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.