Lessing’s Ideal Life
Oftentimes authors write about things that they know the most about. This is no different for the modern author Doris Lessing. The theme of the ideal life, and how it can not be achieved, from Doris Lessing’s viewpoint can be seen in most of her work. Lessing’s theme of how the ideal life can not be achieved can be seen throughout her novel The Fifth Child and also in her own life which is reflected in her works.
In her novel The Fifth Child the theme of how the ideal life can not be achieved can be found if the reader looks beyond the words on the page. I do not believe that Lessing meant to have this as one of her themes in her book, but it came out that way because of her unique writing style. In her writing style she has a way that seems to parallel or be an autobiography of her own life (Scott 3). With Lessing’s work in The Fifth Child she shows that the ideal life can not be achieved through the example of the Lovatt family and all of the events they are involved in. In the book Harriet can be seen as Doris Lessing’s own self.
Basically as soon as the novel starts the evidence of Lessing’s idea of the ideal life start to make appearances in the text. After David and Harriet meet at an office party they fall in love right away and they move in together and get married, but in the meantime they search for a house:
Not possible to find the kind of house they wanted, for the life they wanted, in London. Anyway, they were not sure London was what they needed-no, it wasn’t, they would prefer a smallish town with an atmosphere of its own. Weekends were spent looking around towns within a commuting distance of London, and they soon found a large Victorian house in an overgrown garden. Perfect! But for a young couple it was absurd, a three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings….Full of space for children, in fact (Fifth 8).
Here it can be seen that the Lovatt’s ideal house does not really fit just them, but instead it needs lots more people to occupy it. Here the reader can learn that the Lovatts plan to have children and from the size of the house it sounds like they want a lot of them. However the Lovatts run into a problem with the house, “Even with David’s quite decent salary, and Harriet’s, the mortgage of this house would be beyond them. But they would manage somehow” (Fifth 9). So it seems that the Lovatts ideal house is one that they can not really afford. The reader later comes to learn that the Lovatts pay for the house by asking David’s father for the money to help with the house (Fifth 11). Even though it is very subtle it seems to me that Lessing is implying that their dream is beyond their grasp or that there is some sort of catch to owning the house. This is one of the first examples given by Lessing of the ideal life and how it can not be achieved.
Another area that shows how the ideal life can not be achieved is when the Lovatts planned to have to have their children and how it actually turned out. Right after David and Harriet moved into the house their plans to wait to have the children falls apart, “They made love, there, on their bed. Harriet almost cried out, “No, Stop! What are we doing?” For had they not decided to put off having children for two years” (Fifth 10)? As can be seen, the Lovatts planned to wait two years after they bought the house, but that plan fell apart when they got caught up in the moment. This event changes the Lovatts’ plan of how to pay off the mortgage of their newly bought house. The plan was for around two years for their combined salary to try and knock off a significant portion of the mortgage. However Harriet did in fact become pregnant, and it ruined their whole plan to try and pay off the mortgage together and forced them to ask David’s father for help with the mortgage (Fifth 11). Once again the reader can see that the Lovatt’s plans for their life falls apart.
After the first baby is born, things in the Lovatt household are normal for a while. The Lovatt family starts to host parties at their house of their family and friends, which usually took place during the Christmas and Easter season. The family keeps on growing with three more births. Each year the family’s parties at their house get bigger and more and more people come to them. Their dream of their ideal life is starting to come true:
Happiness. A happy family. The Lovatts were a happy family. It was what they had chosen and what they deserved. Often, when David and Harriet lay face to face, it seemed that doors in their breasts flew open, and what poured out was an intensity of relief, of thankfulness, that still astonished them both: patience for what seemed now such a very long time had not been easy, after all. It had been hard preserving their belief in themselves when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves. And look, they had been right to insist on guarding that stubborn individuality of theirs, which had chosen, and so obstinately, the best-this (Fifth 21).
