Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1940

The incident in 1908 is pivotal to an understanding of Fifth Business. Two ten-year-old boys are playing. Percy Boyd Staunton throws a snowball with a stone in it at Dunstable Ramsay, who dodges the missile; it hits the pregnant Mary Dempster instead. She goes into premature labor as a result and brings her son Paul into the world eighty days ahead of schedule. She is never the same after this event and is regarded by people in Deptford as insane. Staunton's missile apparently has altered the world in an unforeseen way.

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The most obvious theme that is directly tied to this incident is guilt. Dunstan Ramsay feels responsible for Mrs. Dempster's condition. He describes how as a child he listened "guilt-ridden" to his mother's account of the first six months of the life of the premature Paul Dempster. Burdened with a Presbyterian conscience, Ramsay carries his guilt with him for the rest of his life, providing for Mrs. Dempster until she dies. In contrast, Mrs. Dempster's son Paul runs away from home before the age of ten because his father holds him responsible for his mother's madness and because he is subject to the cruel jokes of people who think there is something funny about her. Staunton's response is a third possibility. When confronted by young Ramsay with his crime, Staunton refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for Mrs. Dempster's condition, and he promptly forgets the incident. Thus, he can join in with the other Deptford youth calling Mrs. Dempster "hoor" with no sense of shame or compunction since he remains unaware of his part in her story. As a seventy-year-old tycoon, he is genuinely surprised to learn about Mrs. Dempster's history.

For Dunstan Ramsay, Mrs. Dempster becomes far more than a burden that has to be taken on. Her primary role is that of Ramsay's personal saint. As a child, he becomes intrigued by the romance of religion, which for him is embodied in the lives of the saints. He entertains Paul Dempster (at the age of four) with card tricks and with "a pretty volume . . . called A Child's Book of Saints by William Canton. To Ramsay's youthful imagination, the tales of the saints provide the Arabian Nights element in religion that was lacking in his family's stern Presbyterianism. Hagiography becomes a lifelong occupation for Ramsay; as an adult, he writes popular books about saints as well as learned articles on saints' lives for the Jesuit Bollandist Society. Mrs. Dempster becomes his fool-saint, a concept introduced to the adult Ramsay by Father Regan, the Roman Catholic priest of Deptford. Ramsay at this point has become convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a saint because he can attribute three miracles to her, including his own recovery from a five-month coma after being wounded and burnt in World War I. He consults with Father Regan who classifies Mrs. Dempster as a fool-saint: "somebody who seems to be full of holiness and loves everybody and does every good act he can, but because he's a fool it all comes to nothing — to worse than nothing, because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can't tell where it'll end up."

The idea of Mrs. Dempster as a saint becomes an obsession for Ramsay and comes to replace the concept of Mrs. Dempster simply as the victim of his rash act. It is clarified near the end of the novel when Ramsay has a final interview with Padre Ignacio Blazon, a Jesuit scholar in the Bollandist Society, who at this point is somewhere beyond one hundred years. Padre Blazon's comments about Mrs. Dempster are not as negative as Father Regan's. After asking Ramsay why he has never written about his fool-saint, Padre Blazon explains to Ramsay that Mary Dempster qualifies for sainthood on two counts: She has served as a saint in Ramsay's personal mythology; and her life has been lived in a saintly way. As for the miracles, Padre Blazon tells Ramsay, "you believe in them, and your belief has coloured your life with beauty and goodness; too much scientizing will not help you. It seems far more important to me that her life was lived heroically; she endured a hard fate, did the best she could, and kept it up until at last her madness was too powerful for her. Heroism in God's cause is the mark of the saint, Ramezay, not conjuring tricks."

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In addition to victim and saint, Mrs. Dempster bears one other role in the private mythology of Dunstan Ramsay: lover. As a child, part of his guilt over the accident stems from his religious upbringing. He had been taught him to be "mistrustful of whatever seemed pleasurable in life," particularly of sex. Because of this accident with a snowball, Dunstable (for such was his name at the time) Ramsay finds himself "directly responsible for a grossly sexual act — the birth of a child." After this birth, the young Ramsay becomes a fixture in the Dempster household, helping Mrs. Dempster take care of the infant Paul and doing menial household chores for her. From the perspective of a seventy-year-old memoirist, Ramsay can say that he was in love with Mrs. Dempster, "not as some boys are in love with grown-up women, adoring them from afar and enjoying a fantasy life in which the older woman figures in an idealized form, but in a painful and immediate fashion." He sees her as his accidental creation, and he "must hate her or love her." This sense of possession carries through into adulthood when Mrs. Dempster becomes his charge, and he pays for her care and visits her on a weekly basis. At this point Ramsay thinks of Mrs. Dempster as part of himself: "a part of my own soul that was condemned to live in hell." There is also a sense of possessiveness, characteristic of the jealous lover. He explains that he did not seek help for Mrs. Dempster's care from the wealthy Boy Staunton because he wanted Mrs. Dempster to be his: "I was determined that if I could not take care of Mrs. Dempster, nobody else should do it."

