Literary Techniques

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Fifth Business is written as a memoir. On the occasion of his retirement from Colborne College, a patronizing account of the farewell dinner for Dunstan Ramsay appears in the College Chronicle under the heading "Farewell to the Cork." It is significant that this brief article is the only place in the novel where the name "Corky" appears. While undoubtedly countless students and colleagues have known Ramsay as "Corky," it is not a name of choice. Ramsay is writing this memoir for the headmaster of Colborne to correct the misleading picture of his life that was given in the brief article.

This novel differs from classic fictions which employ a first-person voice such as The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1925), in that the main focus of the narration is the narrator himself, not the events or people that he is writing about. The book is divided into six chapters — "Mrs. Dempster," "I Am Born Again," "My Fool-Saint," "Gyges and King Candaules," "Liesl," and "The Soiree of Illusions." Ramsay is tracing the course of his life, breaking it into six periods, and for each period, a person or experience has been selected that epitomizes what was occurring in that particular period. There has been much criticism pointing out the presence of Jungian archetypes in Davies's fiction. They are there, but they are not imposed on the material; rather they emerge from the narrative elements that are presented novelistically.

The life story of Boy Staunton is presented parallel to Dunstan Ramsay's. On the surface Staunton appears to change dramatically during the course of the novel, but there is no inner growth to complement his advances in wealth and position. Ramsay is the man who appears to stay fixed in one place, doing one thing for his entire life, but the novel is a record of psychological searching and growth, so the Dunstan Ramsay of sixty is not someone who looks back on his whole life and wishes he "could get into a car and drive away from the whole damned thing" as Staunton wishes near the end of the novel.

Social Concerns

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Fifth Business begins on December 27, 1908, in Deptford, Ontario. An incident occurs that sets off a chain of events that are not concluded until October, 1968, in Toronto when Boy Staunton, one of Canada's wealthiest men, dies mysteriously. The novel, which is written in the form of a memoir, traces the lives of the three people involved in the 1908 incident. One of the characters, Boy Staunton, has prospered materially, having embraced the gospel of wealth and materialism as preached by George Maiden Leadbeater. Seemingly never satisfied, Staunton continues to expand his economic domain and to raise the goals that define success for him throughout his life. His contemporary, Dunstan Ramsay, has lived a different kind of life. Becoming a history teacher, he stays in the same position for forty-five years. In addition to teaching, he publishes in his specialty, hagiography — the biographies of saints or other idealized individuals — being particularly interested in the connections between history and myth. Since his specialty lacks academic respectability, it always has something of the status of an avocation for him professionally. The third character involved in the incident is Mrs. Amasa Dempster, the wife of a Baptist minister. Her life is apparently changed radically by what happened in 1908. After the incident people in Deptford regard her as simple-minded, and she eventually winds up in an insane asylum where she dies in 1959. It is never completely clear whether Mrs. Dempster's emotional problems are the consequence of the incident. It is sufficient that for Dunstan...

(This entire section contains 429 words.)

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Ramsay they are, and that he feels responsible for what has happened to her.

This novel is not concerned with any particular social issues per se, but rather with an individual's understanding of himself and his place in the world. Each of these characters has his or her own way of getting through life. Boy Staunton apparently masters the world, but he never understands it, himself, or the people around him. Dunstan Ramsay has been cast in the role of Fifth Business, i.e., that player in a drama or opera who is essential for the working out of the plot but who is extra, outside the central core of action. Most people think of him as an observer, someone who watches the world pass by but does not participate. This novel, which is written in the form of Ramsay's personal memoir, serves as a correction to that misguided notion. Finally, Mrs. Dempster appears to have a clear understanding of what is going on about her, but her understanding differs from other people's, and she is regarded as mad by her neighbors.

Literary Precedents

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Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-1869) is one basic source for Davies's approach to the narrative material in this novel. In that poem the same events are presented from the viewpoints of different people. Davies takes that idea one step further by having his narrator write about himself. The story that we learn is incidental to what we learn about the character. Patricia Merivale has noted that in addition to being Dunstan Ramsay's autobiography, Fifth Business is also "Dunstan's 'lives' of the 'saints,'" and she relates the novel to two elegiac romances, Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night (1959) and Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus (1947) as well as Thomas Mann's "ironic Saint's Life," The Holy Sinner (1951).

Michael Peterman finds several important antecedents to Fifth Business. He notes resemblances between this novel and John Henry Newman's religious autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). Like Newman, Ramsay is offering a defense or justification for his life, for he is responding to Lome Packer's patronizing tribute to "Corky" in the College Chronicle which suggested that Ramsay's approach to history was fanciful and hopelessly dated. Peterman also points to links with J. B. Priestly's The Magicians (1954) and Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head (1961) noting that the choice Sir Charles Ravenstreet must make in The Magicians between "the power-wielding businessman Mervil" and "the three mysterious magicians, Wayland, Marot, and Perperak" resembles Ramsay's conflict "between the materialistic world of Boy Staunton and the religious realm of Mary Dempster" and that Honor Klein in A Severed Head plays a Liesl-like role in appearance and counsel.


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Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Viking, 1994.

La Bossière, Camille R., and Linda M. Morra, eds. Robertson Davies: A Mingling of Contrarieties. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001.

Lawrence, Robert G., and Samuel L. Macey. Studies in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria, 1980.

Little, Dave. Catching the Wind in a Net: The Religious Vision of Robertson Davies. Toronto: ECW, 1996.

Stone-Blackburn, Susan. Robertson Davies, Playwright: A Search for the Self on the Canadian Stage. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.




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