The dream of the Lovatts is starting to come true. They have four of the desired six children and are a very happy family at this time (Fifth 8). Their ideal life is so close to being achieved that they can feel it about to come true. This all just plays into the dramatic fall from their ideal life upon the birth of their fifth child.
When the fifth child comes about the reader starts to notice a disintegration of the Lovatt’s plans for their ideal life. The fifth child comes about much of the same way that the first child comes about in that both Harriet and David planned to not have any children for a couple years, but nonetheless Harriet got pregnant, “Even before the crowd gathered before Christmas of 1973, Harriet was pregnant again. To her utter dismay, and David’s. How could this have happened? They had been careful, particularly so because of their determination not to have any more children for a while” (Fifth 31-32). Even though they paid special attention as to not to get Harriet pregnant it still happened, which is a sign of how their ideal life is slipping away from them. All of the plans of the Lovatt family seem to fall apart as soon as they are planned. The whole pregnancy with the fifth child was a struggle for Harriet, which also made it tough on the entire family, especially David (Fifth 43-43). Finally the baby was born and Harriet was relieved, ““ Thank God, thank God, it’s over at last!” She heard a nurse saying, “This’s a real toughie, look at him”” (Fifth 48). After the birth Harriet she was extremely thankful that it was over, but ironically the birth was only the beginning of the troubles for the Lovatt family.
Right from the start the fifth born child, whose name is Benjamin, was seen as different in his appearance and the way that he acted. The first description of Ben gives the reader the first real glimpse of how different he really is:
He was not a pretty baby. He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown. His hair grew in an unusual pattern from the double crown where started a wedge or triangle that came low on the forehead, the hair lying forward in a thick yellowish stubble, while the side and black hair grew downwards. His hands were thick and heavy, with pads of muscle in the palms (Fifth 48-49)
This description is from right after the baby came out of the womb, and it is obvious that this is no normal baby. Almost everything about him seems to be unusual and weird. He does not fit in with the other children at all, “The three older children stared down at the newcomer who was so different from them all: of a different substance, so it seemed to Harriet” (Fifth 50). Even the children noticed that the new kid did not fit in with the rest of the family. If the kids see Ben as different from themselves it will make it tough for them to include Ben in Harriet’s hope for an ideal family life. Just as Harriet fears Ben seems unable to fit in with the rest of the family.
Not only was Ben’s appearance different from the rest of the children but also his actions created a alienation from them as well. During the beginning of Ben’s stay at the Lovatt’s home, an event alienated Ben from the rest of the children:
Then something bad happened. Just after all the family had gone away, as the school term began, Paul went into Ben’s room by himself. Of all the children, he was the most fascinated by Ben. Dorothy and Alice, who were together in the kitchen, Harriet having gone off to take the older ones to school, heard screams. They ran upstairs to find that Paul had put his hand in to Bens through the cot bars, and Ben had grabbed the hand and pulled Paul hard against the bars, bending the arm deliberately backwards. Two women freed Paul. They not bother to scold Ben, who was crowing with pleasure and achievement. Paul’s arm was badly sprained (Fifth 58).
Ben’s action is not that of a normal infant and from this passage the reader can start to see that this child is no normal child. At one of the Lovatt’s parties one of their friends brought a dog to the party. While the dog was there Ben was fascinated with the dog the whole time and kept following it around and eventually one night Ben strangled the dog with his own hands (Fifth 62). This event with Ben and the dog scared many of the house guests and was one of the events that led to the slow stoppage of the parties at the Lovatt house. These parties were part of Harriet’s dream of the ideal life and to see these leave her was to see what she wanted most slip away because of her own children, which were supposed to be part of her ideal life.