Thus, Mrs. Dempster plays a number of roles in the life of Dunstan Ramsay, not so much in what she does as in how he thinks of her. There are two aspects to the theme of role playing: the roles one assigns people in one's life, such as the roles that Ramsay assigns Mary Dempster to play in his personal mythology, and the roles one is assigned to play. Perhaps the most unlikely role Ramsey is assigned is that of hero. He knocks out a German machine-gun emplacement in World War I, a chance act performed in the confusion and horror of war. After the war, the public needs heroes, and he is one of them. When he is awarded the Victoria Cross by the king of England, he sees himself and the king as two icons, "unreal yet very necessary; we have obligations above what is merely personal, and to let personal feelings obscure the obligations would be failing in one's duty." Public figures are assigned roles as if they were actors in a drama, "and it is only right to consider them as players, without trying to discredit them with knowledge of their off-stage life." In professions too, people are cast in roles. Although Ramsay does not spend many pages describing his life as a teacher, when he explains why he was forced to relinquish the position of headmaster at Colborne which he had held on an interim basis during World War II, he reveals that he had the public persona of an eccentric school master — someone who wears the wrong clothes, has easily identifiable personal habits ("that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you had expected to prophesy something from the mess"), and is an expert on a peculiar subject, saints.

In addition to being assigned roles to play, characters in Fifth Business choose how they will be known to the world, as indicated by a name change. There are three significant name changes. First, Ramsay changes his name from Dunstable to Dunstan after his heroic deed on the battlefield during World War I. After lying in a coma for five months, he awakens to find himself physically transformed, having lost a leg and suffered severe burns on his chest. His last thought before slipping into unconsciousness had been that he had seen Mrs. Dempster's face on a statue of Virgin and Child. When he awakens five months later, he believes that he has been in a special protected place watched over by the Madonna with Mrs. Dempster's face. He attributes his recovery not to medical science but to himself, or to "the little Madonna," or to "some agencies other than good nursing and medical observation." For a time he has a relationship with his English nurse, Diana Marfleet, and she suggests that he change his name from Dunstable to Dunstan: "St. Dunstan was a marvellous person and very much like you — mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and an absolute wizard at withstanding temptation. Do you know that the Devil once came to tempt him in the form of a fascinating woman, and he caught her nose in his goldsmith's tongs and gave it a terrible twist?" Ramsay likes "the idea of a new name"; it suggests "new freedom and a new personality," a kind of miraculous transformation.

The other two name changes in Fifth Business are indications of the roles the characters choose to play in life. Percy Boyd Staunton becomes Boy Staunton during World War I, "and it suited him admirably. Just as Childe Rowland and Childe Harold were so called because they epitomized romance and gentle birth, he was Boy Staunton because he summed up in himself so much of the glory of youth in the postwar period." So for Staunton, the name suggests his identification with an era and a character type epitomized in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. As he grows older, the name seems increasingly inappropriate, but the suggestion of someone whose understanding always remains on a naive, undeveloped level makes it appropriate for this character.

The third character who experiences a name change is Paul Dempster. He becomes Magnus Eisengrim. For both Ramsay and Staunton, the name changes are subtle shifts, adjustments whereby the individuals put their personal stamps on the names given them by their parents. Dempster, in running away from home, has severed his connections with his family. He has become a magician, an artist who travels about the world. His new name bears no connection to the one he had; the face he shows to the world purposely conceals the real man underneath. When Ramsay encounters Magnus Eisengrim in a magic show at Guadalupe shortly after World War II, it takes Ramsay some time to be sure that Eisengrim is really Paul Dempster. Ramsay wonders how Dempster came "by this new self," but he does not find out. Eisengrim remains mysterious in this novel — a totally fabricated personality whose motives are not clear. Ramsay is hired to write Eisengrim's autobiography, a work of total fiction that is part of the magician's stage persona. In the final scene of the novel, Eisengrim tells Boy Staunton that his name "comes from one of the great northern beast fables, and it means Wolf." In Eisengrim, the man with the fabricated name, there is always something of the sinister. Having run away and created a new identity, he remains much more of an enigma in this novel than any other character.

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