Creating Oneself as a Mother: Dreams, Reality and Identity in Doris Lessing’s the Fifth Child (1988)
"With a few symbols a dream can define the whole of one's life, and warn us of the future, too" (Schlueter 71).
In this extract from an interview by Jonah Raskin in 1969, Doris Lessing explained the importance of dreams in her major work, The Golden Notebook; but it could just as easily be applied to a large part of her extensive novelistic corpus. Throughout her diverse literary output, Lessing uses traditional narrative methods such as tales and fables "as a creative vehicle to examine the states of consciousness of the human soul" (Galin 23). Through use of all these fantastic elements, she endows several of her novels, such as The Fifth Child (1988), with a dreamlike atmosphere in which reality and imagination merge. If dreams can define one's entire life, they will also provide the clues to one's own identity, illuminating areas that we do not have access to in conscious life. Identity is a major issue in the novels of Doris Lessing, especially those dealing with female protagonists trying to define their own selves amongst the different roles they perform in life. The subconscious, through dreams and imagination, plays an important part in this quest, since a person's identity is built up by both conscious factors and subconscious forces.
The aim of this paper is to show how Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child can be read as a valid representation of a failure in the construction of identity; the novel dramatises the way in which the dreams and fantasies of the subconscious can destroy or fatally interrupt the identity-building process. The Fifth Child, which is described by Jones in the New York Review of Books as "a horror story of maternity and the nightmare of social collapse" (30-31), combines dreaming, imagination and a sense of female identity which is endangered and comes close to disappearing. A closer look into The Fifth Child and its multi-layered treatment of identity as a form of troubled self-creation will help us to appreciate its integral role in the Lessing canon.
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