Harriet’s parties started to see less and less people over time mainly because of what people heard about Ben and his actions. The first example of less people showing up to their house to take place in the festivals was the second Christmas after Ben was born, “The Christmas, with fewer people, was nevertheless festive and noisy, a success; but Harriet found herself longing for it to be over. It was the strain of it all, watching Ben, watching Amy-who was the centre of everything” (Fifth 66). And the following Christmas some of the Lovatt’s usual party guests went to a different man’s house instead of their own, which was partly due to Ben and his actions and appearance (Fifth 70). Ben was really threatening his mom’s dream of the ideal life because of how different he was from all the other people that came to his house for the parties. His difference from everyone else in both his actions and his appearance was scaring potential guests away from the Lovatt home, and there was only one way for Harriet to get her ideal life back.
The last option for Harriet and the Lovatt family to achieve their ideal life is to somehow get rid of Ben from the household. A reason for this is that David threatened Harriet to get rid of Ben by saying that it’s either him or Ben that can stay not both of them (Fifth 74). One way for this to happen was to send Ben away to an institution; this idea first came up during one of the parties at the Lovatt’s house. One of the relatives was the first one to bring up the idea (Fifth 71). This would be a tough decision for the Lovatt family to make, but mostly for Harriet because she did not want to give up on one of her own children. The decision for David would be easier, however, because he did not see Ben as his child (Fifth 74). Eventually Harriet gives in to David and the rest of the family to let Ben go into an institution, “Then, his face set hard, so that Harriet hardly knew him, he picked Ben up from where he sat on the floor in the living-room, carried him to the van, and put him in” (Fifth 76). The van is the vehicle that will be taking Ben to the institution. David the father of Ben is the one who actually takes Ben into the van to the institution, which is the “he” in the quote. Harriet seemed to have made this choice in order to try and save or at least retain some of what she sees as her ideal or dream life. If she wanted to truly have her ideal life it seemed necessary for Ben to leave the family.
After Ben is gone, the Lovatts seem to enjoy a good life, the one that they had in mind before Ben was born. The change of the perspectives of David changed right away after Ben left for the institution, “Seeing their parents there alone, no other children around, and above all, no Ben, Helen came to her father, Luke to his mother, and Harriet and David embraced their two adventurous little children, their children, holding them tight” (Fifth 75). Here it can be seen that both Harriet and David agree that they are with their own children, which means that they disagreed that Ben was not one of their own children. Part of the disagreement over whether Ben was their child had to do with how unusual he acted and looked when compared to his other children. Once Ben was gone from the house things started to get back to normal or at least to what life was like before Ben was born, “And David took days off from work to be with them all-to be with her. He was careful with her, tender. As if I were ill, she decided rebelliously” (Fifth 77). David now wants to be home to spend time with his family and especially his wife. It seems like that once Ben was away he seemed to enjoy the family life more than he previously had enjoyed it. So basically, once Ben left the family, a burden seemed to have been lifted and the entire family started to enjoy their life more than they previously had.
However, just as the Lovatts were starting to enjoy their lives without Ben, Harriet decides that she needs to get him back into the family. She does this for a couple of reasons but mainly because she feels bad for sending him away and for how she treated him. Also she felt like she had been mistreated for just giving birth to Ben, “Again Harriet was wondering why she was always treated like a criminal. Ever since Ben was born it’s been like this, she thought. Now it seemed to her the truth, that everyone had silently condemned her. I have suffered a misfortune, she told herself; I haven’t committed a crime” (Fifth 78). This is really sad that Harriet feels this way about how everyone feels about her. Part of this may have been of her own imagination but also part of it had to do how people acted towards her and her household. Some of the things that Harriet could have seen as silent condemnation are the reduced attendance at the parties after Ben was born, and the spreading knowledge of his actions and appearance. For these reasons and others Harriet decides to go and get Ben back from the institution. While at the institution Harriet is shocked to see the conditions that he was kept in and this made Harriet decide to take Ben away from the institution (Fifth 78-81). Prior to the visit to the institution Harriet was only thinking of visiting and seeing Ben. When she saw the conditions he was in at the institution, Harriet decided to bring Ben home to the Lovatt house.
