Dorris Lessing Essay Essay Sample
‘Discuss concepts of normalcy in Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’: how does Lessing encourage the reader to assume Ben is monstrously abnormal?’
For most people, the word “normal” may seem very simple, but its specific meaning and definition can make it complex. The complexity appears by its perception in different contexts because every culture has distinctive ways of defining it. For example, Arabs are used to eating with their hands, which is considered normal but, if they adopt the same way in France, it could be considered abnormal. Normality can be defined as “one who is not diseased or mad, can learn and may forget, sleeps well, is not unbearably sensitive or thick-skinned, and so on” (Alexander, 1973:137).
In the story “The Fifth Child” (Lessing, 1988), the main character “Ben” is mostly regarded as abnormal according to his behaviours. The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how the reader is encouraged to assume that Ben is monstrously abnormal, and it will illustrate the negative physical and behavioural descriptions of Ben. It also relies on his mother’s perspectives and how she treats him, her question of why all her children are normal but not Ben, and the reader’s impression of Ben being from working class. First, the definition of normal will be discussed in detail, relating it to how Ben is seen abnormal. Secondly, four points that support the monstrous idea of Ben will be explained. Thirdly, a counter argument of how Ben is seen as normal will be presented.
Normalcy is a state of being normal or in other words, behaving in a common and usual way. In general, it is highly regarded in the surrounding actions of the society. In contrast, abnormality is often described as being mad, different and not functioning properly. Being different specifically means functioning in an unusual way or the actions’ are opposing to those of many others in the environment. As Alexander (1973) states “If we think him abnormal enough we may punish him or shut him away from the world or even persuade ourselves that he would be better dead”. According to Alexander, an abnormal person could face extreme consequences because of his actions that may be considered harmful and eccentric, depending on the level of abnormality. The level of abnormality could be measured depending on its intensity, whether it will only affect the abnormal person alone or will cause danger to others. Another idea of abnormality is pointed out in Rosenhan psychological experiments “Being Sane in Insane Places”, “Failure to detect sanity during the course of hospitalization may be due to the fact that physicians operate with a strong bias toward what statisticians call the Type 2 error. This is to say that physicians are more inclined to call a healthy person sick” (p 4). The strong bias in the diagnosis explains whether the patient is normal or abnormal, which relates to the perception of defining normality. It has a strong bond with its surroundings to have an acceptable and not unusual behaviour. Moreover, both points concerning normality, according to Alexander (1973) and Rosenhan (1973), relate largely to Ben in “The Fifth Child” (Lessing, 1988).
Ben is the fifth child in the Lovatt’s family. He is considered as the abnormal small brother that caused a major turn in happy and loving Lovatt’s family. He was not only an abnormal child to them, but also monstrous. He was functioning in abnormal way as Lessing implied “This cot was put in the room where the older children were, in the hope that Ben would be made social, friendly, by his siblings. It was not successful.” (Lessing, 1988: 68). Ben lacked simple features of being normal such as to socialize, especially with the closest ones which are his siblings. He was considered largely in his family as the rejected brother and unloved, leading them to send him to an institute to care for him and they knew that the chances of his survival there are minimal. The action is related to Alexander (1973) that an abnormal is better dead.
As Alexander expressed the action toward an abnormal person, Rosenhan in his experiment relates to mother Harriet’s perspectives of considering Ben abnormal. Her way of perceiving normality is concerned with her atmosphere that abnormal and normal actions can be classified as insane or sane according the cultural and social norms (Rosenhan, 1973). Harriet’s impression of her child was negatively abnormal because it shows from her actions towards Ben when comparing him to his siblings that he is far different from her understanding of normality. He is not capable of learning, neither in school nor at home. According to his mother, Ben is not even able to act as a normal gentle child, as mentioned about her “she had given up trying to read him, play with him, teach him anything: he could not learn” (Lessing, 1988: 117).
Lessing encourages the reader to assume Ben is monstrously abnormal in four main ways. Firstly, her selection of negative descriptive words plays a major role in depicting a savage image of Ben. From the first moment he steps in the world, negative words start to describe him, used by his closest people such as his parents. Conventionally, when children are born they are always offered maximum levels of love and acceptance; however, Ben experiences a very unwelcoming entrance as if he was a burden on Harriet, as she said, “Thank God, thank God, it’s over at last!” (Lessing, 1988: 60). Ben was described by several odd words for a baby, such as “muscular, yellowish, long” (p 60), “He’s like a troll or a goblin or something” (p 61) and “an angry hostile little troll” (p 69). All these descriptions create a negative monstrous picture of Ben.
