The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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 be borne.

Only Dunstan knows that Boy threw the snowball, though his boy’s code of honor, as well as Boy’s threats, do not allow him to reveal this fact. As a consequence, Dunstan feels guilt for Mary’s insanity and for her son’s difficult childhood. His guilt feelings are compounded when Mary, in what she had viewed as a gift to a man in desperate need, was found copulating with a tramp in the gravel pit outside town. The people of Deptford now consider her a whore as well as insane, and her husband now feels impelled to control her behavior by tying her with a long rope to a bedpost.

Dunstan is never convinced of Mary’s insanity, only of her compassion. When his brother Willie, who was recuperating from an illness, suddenly stops breathing, the only person Dunstan can think of to ask for aid is Mary. She comes at Dunstan’s request, trailing her rope, applies compresses to Willie, prays over him, and, miraculously, Willie revives. Several years later, when Dunstan himself is nearly killed at Paschendaele in World War I, he sees a statue of the Blessed Virgin which to him is the image of Mary. Dunstan wins the Victoria Cross for heroism and remains convinced that the woman whom the people of Deptford had considered an insane whore is in reality a saint. He contributes toward her support after the deaths of her husband and aunt, and the mysterious disappearance of her son. Her own death is quiet and pathetic, in a Toronto hospital for the insane.

Boy, meanwhile, returns from the war and capitalizes on his father’s business ability. He forms the Alpha Corporation, which monopolizes all phases of Canadian sugar production and food distribution. He maintains a friendship with his boyhood antagonist Dunstan and...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)

The Deptford Trilogy Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 Dunstan Ramsay, and it hit the mother of Magnus Eisengrim. Fifth Business examines the life of Ramsay; The Manticore looks at Boy Staunton’s life and the effect it has had on his son, David Staunton; and World of Wonders concerns Magnus Eisengrim.

Fifth Business begins at 5:58 p.m. on December 27, 1908, in a small Canadian town in Ontario called Deptford. That is the exact time that Percy Boyd Staunton threw the snowball that Dunstan Ramsay sidestepped. Ramsay took evasive action knowingly and feels guilty when he realizes that the snowball meant for him has caused Mary Dempster to lose her wits and to have her baby, Paul, prematurely. This scenario is the beginning of Ramsay’s involvement with Mrs. Dempster, who becomes more than simply a responsibility to him; Ramsay comes to see her as a saint. Whether or not she is a saint is important only to Ramsay. An old Jesuit questions him: “who is she in your personal world? What figure is she in your personal mythology? . . . [Y]ou must find your answer in psychological truth, not in objective truth.” What Mary Dempster has done is to enrich Ramsay’s life. Through her ability to love without fear, she has given him an entry into the world of the spirit.

After being wounded at Passchendaele, Ramsay’s is not a particularly unusual life. He attends a university, gets a position as a teacher of history at a boys’ school, and begins writing books on saints for travelers, as well as producing a book on the psychology of myth and legend. Finally, on a sabbatical to South America visiting churches and studying local legends of saints, he again meets Paul Dempster, who has become Magnus Eisengrim, and meets Magnus’s manager, Liesl Vitzlipützli. Liesl is a gargoyle of a woman who, along with Mrs. Dempster and the Jesuit priest, becomes one of Ramsay’s most important teachers. She forces him to find out who he is in his “personal world”: “Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business.”

Fifth Business quite accurately reflects the role Ramsay has played in his relationship to Boy Staunton. Boy considers Ramsay an eccentric and old friend but one who is unsuccessful in the way in which Boy measures success. If Fifth Business “knows the secret of the hero’s birth,” then Ramsay fits the bill, for he knows Boy’s beginnings, his traits established from boyhood, better than Boy does himself. Ramsay’s final act as Fifth Business in Boy’s life is to force him to examine his actions and take responsibility for them: “I’m simply trying to recover something of the totality of your life. Don’t you want to possess it as a whole—the bad with the good?” Possessing...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)

The Deptford Trilogy Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)