Doris Lessing Stories
The Unconscious in The Fifth Child
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.
Critical analysis of “A Sunrise on the Veld” by Doris Lessing
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007, Doris Lessing crafted fiction that is deeply infused with autobiographical touches, especially from her experiences in Africa. All of her works center around modern themes such as the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among the opposing forces within an individual’s own personality, and the conflict between the individual’s conscience and the collective good. Her short story “A Sunrise on the Veld” documents the protagonist’s initiation from youthful arrogance to the maturity of experience.
This story enfolds in its narrative the transformation of a young boy’s belief in his superiority over the world to his understanding of how vulnerable he is and how similar he is to the other inhabitants of the veld. The author shows an extreme mastery of craft in projecting home her viewpoint through the persona on the boy, namely, life is unpredictable. Written in third person narrative, the plot of Doris’ narrative is complex in nature. Lessing portrays a boy (who does not have any specific name, making him a symbolic character) who is over filled with vainglorious sense of pride at his complete mastery over his body:
“he played with it for the fun of knowing that it was a weakness he could defeat without effort”
His hubris is evident from his sense of superiority over the forces of nature, as the boy believed in his adolescent triumph: “Even my brain- even that! I can control every part of myself.” Deluded by his euphoria over his belief that he is a usurper upon the forces on nature the boy prided in the fact that he had proved his merit, that he had defeated the undefeatable forces of nature by sheer will power alone. As the boy reminisces:
“he had once stayed awake three nights running, to prove that he could, and then worked all day, refusing even to admit he was tired; and now sleep seemed to him a servant to be commanded and refused”
The boy was completely entrenched with a feeling of invincibility and he sought the world with adolescent wonder and excitement. Unable to help with the vigorous joy of life the boy asserted his individuality by his exultant attitude and an ecstatic dash through the veld. Ironically like any typical youth the boy believed himself to be a fully mature man with utter and complete command over his life. As the boy himself muses:
“I am fifteen! Fifteen!… There’s nothing I can’t become, nothing I can’t do.. I contain the world. I can make of it what I want. If I choose, I can change everything that is going to happen”
In order to initiate the process of maturity Lessing puts the boy through a test of merit. His jubilant and exhilarated state of happiness comes to a sudden halt when the boy notices a contradiction: “in the deep morning hush that held his future and his past, there was a sound of pain… a kind of shortened scream.” The boy loses his animation altogether and becomes alert and focused so as to identify the source of the strange sound. It doesn’t take him long to pin point the origin of the strangled scream to a mangled buck that looked like:
“a figure from a dream, a strange beast that was horned and drunken legged… it seemed to be ragged”
The boy’s maturity comes under the strain of natural forces outside his control when he is forced to witness the gruesome manner of death of the innocent buck. The comes into a direct conflict with his own conscience when becomes evident when the boy hesitates to put the creature out of its misery. As the narrator delineates:
“it came into his mind that he should shoot it and end its pain.. But then he thought: if I had not come it would have died like this. So why should I interfere?”
This struggle with the opposing forces of his own personality forces the boy to realize the painful truth that he has no command over nature. The boy is subject to face the pinching reality that he does not have the power to change the course of life, that he could not interfere with Nature itself. The boy realizes that: “all over the bush things like this happen; they happen all the time; this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish”. For the first time the boy realizes that Nature has to run its course and that he could do nothing to alter its course. The boy felt a searing pain in his own body at this revelation and unable to help himself he uttered:
“I can’t stop it. I can’t stop it. There’s nothing I can do”
This stoic acceptance of the horrific reality of life marks the boy’s initiation into the process of maturity and it also marks a realization on the part of boy that he is not an adult but an adolescent after all. However he could not sever his emphatic link with the anguish of the dead animal and we witness that: “he found that the tears were streaming down his face, and his clothes were soaked with the sweat of that other creature’s pain”. This pain also unravels another significant reality to the boy when he realizes that there is a similarity between the buck and his own persona. Like the boy the buck too had been euphoric, full of life until the moments before its horrific death. And the boy wonders:
“perhaps an hour ago, this creature had been stepping proudly and free through the bush… proudly stepping the earth, tossing its horns, frisking a pretty white tail…walking like kings and conquerors…”
And then he was suddenly met by an unexpected death which marred the beauty of the young animal. It is then that the boy realizes that not only is he incapable of affecting the nature but that he too was subjugated to it. At some point of his life the boy too would lose the struggle and like the buck he too will be forced to let go. This realization strikes another cord into the boy and he admits his own mortality. This admittance becomes evident when the boy mutters to the ants:
“go away. I am not for you- not just yet at any rate. Go away”
The boy’s transition from the haughty sense of superiority to a more realistic attitude of stubborn immaturity becomes evident when the boy realizes the error of his own ways. The boy acknowledges the fact that his past actions had been cruel. Like the suffering buck he too had delivered his share of cruelty on innocent animal. This painful realization evaporates all his previous euphoric sense of delight at this own superiority and we see that the boy is unable to face the criminalizing pangs of his own conscience; thus, “he would not face it. He was a boy again, kicking sulkily at the skeleton, hanging his head, refusing to accept his own responsibility.”
