Fifth Business, 1970

(Great Characters in Literature)

Dunstan Ramsay

Dunstan Ramsay, a fussy bachelor whose memoirs elucidate the meaning of his life and that of his boyhood friends, Boy Staunton and Paul Dempster. Although on the surface he is simply an elderly schoolteacher, what is important is his inner life, which is preoccupied with religion, magic, and myth. He is “fifth business” of the title; this theatrical term indicates an actor whose secondary role serves a crucial function in the plot. Dunstan’s role in the life of Boy Staunton is a spiritual one, and although his stern Presbyterian upbringing tends to make him petty and withholding, he becomes a kind of saint. He occasions poetic justice in the life of Boy Staunton and is perpetually in search of the transcendent meaning of things. His spiritual destination is suggested by his name change from its original Dunstable to the saint’s name of Dunstan and by his writing of books of saints’ lives. Eventually, it becomes clear to him that his life has been shaped by a boyhood incident in which Boy attacks him with a piece of granite hidden in a snowball but instead hits Paul’s mother, Mary. As the keeper of the conscience of Boy Staunton as well as the keeper of the offending piece of pink granite, Dunstan realizes the guilt he carries and the connection he forms with Mary Dempster as the most important aspects of his long and busy life. As he distances himself from his puritanical roots in small-town Canadian life, Dunstan develops a mystical side to his personality, joining Paul, now the great magician Magnus Eisengrim, as “permanent guest” at the castle of the grotesque theatrical impresario and occult priestess, Liesl Vitzlipützli.

Boy Staunton

Boy Staunton, originally named Percy. His nickname affirms an ideal based on energetic virility. It is Boy who throws the stone-filled snowball at Dunstan, hitting Mary Dempster instead. He assumes no guilt for his incident and instead becomes a successful, politically influential businessman with a reputation as a sexual athlete.

Mary Dempster

Mary Dempster, Paul Dempster’s mother. Though addled by the snowball thrown by Boy, she is forgiving and lives by her inner lights, making her a possible saint.

The Manticore, 1972

(Great Characters in Literature)

David Staunton

David Staunton, the son of Boy Staunton. A successful criminal lawyer, he undergoes a midlife crisis after the death of his father. Unmarried, alcoholic, warped by an overly legalistic mind, and haunted by his relationship with his father, he travels to Switzerland for Jungian therapy. He learns that he is like a mythical beast called the Manticore, a monster who is only partially human. His one-sided emphasis on masculinity and cold reason has estranged him from the world of women and feeling, as well as making him unconscious of the dark side of his own personality. David comes to appreciate the women in his life and understands that his father had blocked both his spirituality and his capacity for intimacy. Like Paul and Dunstan, he engages significantly with Liesl Vitzlipützli, who initiates him into his own mystical and poetic unconscious.

Boy Staunton

Boy Staunton, who neglects his ailing, lonely wife and has a disturbing effect on his son David. His crimes and evasions catch up to him when, his emotional life withered, he commits suicide. With the assistance of both Paul and Dunstan, retribution is achieved when the stone that hurt Mary Dempster is mysteriously placed in Boy’s mouth at his death.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Deptford. Imaginary small rural Ontario town in which the series opens. Robertson Davies patterned Deptford after Thamesville, in which he lived as a small boy. The central characters Dunstan Ramsey, Boy Staunton, Paul Dempster, Mary Dempster, and Leola Cruikshank are first encountered in Deptford and from there move through the paths of their lives. Deptford is a portrait of a small Canadian rural town from about 1905 until 1920, marked out with the excitements and strange horrors of childhood that form the roots of adult life. Like all locations in the trilogy, Deptford provides a specific quality of time and place; however, Dunstan Ramsey’s narration gives readers an awareness that there is a quality to the place that makes it a universal picture of childhood and young adulthood.


*Toronto. Ontario city to which Dunstan goes after World War I to study at a university. He then begins his forty-year career teaching at Colborne College, a boys’ school partially modeled on Toronto’s Upper Canada College. Boy Staunton also studies in Toronto and embarks on his rise to riches and fame in that city. The climax of Fifth Business occurs when Boy Staunton dies in circumstances that leave a mystery not resolved until the end of the trilogy.

*Sankt Gallen

*Sankt Gallen. Also known as St. Gall, a Swiss city that is a principal location in all three novels. There Ramsey “writes” Fifth Business and lives with Liesl Vitzlipützli and Magnus after that novel’s mysterious denouement in Toronto. Liesl’s nineteenth century castle-house, Sorgenfrei (“free-of-care”), is perched on a mountainside outside St....

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World of Wonders, 1975

(Great Characters in Literature)

Paul Dempster

Paul Dempster, alias Magnus Eisengrim, the son of Mary Dempster. Her dementia, combined with a harsh religious upbringing, forces Paul, at the age of ten, to join a traveling circus in which he becomes the sexual servant of a seedy magician. Descending into a criminal underworld, Paul survives by his wits and eventually joins a theatrical troupe whose romantic values of love and imagination transform him from a tough little criminal into a great artist. After experimenting with a series of alter egos, Paul emerges as Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s greatest magician and illusionist. The imagery of greatness (Magnus) and wolfishness (Eisengrim) suggests the intimidating power of his final identity. His early years of suffering and hardship have led to a life rich in experience and feeling, and he becomes the close companion of the wise sorceress, Liesl Vitzlipützli.

Liesl Vitzlipützli

Liesl Vitzlipützli, a grotesque mistress of a mansion called Sorgenfrei (carefree). She is a theatrical impresario, sage, and figure of charismatic female power. Her name derives from a minor devil from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1790-1833), and she presides as a priestess of a strange magical world beneath the modern one.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Cameron, Elspeth, ed. Robertson Davies: An Appreciation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1991. Provides an interview with Davies and seventeen essays, some by such Canadian authors as John Kenneth Galbraith and Joyce Carol Oates.

Davies, Robertson. One Half of Robertson Davies, 1977.

Davis, J. Madison, ed. Conversations with Robertson Davies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. More than two dozen interviews with Davies, originally published in newspapers or magazines or presented over radio and television. Includes some reference to all the Deptford novels. Also provides a general introduction, a list of Davies’ books, a chronology of his life, and a helpful index.

Forman, Robert J. “Robertson Davies,” in Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, 1985. Edited by Walton Beacham.

Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies, 1978.

Lawrence, Robert G., and Samuel L. Macey, eds. Studies in Robertson Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy.” Victoria, British Columbia: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1980. Eight essays on Davies’ craft that discuss the author’s interest in folklore, psychology, and theater. Davies’ introductory essay, “The Deptford Trilogy in Retrospect,” gives a valuable account of the trilogy’s genesis.

Lecker, Robert, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, eds. Canadian Writers and Their Work, 1985.

Monk, Patricia. The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Discusses Davies’ knowledge of psychology, specifically that of Carl Jung. Has a separate chapter on each novel in the trilogy, as well as a bibliography and an index.

Peterman, Michael. Robertson Davies. Boston: Twayne, 1986. The first book-length study of Davies’ life and work. Includes a long chapter on the trilogy.