thought between every character in the novel that Ben is different – alien almost – however, this is not his fault. Neither Ben himself nor Harriet had any choice over how the boy would turn out as he was born. It is clear to see that Ben does in fact have some kind of special needs; what exactly, we do not know, but the evidence is clearly there. In the mid twentieth century when this novel takes place, having some kind of issue in a child was not acceptable, especially in a middle or higher class family. Ben cannot help that he turned out to have some problems or disabilities, but his family decides to send him off to an institution to die nevertheless. This is where Harriet’s unconscious thoughts are shown most prevalently.
Harriet may repeat time and time again how much she dislikes Ben throughout the novel, and how she wished more than anything that he were dead, but something she cannot control is her motherly instinct and affection towards the unwanted boy. Even though Ben is unaccepted in his family, Harriet still cares for him and grows to love him as the novel progresses. David, the children, and the grandparents are all glad when Ben is sent away to the institution, knowing that he will die there, but they are perfectly fine with that fact. Harriet, ever the outcast, does not feel the same. She may say she hates Ben and wants him dead, but when that thought actually becomes her reality, Harriet decides to save her son. No matter how hard she tries to stifle or smother it, Harriet does care for Ben and she wishes to raise him as her own, just like her previous four children. When Ben was only a few months old, Harriet says “she did make a point of going to him every day when he other children were out of the way, and taking him to the big bed for a time of petting and play, as she had with all of them. Never, not once, did he subside into a loving moment,” (Lessing 56). Harriet wishes Ben was a normal child, but even though he will never be one in her eyes, she cannot help the instinctual love she feels for him, and she will always make sure he is safe. Even at the end of the novel when all the other children have decided to leave Harriet and Ben is almost of age himself, Harriet gives her fifth child a sheet of paper with the address where he could find his parents should he need them after they move to a new and foreign house. Although Ben leaves this paper forgotten on the ground, Harriet could not help but to make sure she did everything she could to be a mother to him.
It can be argued from either side that Harriet was the one to cause all the trouble in the Lovatt family, or it was in fact Ben only. Harriet was a mother that took far too many painkillers far too often during her fifth pregnancy, which would have most likely caused an effect to Ben’s overall physical and mental wellness. However, Harriet only took those pills because she was in so much pain from Ben, so it really cannot be said who is the one most responsible for all this trouble in the family. Harriet remarks that she is all but shunned by every single member of her close and extended family, with all of them blaming her solely for the creation of Ben. Even though Harriet complains about never getting a break or any sympathy, she shows to only treat Ben the same as how everyone else treats her, blaming him for the destruction of their picture perfect little family. Because of this, Harriet also starts to focus more on Ben and less on the rest of the family that seems to despise her. As Harriet takes more time to look after Ben, claiming it only for the safety of others, she only proves to unknowingly push herself even further away from her dear family. The novel starts off with Harriet and David meeting because they are both social outcasts at a party. When the two start a family, they say that they want a different life for their children, a perfect life. But inevitably, all the unconscious actions each of them takes only leads to each of their children becoming outcasts themselves in different ways – not just Ben.
Ben is a special needs child that does not know his own strength, nor does he understand right from wrong. Harriet is an outcast both to society and her family, and she clings to child she claims to hate more than the ones she says she adores. Neither Ben or Harriet could have controlled these things that separate them from the rest of their family. These unconscious attributes as well as their behaviors that broke apart the family, respectively not caring at all and caring too much, are the things that keep the two main characters as outcasts. Therefore, both of these characters are responsible for the disperse of the Lovatt family in their own respective ways, but it is all a result of their own unconscious actions.