Once Ben was back in the Lovatt household things started to get back to the way it had been when he was there previously. On the way home Ben acted with rage towards his mother and Harriet even had to drug him to stop the fit he was in. Also as soon as Ben was back home the other children started to cry and David was not happy that Ben was back home (Fifth 86). Just like before, having Ben home meant that Harriet had to give almost all of her attention to him and could not concentrate on truly enjoying her life with the rest of the family. One of the children, Paul, was not happy and even miserable that Ben was back in the household (Fifth 90). Eventually all of the children leave the household because Ben was back. They never say that Ben was the reason that they left but it is obvious that because of him they felt more comfortable away from the house while Ben lived in it. The two eldest children decided to go to live with their grandparents’ houses and the third child went on to live with her aunt Molly. The fourth child Paul became increasingly disturbed and spent all of his time watching television (Fifth 107-108). So basically once Ben got back into the Lovatt household the ideal life that Harriet dreamed of started to slip away again. The kids started to leave which means that the family life Harriet and David dreamed of was gone. Even David didn’t stay at home much ever since Ben was brought back from the institution (Fifth 124). Almost everything that Harriet wanted and dreamed of having was leaving her because of her child.
With all of her family slowing leaving her Harriet really starts to realize that her ideal life can not be achieved. While at a doctor’s office with Ben she even has an emotional outburst about how life has been unjust to her, ““No one has ever said to me, no one, ever, “How clever of you to have four marvelous normal clever good-looking children! They are a credit to you. Well done Harriet!” Don’t you think it is strange that no one has ever said it? But about Ben-I’m a criminal!”” (Fifth 104). This can be seen as the climatic scene in the novel where Harriet realizes that her life can never be achieved as long as Ben is part of the family. She also can not get rid of him because she already knows what will happen to him if she sends him away and she can not bear to do that again to him. So this is the point where Harriet knows that all is lost when it comes to her ideal life. She knows that when Ben is around she will not have a chance to achieve her ideal life, because she has to keep her entire attention on him when he is around and even refers the time as being Hell (Fifth 65). It is interesting that Harriet would refer to the time spent with Ben as Hell because she won’t give up hope on him. At the end of the book Harriet comes to the conclusion, “Around and around and around: if I had let him die, then all of us, so many people, would have been happy, but then I could not do it” (Fifth 131). From this the readers find out that Harriet knew that what she was doing by keeping Ben in the family was going to cause more harm than good but nonetheless she couldn’t bring herself to send him away for good from the family.
The Lovatts never truly had a chance to have their ideal life. This is because what they wanted for their ideal life kept changing constantly. It kept changing because all their plans kept getting ruined or changed due to the circumstances that they were under and choices they made. Harriet’s story in the novel can really almost be seen as a tragic one with how her life really fell apart slowly in front of her. The greatest tragedy in the story is really that of the fourth child Paul. It was such a tragedy for Paul because Harriet never really spent any time with him because the time was almost exclusively on Ben and Harriet even says that she felt like she had harmed his life the most. Towards the end of the story Harriet really starts to blame herself for the harm done to the family (Fifth 117). With Ben she was really in a no win situation because either she lets Ben die and everyone else is happy while she is miserable, or let him live and everyone be miserable. So this makes Harriet a sort of tragic hero for the story. Paul could possibly symbolize her children that she never really spent much time with because she was off doing other things. Just like Paul she may feel like her kids never truly could be all that they were meant to be because they were robbed of their mom.
As stated previously, most of Doris Lessing’s work is seen as being autobiographical to some extent and The Fifth Child is no different. Lessing’s life story is similar to that of Harriet in that both never really got to achieve what they saw as their ideal life. The life of Lessing is one full of searching and persevering throughout life to try and find her ideal life.
