Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Taking the form of a first-person memoir, Fifth Business is the life story of Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay, a retired school teacher whose life has been guided by the conviction that there are saints in the contemporary time period, and that his childhood neighbor is one such person. The novel’s title refers to a figure in an opera who is not directly involved in the action but exists only to observe and comment on it; clearly, Ramsay is such a figure. His story begins when, at the age of ten, he dodges a snowball thrown by Percy Boyd Staunton; the snowball hits Mary Dempster, the wife of the Baptist minister. The incident sends her into labor, and Paul Dempster is born eighty days early. Young Ramsay feels himself responsible.
The snowball and emergency childbirth bring about a change in Mrs. Dempster. She becomes unhealthily generous, disgracing her husband by having sex with a tramp. Later in the novel it is revealed that this act brings about a miraculous transformation in the tramp, who becomes an inner-city missionary. Her other miracles entail apparently bringing Willy Ramsay back from the point of death and, years later, appearing to Dunstable Ramsay on a statue of the Virgin Mary in a World War I battlefield. These miracles lead Ramsay to the belief that Mary Dempster is a saint.
Young Ramsay develops an interest in conjuring—stage magic—and introduces the art to Paul Dempster. Later, while Dunstable is fighting in...
(The entire section is 607 words.)
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