With The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies went from being a respected essayist and playwright in his native Canada to an internationally acclaimed writer of moral fiction. In an earlier trilogy of novels, The Salterton Trilogy (1951-1958), Davies demonstrated a talent for social satire. After The Deptford Trilogy, which is generally considered his masterpiece, he went on to write The Cornish Trilogy (1981-1988).
The first novel in The Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, is Dunstan’s long letter to his former headmaster, in which he explains how he came to understand his role in life. The Manticore is David’s story of how he came into analysis, followed by his journal during analysis and his diary entries during the holiday at Liesl’s castle. World of Wonders is Eisengrim’s life story as told to the film director and recorded in Dunstan’s notes. Each novel stands on its own. Indeed, Davies remarked that he did not plan the second novel until the first was in print, or the third novel until the second was finished. Nevertheless, each adds to the others and, taken together, the novels show three sides of a story begun with the spiteful throw of a snowball.
Each narrator has a story he needs to tell. Dunstan needs to establish that he is a serious scholar and not an old duffer; David, that he is a skilled lawyer and a family leader, not just an alcoholic; and Eisengrim, that he is a consummate artist as well as a dexterous deceiver. Each man is an egotist, and each has a grievance against that great egotist Boy Staunton: He was a village bully who caused a woman to go into labor and robbed her son of eighty paradisiacal days in the womb; a faithless friend; and an overbearing father. Boy also has a story to tell, but he tells his to only one person in the hour before his abdication from life.
“Fifth business” is a theater term for the character who is neither hero nor heroine, confidant nor villain, but nevertheless essential to the resolution of the dramatic plot. Late in life, Dunstan discovers that the term describes him, and he comes to realize that his accusations propelled Boy toward suicide. However, his professional studies of history and myth prepare him to recognize his own myth.
The manticore is a mythological beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. David dreams of a manticore held on leash by a Sibyl. The manticore has his face and realizes that he needs a female guide. He first thinks that Dr. von Haller will be the guide, but it is with Liesl as his guide that he descends to the depths of human consciousness. David learned to cross-examine witnesses before he met the...
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