Lessing’s life started in Persia, what is now India, in October 22, 1919, where her father was a banker for the Imperial Bank of Persia (Reader’s 1). Her family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which is modern day Zimbabwe, in 1925. The family moved there to try and pursue what they thought would be a fortune in farming maize. However the thousand acres that they bought to farm the maize failed to yield the hoped wealth. This failed attempt to become wealthy on the farm made the mother’s dream of living a Victorian lifestyle in a savage land impossible. Despite what seemed like a rough childhood Lessing’s writings about life in Africa are filled with compassion towards the plight of the indigenous people and the sterile lives of the British colonists (Wikipedia 1). It is amazing that she would speak of her troublesome childhood with so much compassion; most people would most likely look on that kind of childhood with a negative view.
One possible solution as to why Lessing did not look back on her childhood with a negative view is because of how she found escape from it. In her childhood Lessing escaped in the literature of English writers such as Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and Tolostoy. Also her mother told her brother and herself bedtime stories to nurture her youth. She never did finish high school, just like the other modern African writers Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer, and as a result she was self-educated (Reader’s 1). During her childhood she also heard and absorbed her father’s horrors of World War I. She later said these stories were a kind of poison to her and she said about war, “We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it” (Reader’s 2). However this still could not save her from all the sorrow and pain of her childhood.
When Lessing was fifteen years of age, she ran away from home and took a job as a nursemaid. At her job her employer gave her books on politics and sociology. While she had the job her brother-in-law crept up to her bed and gave her kisses. She said that this was a time where she indulged in some elaborate romantic fantasies. In Lessing’s teen aged years and early adulthood she searched for her ideal life. She did this through running away from her troubled home and family and through romantic fantasies. At this point in her life it seems like she has no idea what she wants to do or really what she would want for her own life. This is the time in her life where she first started to write seriously and even sold some of her works to the local papers (Reader’s 2). The books she read on politics and sociology would play a major role in her in her next step of searching for the ideal life.
She even began to experiment with the ideas of Communism. She joined a group known as the Left Book Club because of its similar views to her own views. She even met her second husband in this group, but her love life will be talked about later (Reader’s 2). However she eventually left the party and Communist ideals because she became disillusioned with them. She said that now looking back that it is obvious that Communism was a bad idea:
This process [the falling out of love with Communism] was going on right from the beginning. I’m talking about the Soviet union-- people seeing what it was like and leaving. Everywhere you went you met people who had been communists and understood perfectly well the perils of the dream, and were now angry with themselves for falling for it (Notorious 6).
Here she seems to state the clues were all around as to why Communism failed, but no one just seemed to notice it for some strange reason. Also she said that, when she was a part of the Left Book Club, people seemed to look down on her and other members of the club because of how China and the Soviet Union were perceived in Europe (Notorious 5). Where she lived Communism was seen as the enemy, which explains why most people looked down on the Left Book Club. This way of thinking basically goes that ones way of thinking is wrong [government] and everyone else’s is wrong unless it agrees with their own way of thinking (Notorious 6). Communism was thought of a way of being to live an ideal situation where everyone can be happy with, so Lessing when she joined the Left Book Club was really looking for an ideal life through Communism.
Many people at first believe that Lessing is part of the feminist movement, but in reality she wants no part of it. The reason that most people believe that she is part of the feminist movement is because of how her writings portray the women’s point of view and what they want. She goes on to say about the feminist movement:
What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I’ve come with great regret to this conclusion (Wikipedia 1).
Lessing is saying that the feminist movement is basically just a waste of time and she doesn’t really see the purpose in it. Actually, she often condemns the movement in her various novels and quotes. She may not condemn it as much as she just does not see the point in wasting her time in that movement. It seems weird that someone who is really against a movement, such as Feminism, can come across in her writing and is thought of being very much for it. The most likely reason why Lessing never did join the Feminist movement and sees it as hopeless is because she knew through experience and observation that there was not an ideal life to be achieved in the Feminist movement.
