The Novels (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
The constituents of The Deptford Trilogy are carefully linked; indeed, they depend on one another for character and plot development. Nevertheless, one can read them in any order or read only one of the novels as a discrete study of its own protagonist. Robertson Davies is fascinated by the unforeseen consequences of thoughtless cruelty, by the frustrations of unfulfilled lives, and by the ghosts and demons which haunt every human being. He explores all three areas in each of the Deptford novels, though he does so in different ways and from the different perspectives of Dunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim.
An undeniably cruel but common boyish prank begins a chain of events which holds spectacular ennobling achievement and degrading ignominious failure. Percy Boyd Staunton (called “Boy” Staunton throughout his life) throws a snowball with a stone inside it at his ten-year-old Deptford contemporary, Dunstable (Dunstan) Ramsay. Dunstan ducks in time, but the snowball hits Mary Dempster. She is pregnant, and the shock sends her into premature labor, almost killing her and her unborn child. Dunstan’s mother nurses both infant (Paul Dempster) and mother with infinite patience. Mary will always seem simple to the people of Deptford after having been struck by the stone, and the severe minister Amasa Dempster, her husband, is all too ready to accept first the possibility of his wife’s death, then her “insanity” as a cross to...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The publication of Fifth Business, the first novel in the Deptford Trilogy, marked a deepening of Davies’ novelistic talents. His previous novels (the Salterton Trilogy), while amusing and certainly not devoid of ideas, lack the depth of thought and power that characterizes Fifth Business. Davies has said that when he began Fifth Business, he had no intention of writing a trilogy; the subsequent two novels arose because he found that he had more to say about some of the characters. Each novel can stand completely on its own, yet there is a link between the novels. They express some of the same ideas and themes in different ways, and the reader is richer for having read the others.
In a speech transcribed in One Half of Robertson Davies (1977), Davies commented that Fifth Business arose from his examination of the extent to which one is responsible for the outcome of one’s actions and when this responsibility begins. He decided thatit began with life itself, and that a child was as responsible as anyone else if it chose a course of action knowingly. In Fifth Business . . . a boy makes a choice: he wants to hurt his companion, so he throws a snowball at him, and in the snowball is a stone. . . . The consequences of the snowball with the stone in it continue for sixty years, and do much to shape the lives of three men.
The boy who threw the stone is Percy Boyd Staunton; He aimed it at...
(The entire section is 1741 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Fifth Business. Even as a child, Boy Staunton plays dirty. He puts a stone in the snowball he lobs at Dunstan Ramsay’s back. His friend ducks, and the snowball hits Mary Dempster’s head, throwing the minister’s wife into premature labor. Paul Dempster weighs only three pounds at birth. He lives, but his mother is “soft in the head” ever after. The ten-year-old Dunstan knows that his fate is inextricably linked to that of Boy and the Dempsters. The snowball was aimed at him, and he feels guilty for having ducked it. He saves the stone as a reminder.
As he reaches puberty, Dunstan is tormented by desire for the town beauty, Leola. Ridden by guilt, he seeks escape in books on magic and fancies himself a magician. He performs tricks for young Paul, but he lacks dexterity. Dunstan’s parents forbid him to visit the Dempsters after the young wife is caught in the arms of a tramp, on whom she says she took pity. On another occasion, Dunstan is severely reprimanded for bringing her home in a moment of panic when he should instead have called the doctor. He is, however, convinced that she worked a miracle when his brother came back to life.
Dunstan comes to think of Mrs. Dempster as a saint when he fights in France during World War I. He is hit by shrapnel and crawls to a ruined chapel, certain that he is dying. A bomb explodes nearby, lighting up the statue of a saint. It is Mrs. Dempster’s face. The vision stays with him while...
(The entire section is 1192 words.)