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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

Since Fifth Business is Dunstan Ramsay's autobiography, he is the main character. Most of the other characters appear only as their lives and identities impinge on his. They are not characterized in a conventional novelistic way. The most developed character is Boy Staunton whom Ramsay calls his "lifelong friend and enemy" in his first reference to him in the second sentence of the novel. Staunton is the man who is successful in worldly terms. He has insured Ramsay's material well-being, since his early investment tips have enabled Ramsay to build a nest egg over the years. There is something romantic in Boy Staunton. After World War I, the Prince of Wales becomes his role model: "Flaming Youth, and yet, withal, a Prince, remote and fated for great things. Just the very model for Boy Staunton, who saw himself in similar terms." For Staunton, having more and looking better than any of his rivals are major concerns. He uses Ramsay as his confidant, which permits Ramsay to see what goes on in Staunton's social and domestic life. At home, Staunton creates a classic dysfunctional family: He thinks of his wife Leola as a failure, unsuited to her social station, and tries to remodel her; he spoils his daughter Caroline, praising her extravagantly for her good looks; and he nervously watches his son David for any signs of unmanliness. In business, Staunton cultivates a number of "clean-cut" young rising executives whose stars fall when they marry and bring their wives to dinner at Staunton's. Ramsay sees sex as playing "a dominating part" in Staunton's life, but Staunton as being totally unaware of it, regarding Freud as "a madman" for "bringing everything down to sex the way he did." After the abdication of King Edward, Staunton's hero, Boy goes into a funk and leaves his family temporarily, sending Leola into a suicidal tailspin when Ramsay rejects her advances.

After World War II and the death of Leola, Boy Staunton becomes involved in public life. He thinks that he can solve Canada's problems by applying business principles to the government. He does not do too well with the electorate because he cannot hide his contempt for the common man and he is too handsome for a politician, but he draws the attention of Denyse Hornick who manipulates him into marrying her and campaigning for the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, an appointed position that is mainly ceremonial and is costly to whoever holds the post. He is on the verge of achieving his goal when he dies mysteriously, his body found in the driver's seat of a submerged car in Toronto harbor with a stone in his mouth. His death precipitates Dunstan Ramsay's heart attack when Dunstan hears himself identified by the Brazen Head in Magnus Eisengrim's magic show as one of Staunton's murderers, "the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone."

Mrs. Dempster's life is so intertwined with Ramsay's mythology that it is difficult to see her as a character in her own right. As presented by Ramsay, she believes that she saves the lives of men when they are lost. In three miracles, she brings Ramsay's brother, Willie, back to life after Ramsay knows that Willie has died; she watches over Ramsay while he is in a coma after falling in battle; and she turns the life of a tramp around while having sex with him. It is this last act which makes Mrs. Dempster such a notorious figure in Deptford. When she is found with the tramp in the gravel pit of Deptford, she tells...

(This entire section contains 1277 words.)

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her husband that she did it because the tramp "was very civil, 'Masa. And he wanted it so badly." This last remark epitomizes Mrs. Dempster's special quality. She is reasonable in her own way, but she does not understand the world's ways nor can she camouflage her own thinking to conform to them. Thus, she understands without understanding: "She knew she was in disgrace with the world, but did not feel disgraced; she knew she was jeered at, but felt no humiliation. She lived by a light that arose from within." This inner light gives Mrs. Dempster a consistency that Ramsay takes for saintliness and that makes her the laughing stock of Deptford, the object of little boys' jeers.

Near the end of the novel, Mrs. Dempster becomes alienated from Ramsay after he tells her that he has found Paul, her long lost son. In her deluded mind, Paul is still a child, not a man over forty, and Ramsay, who represents her one contact with the outside world, now becomes her jailer, the agent of the forces that are keeping her son from her. In his encounter with Mrs. Dempster, Ramsay is uncharacteristically dishonest, for to tell the truth would be insufferable. He would have to say that Paul was not stolen away but ran away from his mother because he could not bear the burden of being responsible for her condition and the public ridicule that she had brought upon herself, and that Paul has no interest in ever seeing her again. So Ramsay tells her lies, and Mrs. Dempster senses the lies and identifies him as her enemy, thus effectively ending their relationship, for Ramsay can no longer visit her.

Two other important characters in the novel are Padre Ignacio Blazon, the Jesuit Bollandist, and Liselotte Vitzlipiitzli (Liesl), the manager of Eisengrim's touring magic show. Both characters act as advisors to Ramsay. In the case of Blazon, Ramsay seeks his advice. Blazon sees human existence as difficult to fathom with its "marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces." All will be resolved in the coming of Christ who will "declare the unity of the life of the flesh and the life of the spirit." Blazon suggests that Ramsay should not feel guilty about Mrs. Dempster's condition, that he should recognize the real problem is "what figure" she is in his "personal mythology." He tells Ramsay that the role Mrs. Dempster plays in his life has as much to do with him as with her, that he must find his "answer in psychological truth, not in objective truth . . . And while you are searching, get on with your own life and accept the possibility that it may be purchased at the price of hers and that this may be God's plan for you and her."

Liesl is "the ugliest human creature" Ramsay had ever seen. She dresses like a man, and Ramsay is deeply disturbed to find her making love to the beautiful Faustina, a player in Eisengrim's show. As Ramsay becomes involved in critiquing and revising Eisengrim's magic show, he talks to Liesl quite openly about himself, and she in turn, knowing in some detail his personal history, advises him to stop punishing himself by watching the excesses of other people like Mrs. Dempster and the Stauntons and denying himself the pleasures of life. She identifies him as Fifth Business, that male character in an opera who "is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex." He identifies her as the devil, not a frightening tempter, but his equal, someone who has told him things he needs to know. One night Liesl comes to his room and attempts to make love to him, but Ramsay has no intention of being "ravished by a Swiss gargoyle," and they fight, Ramsay giving her nose "such a twist" that he thought he "heard something crack." He is the victor in this encounter with the devil; having shown his stuff, he eventually does make love to Liesl after a long, civilized conversation as equals.