It can be said that Lessing’s purpose behind writing the story or the message which she tries to bring to her readers is that life in uncertain. At any unpredictable moment a sudden shift of fate could lead to the termination of the fragile human existence. Thus the air of immortality with which humans garb themselves is totally in contrast to the reality and is, thus, immature. The nature of man is mortal asserting or assuming otherwise is simply uncharacteristic and delusional. Lessing through the medium of the boy forces her readers to realize that Nature is above the influence of the frail and mortal men. The life of an individual in influenced and directed by forces outside his control and that the best a man can do is to cope with the realities of life and accept his fate in a stoic manner.
Adultery and Divorce in the 1960s: Reading and Contextualizing “To Room Nineteen”
In Doris Lessing’s short story, “To Room Nineteen” Susan and Matthew Rawling seem to be the perfect couple, until Matthew begins to have affairs and Susan is left alone to her own thoughts and eventually goes mad and kills herself. An underlying theme that Lessing could be hinting at is how adultery affects a marriage. During the 1960s, divorce was becoming a more prevalent solution to marital issues. By collecting historical information and considering the characters in this story, it can be assumed that Lessing believed that divorce was a suitable solution for some marriages.
During the 1960s, divorce was considered to be a widespread tragedy in London. Laws about divorce were made and it was said that a couple may only get divorced if it were “irretrievably broken down.” According to the London Times article, “Breakdown or Offences” there were three different ways a marriage could be considered broken down: “desertion for a continuous period of at least two years; separation for at least two years when both parties agree to a divorce; separation for at least five years when there is no such agreement”. This suggests that if a couple were in any of these three situations, their marriage was undoubtedly broken down. However, This article also argues that there are other reasons that people should be able to easily obtain a divorce, for instance, adultery, this is considered an “offense” according to this article. During this time, “adultery is one of the surest legal grounds for divorce,” however, this article also makes the assertion that adultery cannot always be proven, and this is an easy way for people to easily get a divorce on “fictitious” allegations. In 1969, an article called “Divorce on Demand” was published in the London Times, this article argues against the idea that “one isolated instance of adultery is evidence that a marriage is finished, and even worse so to broaden the definition of cruelty that it could be interpreted to mean simple incompatibility.” This article argues the point that adultery should not be a reason for divorce (at least not a single-time offense) because this could mean that the people simply weren’t compatible for each other, but it was difficult for them to obtain a divorce, so they were forced to become unfaithful to their spouses.
In “To Room Nineteen” Susan Rawling’s husband Matthew is unfaithful to their marriage, and instead of divorcing, Susan decides to stay with Matthew, during which, she eventually goes insane and commits suicide. Throughout the story, Susan justifies Matthew’s affairs with the argument that monogamy is unrealistic. One instance of this is Susan and Matthew even joking, saying “Of course I’m not going to to be faithful to you, no one can be faithful to one person for a whole lifetime,” (Lessing). This is significant because Susan doesn’t seem to be bothered by Matthew’s unfaithfulness, but as time passes the loneliness consumes her and drives her mad.
Towards the end of the story, Susan tries to convince Matthew that she had been unfaithful to him in order to make him relate to how she is feeling, but this quickly backfires and only causes Susan more strife. When telling Matthew about her fictitious lover, Michael, he seems unfazed and offers to join them on a date, to which Susan thinks, “Of course, she said to herself, of course he would be bound to say that. If one is sensible, if one is reasonable, if one never allows oneself a base thought or an envious emotion, naturally one says: Let’s make a foursome!” (Lessing). This allows Susan to come to the realization that Matthew understands that monogamy is unrealistic. By using the phrase “if one is sensible, if one is reasonable,” Lessing is suggesting that jealousy is an absurd feeling to have, and if a person was smart they wouldn’t invest in their envious emotions.
It is thus critical to consider Susan Rawling’s not divorcing Matthew Rawlings as a warning to people who in unfaithful marriages. Lessing makes the point that Susan, who only wanted to be with Matthew for the rest of her life, is the one who goes mad in the end. Instead of divorcing him, she tried to salvage what she had and was unsuccessful doing so.
“Breakdown Or Offences.” Times [London, England] 16 Jan. 1968: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. “Court Circular.” Times [London, England] 12 May 1949: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. “Divorce On Demand.” Times [London, England] 2 July 1969: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. Lessing, Doris. “To Room Nineteen” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Jon Stallworthy et al. Vol F. New York, NY, London, ENG: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2759-2780. Print.