Secondly, Harriet’s perspective of Ben was quite different from her other children. She sees him as an unusual intruder, “The three older children stared down at the new comer who was so different from them all: of a different substance, so it seemed to Harriet.”(p 62). Mothers in most societies are credited and trusted in their feelings towards their children. Therefore, Harriet’s rejection and different perspective of Ben compared to his siblings could be trusted. While Harriet was in labour, her main concern was to dispose the savage creature in her body that caused her damage, “She knew it; inside she must be one enormous big black bruise” (p 59), and once she gave birth to him she did not even want to hold him, “Harriet held him out, challenging the nurse with her eyes to take him.” (p 61). Her rejection shows when she alludes to the nurse to take him. Additionally, the description of Ben once he existed relates strongly with Frankenstein appearance, and that is what reinforces the depiction of Ben as a monster. Both of them were described as creatures, though Ben was a little child and he should be described with delicate descriptive words. Both of them had yellowish eyes and skin, “Dull yellow eye of the creature open”, “his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscle” (Shelley, 2008).
Thirdly, Harriet questioned herself of why Ben is abnormally different when compared to his siblings. According to her, many thoughts were related to the answer. She mentions that this might be a punishment to her family because she and David sought to have a happy family full of joy and to have many children. They thought that having many children in the UK is abnormal “Do you realize that having six children, in another part of the world, it would be normal” (p 22). Thus, her idea of being punished by having an abnormal son that changes their joyful family into misery makes the reader assume and create a monstrous image of Ben. Before the birth of Ben, the Lovatt’s family had a life full of joy and happiness, “Happiness. Hers and His.” (p 24). The first four children came as the parents sought with cheer and joy. Ben shows up and everything changes. The family’s coarse of happiness faces a turn. “clearly not a normal child. The family thinks Ben disturbs their peace, and even feels that Ben is a real threat to his other “normal” siblings.” (Arumugam, 2012: 4).
Finally, the impression of Ben, when relating him to social classes, reinforces the negative idea of depicting him as a gruesome son. Ben reveals his social class when he starts to hang out with biker gangs. Normally, gangs in societies derive from lower or worker classes because their education and standards can be low. “He had became part of the group of young unemployed sometimes did odd jobs rushed about on motorbikes” (p 111). His strong relation to this young group that sits in coffee shops and hover around with their bikes makes him one of them, which according to their behavior, they come from worker class. These biker groups are often convicted with many illegal actions, such as having drugs and murders. Thus, from a middle class reader’s perspective, having a child that does not have any commitment to his family’s standards or ethics makes them face an emotional and structural disturbance. The parents, especially, feel a sense of guilt because they would think that they have failed in raising a child, in addition to what bad reputation he would bring to them.
Thus, Lessing creates a very ferocious image of Ben by the four ways mentioned. From another perspective why Ben is blamed for all what happened to his family’s life and his, it is clearly shown by Lessing that he was a nightmare for his family. Why are not the parents blamed? A child relies on loving environment and Ben was unwelcomed at birth and directed with monstrous words rather than lovely ones. In addition to disposing him to an institution, it really molded him to be violent because of the inhumane treatment, as mentioned by Harriet “ On the floor.. lay Ben.. he was unconscious.. naked.. His flesh was dead white, greenish. Everything – walls, the floor, and Ben- was smeared with excrement.” (p 99). This shows the negligence in taking care of Ben, even for minor necessities. This surely contributed to his actions in his future that were expressed by Harriet as abnormal. Although Ben had very ugly appearance and he was mostly rejected, he had a chance of being a better respected child if he got the treatment that suited him. Similar to Ben, Harriet’s niece, Amy, with Down Syndrome, had the same problem. Both had an abnormal appearance, but the difference is that Amy was everyone’s favorite; however, Ben was rejected. “One cannot miss noticing the difference in the treatment between Ben “a monster” and Amy, the child with Down’s syndrome, when both fall under the same paradigm of ‘disability’” (Arumugam, 2012: 6,7), Although Ben was a normal child in the view of the doctors, when Harriet says “ we have to find a doctor who says he’s abnormal,’ ‘Dr. Brett certainly won’t’” (p87), he is still treated in an unjust way.
In summary, this essay has argued normality and abnormality definitions and their relation to Ben perspective of abnormality, demonstrated four main encouraging ways that Lessing made the reader to picture Ben as a monster and introduced an opposing point of view that Ben is normal, but his environment and treatment made him abnormal in the eyes of his family. The essay was limited by a word count which restricted addition of more information; however further research on the perception of normality in a mother’s point of view would offer a more precise answer to judge if a child is normal.
Alexander, P. (1973). Normality. Philosophy. 48 (184), 137-151.
Arumugam, S. (2012). Monster, Anxiety of the Human: A Study of the Two Novels of Doris Lessing. Available from: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/at-the-interface/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/amasundarimonpaper.pdf. Last accessed 27 Jan 2015.
Lessing, D. (1988). The Fifth Child. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape: 7-159.
Rosenhan, D.L. (1973). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Science, 179 (4070), 250-258. Available from: http://www.walnet.org/llf/ROSENHAN-BEINGSANE.PDF. Last accessed 19 Dec 2014.
Shelley, M. (2008). Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus 1818. Engage Books.