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Literature / The Fifth Child

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"The Fifth Child" is a 1988 Gothic Horror novella by Doris Lessing. It tells the story of a couple, David and Harriet Lovatt, whose only ambition in life is to have a big house with many children. They succeed in doing so, even if it results in them living outside of their means and earning the gradual ire of their family members. But things start to escalate very, very quickly with the birth of the couple's fifth child, Ben. Possessed of frightening strength and a developmental disorder that makes it impossible to educate him or integrate him into society, Ben slowly begins to destroy David and Harriet's home and family from within.

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This work contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The '60s: The story begins here, and although it spans the next three decades it is specifically David and Harriet's common wish to reject the loose social mores of the 1960's that sets their story in motion.
  • Affably Evil: John and his gang. It is implied that they engage in criminal activity and they routinely extort the Lovatts for more and more money in exchange for their services, but they never let any harm come to Ben and John in particular seems to genuinely care for him.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: It is never made clear exactly what kind of mental disorder Ben suffers from. Justified because the Lovatts cannot get medical professionals to take his disorder seriously enough to investigate it.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Harriet eventually becomes convinced that this is why their family has been cursed with Ben, because of their selfish desire for the life they acquired.
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  • Bedlam House: The institution that Ben's parents briefly incarcerate him in is one of the most vivid and ghoulish examples presented in literature.
  • Body Horror: What Harriet experiences while pregnant with Ben and during his birth is both extremely unpleasant and vividly described. This trope comes into play again later when Harriet discovers the ward of deformed children in the mental institution.
  • Cainand Abel: While not a main feature of the story, Harriet and her sister Sarah have this kind of relationship, particularly where attention from their mother Dorothy is concerned. Sarah frequently grows irate that Harriet gets so much assistance from Dorothy when Sarah is the one struggling to raise a child with Down syndrome and is in worse financial straits with a far more unreliable husband.
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  • Demoted to Extra: David gradually disappears from the story as the years go on, the narrative shifting focus almost exclusively to Harriet's struggles to raise Ben. Justified, given that David has to work ever more hours just to support the family - even working three jobs at one point - and just can't be around to take part in events.
  • Downer Ending: David and Harriet reluctantly agree to sell the house and spend their remaining years together in a smaller home. But their children Helen, Luke, and Jane essentially want nothing to do with them at this point, while their son Paul struggles with debilitating mental health issues. Ben, meanwhile, has fallen in with a violent street gang. The story ends with Harriet sadly musing that the best Ben can hope for is a life in the underworld of some distant city, perpetually on the run from police.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Ben is described in these terms and viewed in them by the other characters. Some of them - Harriet in particular - become convinced that he truly is some kind of alien entity masquerading in human form.
  • Hulk Speak: The extent of the communication skills Ben eventually develops.
  • Kick the Dog: Ben is dangerous to animals.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Ben is constantly compared to hobgoblins, gremlins, trolls, gnomes, and other supernatural creatures, and Harriet becomes convinced that he actually is one. She frequently theorizes that he is actually descended from some pre-human civilization that vanished millennia ago. David and Dorothy find themselves agreeing with this in conversations with Harriet, even if they don't mean to.
  • Only Sane Man: Harriet is the only one who takes Ben's mental issues seriously and treats him like a person in need of help rather than a nuisance to be avoided. She spends much of her time trying to convince family members, medical professionals, and school officials alike that there is something genuinely wrong with Ben and that his issues and behavior are not the result of her poor parenting or Ben just being slow to catch on.
  • Shout-Out: When Ben starts running with John's gang one of his nicknames is "Alien Two," a clear reference to Alien, which would have just come out at this time.
  • Upper-Class Twit: How James and his wife Molly are regarded by just about everybody, although Harriet's sister Angela is the most vocal about it.

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