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.)