IN MARY SHELLEY'S Frankenstein, the dangerously curious Dr. Frankenstein creates a dangerous offspring. This creature is the object, the vessel, the outcome of his pride. Dr. Frankenstein calls his weird dependent the same thing my poor messed-up dad called me when I misbehaved: The Monster. The saddest irony is that the clunky, oafish, partly dead, badly complexioned monster is the only character in the book with even half a heart.

Ben, the monstrous child in Doris Lessing's l988 novel, The Fifth Child, doesn't appear to have much of a heart at all. Like Frankenstein's monster, Ben is an offspring born of parental pride. Harriet and David have set themselves apart from what they consider the moral laxity of their peers in late-'60s England. In contrast to the social experiments being conducted by their urban friends, Harriet and David buy a big house in the country, and, with the financial help of their extended family, have a bunch of kids. Harriet is pretty beat after having four children, but she and David decide to go for five. This pregnancy is difficult, punctuated with bouts of unnaturally athletic kicking, bad dreams, and temper. At birth the baby is misshapen, sallow-skinned, coarse-toothed. It has beady, yellowish eyes and howls like a dog. They name it Ben.

Harriet and David's idyllic family is torn apart by Ben. The other four children fear their new sibling; members of the extended family grumble about the favoritism that has been shown to Harriet and Dave and their big expensive house and kids over the years. Ben kills pets and threatens other babies. Harriet resents and fears this child but is irrevocably bound to him by motherhood. When the rest of the family sends Ben away to an institution, she finds him and brings him home. The only people Ben gets along with are older boys, a bunch of losers and dropouts who happily take the money Harriet pays them to "entertain" Ben all day. (Ben might have fit right in with those kids in Tacoma who killed that guy.)

Near the end of The Fifth Child, a despairing Harriet worries about what will happen to Ben when he grows up: "Could Ben, even now, end up sacrificed to science? What would they do with him? Carve him up? Examine those cudgel-like bones of his, those eyes, and find out why his speech was so thick and awkward? If this did not happen--and her experience with him until now said it was unlikely--then what she foresaw for him was even worse."

Harriet's fears turn out to be well justified. Ben, in the World begins when Ben is 18, though he looks like a beaten 40. He has been try-ing to live quietly away from the family that rejected him. As the monster in Frankenstein is befriended by another cultural outsider, a blind man, so Ben is befriended by an old woman living on the margins. When the old woman dies, Ben is first pursued by a manipulative filmmaker who wants to make him the star of a freak movie, then by a cold-hearted scientist who wants to study him to death. The close-focus domestic critique of The Fifth Child opens out to an international adventure story as Ben is whisked away to the south of France, Brazil, and finally the Andes. The remoteness of this last landscape is like the Arctic setting in which the frame narrator of Frankenstein first meets the possessed Dr. Frankenstein in pursuit of his Monster. Doris Lessing's doctor is a career-hungry American who is willing to trample ancient Andean culture, perform experiments that genetically deform animals, and cage Ben up like a monkey.

At the end of Frankenstein, the monster kills his creator and tells the shocked narrator about the suffering he has endured. Despite the bleakness of his early life, the monster gets revenge and a witness to it. The end of Lessing's Ben is, in contrast, utterly hopeless. In both of Lessing's books, the character of Ben is primarily symbolic. In The Fifth Child, he is a devil baby who provides a perversely satisfying service in making this smug family fall apart. In Ben, in the World, he represents all losers and misfits who become prey for selfish others. Doris Lessing suggests that the lives Ben and others like him might lead in this selfish, godless century are bleak. The only mercy they can count on is in death.