The Fifth Child is the story of a couple, Harriet and David Lovatt, who meet in the '60s,
fall in love, and get married with intentions of raising a very large family. But their fifth child, Ben,
throws their world into turmoil. He is somewhat deformed with his Neanderthal-like appearance and he
exhibits unusual strength for his years. As can be expected, Ben puts a serious burden on the family who
must now cope with him.
The Fifth Child becomes a subtle social commentary on the treatment of the handicapped
by society. Almost nobody who comes in contact with Ben - his doctors, teachers, family - will admit that
there's anything wrong with Ben.
When she leaned forward, she could see herself in the gleam - dully, but enough to make her lean back
again, out of sight. She looked like David: old. No one would say she was forty-five. But it was not,
the ordinary ageing of grey hair, tired skin: invisible substance had been leached from her; she had
been drained of some ingredient that everyone took for granted, which was like a layer of fat but was
Leaning back where she could not see her blurry image, she imagined how, once, this table had been set
for feasts and enjoyment, for - family life. She recreated the scenes of twenty, fifteen, twelve, ten
years ago, the stages of the Lovatt board, first David and herself, brave innocents, with his parents,
and Dorothy, and her sisters ... then the babies appearing, and becoming small children ... new babies ...
twenty people, thirty, had crowded around this gleaming surface and been mirrored in it, they had added
other tables to the ends, broadened it with planks set on trestles ... she saw the table lengthen, and
widen, and the faces mass around it, always smiling faces, for this dream could not accommodate criticism
or discord. And the babies ... the children ... she heard the laughter of small children, their voices;
and then the wide shine of the table seemed to darken, and there was Ben, the alien, the destroyer. She
turned her head cautiously, afraid to alert in him senses she was sure he possessed, and saw him there,
in his chair. He sat apart from the others, always apart; and, as always, bis eyes were on others' faces,
observing. Cold eyes? She had always thought them cold; but what did they see? Thoughtful? One could
believe him thinking, taking in data from what he saw and arranging it - but according to inner patterns
neither she nor anyone else could guess at. Compared with the raw and unfinished youths, he was a mature
being. Finished. Complete. She felt she was looking, through him, at a race that reached its apex thousands
and thousands of years before humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage. Did Ben's people live in
caves underground while the ice age ground overhead, eating fish from dark subterranean rivers,
or sneaking up into the bitter snow to snare a bear, or a bird - or even people, her (Harriet's)
Did his people rape the females of humanity's forebears? Thus making new races, which had flourished and
departed, but perhaps had left their seeds in the human matrix, here and there, to appear again, as Ben had? (And perhaps Ben's genes were already in some foetus struggling to
Did he feel her eyes on him, as a human would? He sometimes looked at her while she looked at him - not
often, but it did happen that his eyes met hers. She would put into her gaze these speculations, these
queries, her need, her passion to know more about him - whom, after all, she had given birth to, had
carried for eight months, though it had nearly killed her - but he did not feel the questions she was
asking. Indifferently, casually, he looked away again, and his eyes went to the faces of bis mates,
And saw - what?
Did he ever remember now that she - his mother, but what did that mean to him? - had found him in that
place, and brought him home? Had found him a poor creature half dead in a strait-jacket? Did he know
that because she had brought him home, this house had emptied itself, and everyone had gone away,
leaving her alone?
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 . .
And what would happen to Ben now? He already knew about the half- derelict buildings, the caves and
caverns and shelters of the big cities where people lived who could not find a place in ordinary homes
and houses: he must do, for where else could he have been during the periods of days, or weeks, when he
was gone from home? Soon, if he was often enough part of great crowds, part of the element looking for
excitement in riots, street fights, he and his friends would be known to the police. He was not someone
easily overlooked ... yet why did she say that? Everyone in authority had not been seeing Ben ever since
he was born ... When she saw him on television in that crowd, he had worn a jacket with its collar up,
and a scarf, and was like a younger brother, perhaps of Derek. He seemed a stout schoolboy. Had he put
on those clothes to disguise himself? Did that mean that he knew how he looked? How did he see himself?
Would people always refuse to see him, to recognize what he was?
Source: The Fifth Child, Flamingo, London 1993, pp. 157/59
to leach - auslaugen, auswaschen
ingredient - Bestandteil
forebears - Vorfahren
human matrix - menschliche Grundsubstanz
strait-jacket - Zwangsjacke
half-derelict - halb verfallen
1. Describe how Harriet looks upon her 'shattered' life having changed by the birth of her son Ben.
Couldn't the Lovatts have handled their situation better?
2. How does Harriet expalin Ben's unusual character and behaviour?
3. How do friends and even the authorities (e.g. teachers, doctors, police) react to boys like Ben?
4. Examine the text concerning its means of presentaion (e.g. stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, reported thought etc.).
Support your findings by examples from the text.
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