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Ben In The World By Doris Lessing – Sympathetic Love And Desperation Mashed Into One

March 14th, 2008 by Wilfrid

Ben In The World - Doris Lessing

I have written and rewritten this entry so many times that it is no longer funny.  So I shall get straight into the point.  The beauty – which ironically the word beauty is the least appropriate word to describe the story - of “Ben in the World” is that Doris Lessing has created a main character so far fetched from the current reality (a yeti? a primate?), put this hideous being into an imperfect world of greed, abuse, violence, indifference, and desperation (a.k.a. our reality) and you wonder, who or what is more hideous?  The main character, Ben, or the rest of the scumbags?  And because Ben is so out-of-this-world, it gets you curious in finding out who he is and what he is.  But that is not all that “Ben in the World” has to offer.  Just when you thought you have seen it all and let your common sense anticipates how the storyline unfolds, you are vastly disappointed.  The storyline simply defies all expectations, fails to resolve the way you want it to be, and this frustration motivates you to make connection with the main character of the book and you wonder, who is more frustrated?  You or Ben?  And when you finish reading the very last sentence, it suddenly hits you.  It is you whom Doris Lessing is talking to.  It is you who should feel ashamed of being indifference to the less fortunate, physically and mentally challenged ones.

OK, I am ashamed of who I am.

I think what Doris Lessing does is witty.  Through the little actions and conversations of her characters, she invokes metaphors that aid self-reflection.  In “The Fifth Child”, the focal point is onto Ben’s family, especially his mother Harriet.  I must say while I view “The Fifth Child” as a story with a powerful plot that comes down to maternal love, unconditional love, I was greatly curious about what this abnormal child of Harriet really like.  What pleases him?  What does he want in life?  How does he perceive external environment?  Is he evil?  And “Ben in the World” picks up where “The Fifth Child” leaves off.  If the original story is about maternal love, unconditional love, I would say this sequel is about sympathetic love and desperation.

The last sentence of the book still lives vividly in my mind.  Oh God, I want to unread that.  PS. That sentence only makes sense if you read the book.

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Categories: Book Reviews · Fiction
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17 responses so far ↓

  • You read so many books. Got so much time these days? Becoming a pro book reviewer liao.

  • Shall I teach Cynthia to lay floor tiles that can last for at least 18 years? hahaha……

  • ECL – Hey, reading is actually one of my hobbies. But I seldom write a book review. So I thought, let me give it a try to see what it is like to attempt to write a review on every book I read. Perhaps I may be amused 10 years down the road on how I perceived the story.

    Congratulations again for your 18th wedding anniversary :)

  • [...] from the rather dark and depressing titles of “The Fifth Child” and its sequel “Ben in the World” whereby the main character is more or less a monster living in our own [...]

  • [...] Ben In The World By Doris Lessing – Sympathetic Love And Desperation Mashed Into One [...]

  • [...] Ben In The World By Doris Lessing – Sympathetic Love And Desperation Mashed Into One [...]

  • I still don’t understand why Ben killed himself. It has been suggested that when seeing the drawings he realised he was from another time, but how would he have been able to realise that with his lack of general knowledge, ie cave/rock drawings where made thousands of years previously. If anyone can throw some light on this I would be grateful. PS really loved The Fifth Child, enjoyed first half of Ben in the World more than the second half. Was devastated when he suddenly killed himself and couldn’t stop crying.

  • Cat – I guess each reader has his or her own interpretation on great artwork like this one. Maybe in a way, Ben did observe that he was different from the rest Maybe he did have some kind of awareness on the world around him, just not necessarily being able to relate to the rest.

    All in all, I think it is a powerful ending and it does leave a deep impression. That is one of the purposes it serves I suppose.

  • Hi Wilfrid – thank you for taking the time to give your view. I thought Ben had already realised his difference. It could be said that the ‘drawings’ centred his mind on the ‘differences’. But I still don’t know why that would be, though take your point that he observed things differently generally.
    When I saw there were only a few pages left, I realised that the ending wouldn’t have him returning to England to, perhaps, a happy life with his mom (Paul perhaps being at uni or something). I felt the ending was unnecessarily brutal to the readers senses, having made sure we had built up such a concern for Ben. After all why would we be reading the sequel to his story if that wasn’t the case. I know there can’t ‘always’ be a ‘happy ending’ as it would hardly be worth following any story as you would already know how it would end.
    Despite his differences and not bieng with his ‘own kind’, he did manage a sort of happiness when in a secure, kind environment, so couldn’t help yearning for that type of ending. I guess I’m just a softy.
    All this doesnt take away from my absolute enjoyment of the first book. The whole idea being so original and beautifully constructed.

  • [...] Ben In The World By Doris Lessing – Sympathetic Love And Desperation Mashed Into One [...]

