Let’s take a look at Dunny’s several interactions with women. He views women, in turn, with respect, fear, admiration, tenderness, reverence, lust, loathing, and gratitude.
His first and most formative influence is his mother, Mrs. Ramsay. This is a conflicted relationship that follows him through life. Through his mother’s respected position in the village, Dunny is elevated to a comfortable social status—even though they are not wealthy like the Stauntons. Dunny can admire his mother for her strength of character and untiring generosity, but he witnesses how his father lets her keep the upper hand, and this is not a model that makes marriage attractive to Dunny. When Mrs. Ramsay loses her temper with Dunny, it is a turning point for him. He can no longer trust her love for him and wants to unshackle himself from her domineering attitude. He eventually changes his name from Dunstable (her maiden name) to Dunstan in order to free himself of her. When he learns that his mother has died of influenza, he feels a bit guilty that he is not stricken by grief.
Mary Dempster, on the other hand, evokes tender, sympathetic feelings in Dunny. Unlike his mother, Mary is timid, weak, and not highly regarded. When she is struck by the snowball intended for Dunny, Dunny is consumed with guilt. That guilt is another burden that follows his life. Despite his mother’s admonitions, Dunny sneaks into the Dempsters' to help Mary; ironically, he is practicing the very Christian charity that his mother has modeled. When Mary appears to save his brother’s life, Dunny decides she is a saint. This is the beginning of a lifelong study of hagiography, the study of saints. Dunny seeks sainthood for Mary. When she is left without a husband and her son Paul leaves, Dunny takes on responsibility for her care until the end of her life.
For Leola, a youthful crush, Dunny's feelings are romantic, yet respectful. Leola goes out with his friend Boy, and although she takes up with Dunny briefly, he loses her in the end. Leola is no match for Dunny intellectually, so he may have tired of her eventually, but he shows tenderness and respect toward her in their adult years and is a compassionate shoulder to cry on when her husband, Boy, is cruel.
Diana Marfleet is a spunky British nurse who treats Dunny’s wounds from war, returns him to health, and wins his admiration and love. With Diana, he has a fulfilling and intimate relationship. But he sees a bit of his mother in her domineering spirit, so he is reluctant to become permanently entangled. “I wanted my life to be my own ... to live for my own satisfaction,” he says. But Dunny is ever the gentleman, and he is very careful not to break Diana’s heart.
In Magnus Eisingrim’s (Paul Dempster’s) circus, Dunny meets the lovely Faustina, a luscious show girl who brings out lustful feelings. He experiences anguish when his love goes unrequited, but eventually he is able to recognize the futility in such a superficial pursuit.
At the same time, he meets the mannish Liesl. This is a unique and shocking experience. He is repulsed by her and her efforts to seduce him, but he develops a significant relationship with her when she reveals insights into his character that he had not recognized. Liesl clarifies for him that he has been playing the role of “Fifth Business,” not recognizing himself as the hero of his own story. She tells him he is in fact a decent man of unusual quality. His encounters with Liesl are very liberating and empowering, and he comes to terms with burdens he has been carrying and develops a healthy self-awareness.