The family life [marriage] of Lessing was very much similar to that of her childhood in that there was a promise of prosperity, but she eventually ran away from it all. When she was only just nineteen years of age she got married to a man by the name of Frank Wisdom and had two children with him. A couple years later she ran away from that marriage and soon joined the Communism club previously talked about, which is where she met her second husband Gottfried Lessing (Reader’s 2). She had a child with Gottfried and later divorced him and moved to London where she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing, in 1950 (British 1). She said that she left both of the marriages because of what she considered to be a feeling of being trapped in a persona that she thought might destroy her. The reason she thought this was because of her observations of her mother’s generation, “There is a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic – because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them” (Reader’s 2). So the reason ran away from both marriages was because she was scared that she might end up like her mom’s generation and become neurotic. This rejection of the domestic lifestyle can be found in her Children of Violence series, which was written right after she went to England [just after the end of her second marriage] (British 1). As previously stated almost all of Lessing’s work is autobiographical to some degree, and the literature might have been a way to express her feelings and emotions.
Most people who study Lessing’s work believe that she writes in a very autobiographical style (Scott 1). One such person is the Professor Lynda Scott of University of Otago, New Zealand who says of Lessing’s writing style, “Psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and self-representational writing, all provide opportunities to reach the past, analyse past experiences, and perhaps re-invent them by experiencing them again, while living in the present” (Scott 2). The article goes on to say that authors who write about their past experiences often are trying to get out past emotions that they suppressed at one time or another. What this article says is that Lessing writes in an autobiographical style in order try and release pent-upped emotions. This would most likely mean that Lessing would want or would have liked to change the way her life went. So by writing about it she is in fact changing they way it went in her own mind. This goes along with her quote, “Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself” (Brainy 2). So she could very well be saying that despite what happened to her in her life, if she thinks that something else happened, then that’s all that matters to her. It seems like that Lessing is just trying to come to terms with how her life was not what she thought it would be or what she wanted it to be; she tries to make the past right by changing it for herself. This observation is confirmed by Scott in that Lessing’s writing is her form of dreaming and wish-fulfillment.
Through the observations made of Lessing’s life it seems that her life, in her perspective, has gotten better with time. Lessing was quoted on saying, “I have found it to be true that the older I’ve become the better my life has become” (Brainy 1). It may not be that her life has truly gotten better but that she has learned to enjoy her life more than she previously did. Also it seems like she has really stopped looking around for things in which she will hopefully find peace or the ideal life. This could be because she has come to the conclusion that she can never find something to truly satisfy her perception of what the ideal life should be. In some of her quotes it seems like she feels like life, possibly her ideal life, just passed her by, “And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous. No one notices you. You achieve a wonderful freedom” (Brainy 1). It seems like what she thinks is the ideal life is growing older. However it maybe because she has found nothing else that is better. She says that the only thing about people that changes is people’s bodies, but everything else stays the same (Brainy 2). So why would she really think that the ideal life is to watch ones body grow old? It seems like Lessing is just searching around trying to find her ideal life and so far has not come across it.
The problem with Lessing’s search for the ideal life is that she is looking in all of the wrong places. She keeps looking on this earth for some kind of material possession or relationship that will fulfill her need for the ideal life. As can be seen, she has searched everywhere for her ideal life. She has searched in writing and literature but only found temporary escape. Also she has searched in marriage, but has only found that she feels restricted and will eventually self-destruct if she stays with the relationship. She even tried marriage twice but failed both times for the same exact reasons. Communism also brought hope for Lessing to find her ideal life, but failed because she saw it as not satisfactory. Finally she has come to write autobiographical literature in order to correct her past or at least release pent-up emotions pertaining to it. In other words her works provide a way for her to make her life right in her own mind. Just like Harriet does in The Fifth Child, Lessing goes back and analyzes her life to see what she would change if she could. If Lessing really wanted to find the ideal life she should look to Christianity where she can be satisfied with the life she has led and will lead, as well as be forgiven for her past mistakes, and not always having to go back and try and correct the problems she has with her past.
“A Reader's Guide to The Golden Notebook & Under My Skin.” HarperPerennial. 1995
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Lessing, Doris. The Fifth Child. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Lessing, Doris. The Memoirs of a Survivor. New York: Vintage, 1974.
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