  • Cat – Thanks for coming back to read my response to your comments. Blogging at times can be quite a lonely activity. It is good to see that some readers do come back and drop more thoughts to share.

    I do value your thoughts. One wonderful thing about reading such novels is that each individual may form a different view based on our own background and life experience.

    For one, I was really hoping that Ben would find love of his life, from one of the girls he encountered. But the story just doesn’t resolve to be the one I as a reader wanted. And yes, I do share the same yearning as yours too. In the end, I think there is a message more powerful than a happy ending.

    Somehow I found that Doris Lessing’s works can be somewhat brutal. Like others I have read.

    You have a great week ahead.

  • Hi Wilfrid, yes a good point on how reader’s different backgrounds etc effect views, perceptions and expectations.

    Do any more of Doris Lessing’s books have a paranormal element, and which you could recommend? Or which of her books, paranormal or otherwise would you recommend?
    Regards, Catherine

  • Cat – Good to see you.

    I would say, The Cleft has some sort of paranormal element in it. My book summary can be found in here.

    My personal favorite so far is Mara and Dan. I like the Sci-fi elements in it. A pretty emotional piece of work.

  • Hi Wilfrid-I will be reading both the books you have recommended, starting with Mara and Dan.
    I thought you would be interested in reading the following review of Ben In the World, which says what I thought but in a much more eloquent way than I could muster, though the conclusion is perhaps rather harsh: Doris Lessing has written some fine books, but really there is nothing to be said that can possibly redeem “Ben in the World”. The theme of alienation is treated with sledgehammer crudeness to the point where the book is nothing more than caricature. The central character, Ben, is a genetic throw-back, physically and emotionally ill equiped for the world into which he is born, but the facile treatment of his trials leaves the reader uninvolved. The plotting is cursory, with little beyond a set of hollywood stereotypes filling in the spaces around Ben. We are expected to believe in, not one, but two “hookers with a heart” (as crass a cliche as one can imagine) and a brutal and exploitaive scientific research organisation bent on using and abusing the eponymous hero. What we asked to take seriously is little more than the staple of cheap television sci fi, kids stuff really, but not worthy of consideration as literature. Evil scientists conducting secret experiments without regard for morals or the human consequences may well have been adequate devices for fiction when Wells wrote “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (though I would argue it was cheap stuff even then), but in this day and age we surely deserve a more sophisticated analysis of the machinations and complex morality of science. In Ben we have a pure hearted and ingenuous hero, trusting and always likely to be exploited, but again he seems little more than a crude symbol of a far more interesting and equivocal figure which Lessing, it seems, could not bring her self to devise. As a study in the alienation of a born outsider the work is superficial and as an examination of society’s tendency to exploit and abuse the weak and vulnerable it is laughably simplistic. Such paucity of invention and reliance on standard off the peg signifiers is surely a sign that Lessing is written out. The picaresque element which sees Ben transported around the world to be exploited at every turn, only seems to emphasise how lazy this book really is; no location is drawn with any genuine sense of place and one might be forgiven for imagining that Lessing relocated the action periodically simply to mask her own failure of invention.
    This is a lazy book in terms of its themes and their development, but it is also quite frankly, a badly written one. There have always been those who argued that Lessing’s technique as a writer lagged behind her powers of invention, but now with the cupboard of ideas so bereft her written prose is cruelly exposed. There are sentences in the book which, were they the work of a less celebrated author, would have been edited out long before publication.

    It is very sad to see an ageing writer so obviously in decline, but it is perhaps an indication of the cowardice of those around her that they allowed her to publish a work which can do nothing but diminish her reputation. Was nobody brave enough to tell her how inadequate this book really is? ‘
    Take care, Catherine

  • Cat – Thanks for sharing. I respect the fact that different readers may have very different views on the same piece of work. And I admire authors who create works that split the audience halfway.

    To me, what Doris Lessing has set out to provoke upon me is accomplished. Right after I’ve read the book, I was shocked and ashamed of my own indifference to the ones around me.

    Doris Lessing has received a fair bit of criticism when she switched to the genre of science fiction. Personally I am glad that she did because I enjoy reading those books a lot.

    Do let me know how the other two books go though :) You too take care!

  • [...] behave like monsters.  Monsters.  Such ugliness that strongly reminisces of the main character of “Ben In The World”.  How Emily has fallen in love with the young leader Gerald, helping him to build communities, [...]

  • I am really glad to have found this blog entry after finishing this stirring book. I agree that Lessing is speaking to you/me. The final line shames me as one who could feel a certain strange desire for a clean wrap up. She knew this. I too want to go on with my life, with my dreams, with my marriage plans, my new job in the mining town, etc. I am consoled seeing Ben (who has become quite sympathetic) entranced by the stars and the beauty of nature and imagine a heavenly banquet of his people awaiting him. He does himself in, and, ah, I do not have to take care, to worry, to make accomodations for him in my sweet life. Lessing knows this, darned her!