Study Guide

Fifth Business

by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business Themes

Themes

The incident in 1908 is pivotal to an understanding of Fifth Business. Two ten-year-old boys are playing. Percy Boyd Staunton throws a snowball with a stone in it at Dunstable Ramsay, who dodges the missile; it hits the pregnant Mary Dempster instead. She goes into premature labor as a result and brings her son Paul into the world eighty days ahead of schedule. She is never the same after this event and is regarded by people in Deptford as insane. Staunton's missile apparently has altered the world in an unforeseen way.

The most obvious theme that is directly tied to this incident is guilt. Dunstan Ramsay feels responsible for Mrs. Dempster's condition. He describes how as a child he listened "guilt-ridden" to his mother's account of the first six months of the life of the premature Paul Dempster. Burdened with a Presbyterian conscience, Ramsay carries his guilt with him for the rest of his life, providing for Mrs. Dempster until she dies. In contrast, Mrs. Dempster's son Paul runs away from home before the age of ten because his father holds him responsible for his mother's madness and because he is subject to the cruel jokes of people who think there is something funny about her. Staunton's response is a third possibility. When confronted by young Ramsay with his crime, Staunton refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for Mrs. Dempster's condition, and he promptly forgets the incident. Thus, he can join in with the other Deptford youth calling Mrs. Dempster "hoor" with no sense of shame or compunction since he remains unaware of his part in her story. As a seventy-year-old tycoon, he is genuinely surprised to learn about Mrs. Dempster's history.

For Dunstan Ramsay, Mrs. Dempster becomes far more than a burden that has to be taken on. Her primary role is that of Ramsay's personal saint. As a child, he becomes intrigued by the romance of religion, which for him is embodied in the lives of the saints. He entertains Paul Dempster (at the age of four) with card tricks and with "a pretty volume . . . called A Child's Book of Saints by William Canton. To Ramsay's youthful imagination, the tales of the saints provide the Arabian Nights element in religion that was lacking in his family's stern Presbyterianism. Hagiography becomes a lifelong occupation for Ramsay; as an adult, he writes popular books about saints as well as learned articles on saints' lives for the Jesuit Bollandist Society. Mrs. Dempster becomes his fool-saint, a concept introduced to the adult Ramsay by Father Regan, the Roman Catholic priest of Deptford. Ramsay at this point has become convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a saint because he can attribute three miracles to her, including his own recovery from a five-month coma after being wounded and burnt in World War I. He consults with Father Regan who classifies Mrs. Dempster as a fool-saint: "somebody who seems to be full of holiness and loves everybody and does every good act he can, but because he's a fool it all comes to nothing — to worse than nothing, because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can't tell where it'll end up."

The idea of Mrs. Dempster as a saint becomes an obsession for Ramsay and comes to replace the concept of Mrs. Dempster simply as the victim of his rash act. It is clarified near the end of the novel when Ramsay has a final interview with Padre Ignacio Blazon, a Jesuit scholar in the Bollandist Society, who at this point is somewhere beyond one hundred years. Padre Blazon's comments about Mrs. Dempster are not as negative as Father Regan's. After asking Ramsay why he has never written about his fool-saint, Padre Blazon explains to Ramsay that Mary Dempster qualifies for sainthood on two counts: She has served as a saint in Ramsay's personal mythology; and her life has been lived in a saintly way. As for the miracles, Padre Blazon tells Ramsay, "you believe in them, and your belief has coloured your life with beauty and goodness; too much scientizing will not help you. It seems far more important to me that her life was lived heroically; she endured a hard fate, did the best she could, and kept it up until at last her madness was too powerful for her. Heroism in God's cause is the mark of the saint, Ramezay, not conjuring tricks."

In addition to victim and saint, Mrs. Dempster bears one other role in the private mythology of Dunstan Ramsay: lover. As a child, part of his guilt over the accident stems from his religious upbringing. He had been taught him to be "mistrustful of whatever seemed pleasurable in life," particularly of sex. Because of this accident with a snowball, Dunstable (for such was his name at the time) Ramsay finds himself "directly responsible for a grossly sexual act — the birth of a child." After this birth, the...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)