In the "free love" context of the nineteen-sixties, Harriet and David Lovatt are throwbacks to a more conservative, traditional, and family-oriented decade. Their life dream is to have a big house in the country filled with children, and it seems that they will succeed. After bearing four young children, however, Harriet is feeling the strain of years of childbearing, sleeplessness, money trouble, and her parents' and in-laws' disapproval of her fecundity.

Her fifth pregnancy is not only unplanned, but also unusually painful and disruptive. Harriet's doctor prescribes sedatives but finds nothing abnormal in her situation. When Ben is born, Harriet jokes that he is like "a troll or a goblin," but no one responds well to this unusually hairy and physically vigorous baby, who in turn does not respond to anything but his own desires and fears.

As he grows older, family pets and other children seem to be in physical danger. Health care professionals do not confirm the couple's conviction that Ben is not normal, but neither do they obstruct the decision to send Ben to a private institution, a removal that leaves the family temporarily happy until Harriet visits Ben and recognizes the institution for what it is, a place where all manner of "different" children are sent to live heavily medicated, physically restrained, and foreshortened lives away from families who do not want them.

Harriet brings Ben home, where he grows up amid what remains of the Lovatts' domestic fantasy, and finds community in a gang of thuggish older boys whom Harriet suspects are involved in various criminal acts. As the story closes, Ben has left home and Harriet imagines him in another country, "searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind" (133).


The novel raises a host of questions about human variation and its societal treatment; the tyranny of the visual in the establishment of normalcy and social power; the constructedness of the normal and the deviant, defective, or abnormal; and the gap between professional diagnoses and family realities. The chapters on Ben's institutionalization are riveting, distressing, and handled in a complex fashion. Neither the institution nor its staff are demonized, nor is Harriet's rescue portrayed as a unilaterally heroic act.

Students argue passionately over who is most at fault, Harriet, David, or Ben himself, and such debates are highly illuminating not only about how we conceive parental (and especially maternal) responsibility but also how we conceive the rationing of family and social happiness and whether it should be decided on a Utilitarian or other model. Lessing makes it impossible to establish the objective nature of Ben's difference, and whether we are meant to read him as an archetype, a figure of science fiction (an atavism or a product of maternal impressions), a metaphor for the construction of racial, ethnic, or class difference, or a figure of social realism (a mentally disabled, physically atypical, or autistic child; a child with disabilities produced by maternal drug use).

Ben resembles Robert Louis Stevenson's Edward Hyde (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), a figure of "nameless deformity" and physical vigor who distresses people for reasons they find hard to articulate. He also compares productively to Victor Frankenstein's creation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The novel is an excellent addition to courses on disability studies or medical ethics and teaches well alongside Michael Bérubé's Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (see this database).


Lessing published a sequel, Ben, in the World, in 2000.


Vintage International

Place Published

New York



Page Count