What impact does Dunstan's mother have on his life in Fifth Business, and what does the novel say about women's roles in his search for meaning?

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Dunstan's mother in Fifth Business impacts him by her domineering and controlling attitude. In his future relationships with women, he often seeks to find a different kind of person than his mother was.

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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.

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I guess I think of Dunstan's mother as a primarily negative influence on his "search for meaning."  Mrs. Ramsay was so competent at everything, and so dominant in her family's life (and the people around her -- witness her influence on Mrs. Dempster) that Dunstan identified a close relationship with any (sane or living) woman as threatening.  After Dunstan had his epic fight with his mother as a teenager he never saw her the same way again, -- he had always felt dominated and belittled by her, if in a beneficent way -- but that incident cemented his feelings of fear of her and the desire to avoid her, and, by extension, feel the same way about all women.

The polar opposite of Mrs. Ramsay was Mrs. Dempster, and it was on she, after his mother's death and his failed engagement to Diana, that Dunstan lavished all his attention.  She was his "saint", or so he believed because he thought he had witnessed three miracles performed by her, but she had the unique quality of being utterly incapable of dominating or controlling Dunstan in any way.  Certainly Dunstan took such tender care of Mrs Dempster partly out of guilt, and perhaps disinterested pity, and a very personal gratitude for saving his brother's life, but also a relationship with her was extremely safe for Dunstan.  It was safe because Mrs. Dempster was mad, friendless, and without any family (except for the absent Paul,) and she became increasingly helpless.  There was nothing that Mrs. Dempster could do to control Dunstan, except in the help he gave her willingly.

This was, essentially, Dunstan's relationship with all women until he became close to Leisl.  Even though Dunstan was free of his mother after the war, because she had died in the 1918 flu epidemic, her influence followed him for most of his life.  Though she had been a well-meaning person and mother, she had awakened in Dunstan a deep-seated fear and loathing of women.

This, I believe, led him to search for "meaning", at least partially, in the pursuit of hagiography.  While an erudite and interesting subject, it also afforded Dunstan access to people's lives (the stories of the lives of saints), especially women's lives, without any risk of being dominated himself.  So rather than performing a search for meaning through his own personal relationships Dunstan was able to dabble in the essence of humanity and divinity without any chance of being dominated or hurt himself.  He was very good at hagiography, primarily because he was able to devote to it the energy and time he would have spent on other relationships (during his most productive years of writing he taught bachelor-style while living in a boys' school, carried on perfunctory sexual relationships with women he didn't love, and his only real friends were the Stauntons, to whom he felt himself to be infinitely superior).  Father Blazon somewhat pulled Dunstan out of himself, and, ultimately, Leisl would complete the job, but Dunstan's mother's primary influence was to drive Dunstan away from female companionship and close personal relationships of every kind.

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