Robertson Davies American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2703

Any understanding of Robertson Davies’ literary achievement must begin with an acknowledgment of the significance of his nationality to his art. Canada plays a vitally important role in Davies’ fiction. His complicated, even contradictory attitude of pride in his country and concern over its provincialism are significant and persistent threads that bring many of his novels together. Early twentieth century life in small-town Ontario is seldom idealized in Davies’ novels; instead, he scrupulously depicts it as difficult and insular. The squabbling and petty insecurities of the members of the Salterton Little Theatre are presented for comic effect in Tempest-Tost, but Davies, who had real-life experience working with such groups and in promoting the arts in places such as the fictional Salterton, would certainly have disdained such pretensions.

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Provincial attitudes reign in Davies’ fictional small towns, along with rumor and gossip, and the protagonists who hail from these places seem eager to leave their limited worlds behind and reluctant to return. In terms of religion, interdenominational distrust and rivalry are recurring themes. When protagonists do return to visit their hometowns, the visits are frequently brief and uncomfortable, as when Dunstan Ramsay returns from the Great War in Fifth Business. However, Davies is fair; he willingly showcases the best things small towns have to offer, neighborly charity chief among them. Moreover, lest it be thought that Davies did not care for Canada, his record of support for the promotion of a Canadian national drama speaks eloquently against that interpretation.

Indeed, the uses to which Davies puts satire are varied, and small Ontario towns certainly receive their fair share. However, Cornish provincialism is treated very similarly in What’s Bred in the Bone, and urban pseudo-sophistication is also examined. The foibles of amateur actors are mocked in Tempest-Tost, but their goal of presenting Shakespeare to their own hometown is admirable. Protagonists are by no means immune to the satire either. Mackilwraith, the unfortunate math-teacher-turned-Shakespearean-actor in Tempest-Tost, is clearly an object of satirical amusement. Dunstan Ramsay and Francis Cornish are not satirical, exactly, but each goes through his respective story with an ironic lack of awareness of his role in the grand scheme of things. The wealthy and pretentious fare even worse in Davies’ novels. The upwardly mobile Boy Staunton is shown to be shortsighted, dishonest even with himself.

Another significant aspect of Davies’ fiction is his preoccupation with the visual and performing arts. His lifelong interest in the stage, which was his first passion, is evident in Tempest-Tost and elsewhere. Though his depiction of the production clearly shows a satirical bent, Davies is also applauding the dramatic and artistic aspirations of the working-class and middle-class residents of Salterton. No one is more aware than Davies that a tremendous amount of time and effort goes into any successful dramatic production, and he pays homage to that fact in the novel. While Fifth Business is more concerned with hagiography than with drama, the title comes from an operatic term, and conjuring (stage magic)—itself a kind of performance art—does play a significant role. The authorship of an opera libretto is also the subject of Lyre of Orpheus, one of Davies’ later novels. In What’s Bred in the Bone, the subject of artistic authenticity is analyzed, and while painting is the nominal subject, the significance is actually much broader.

Religion, in particular the conflicts and disagreements between religious denominations, also figures prominently in Davies’ novels. In Fifth Business, Davies describes in humorous terms Presbyterian attitudes toward Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Later, the Protestant protagonist develops an unusual preoccupation with saints and sainthood, and in the process becomes involved with the Jesuit order of the Catholic priesthood.

In What’s Bred in the Bone, the difficulty of synthesizing conflicting religious viewpoints is an important issue in Francis Cornish’s young life. He is raised Catholic in a home where his father is violently anti-Catholic, and his nursemaid is an evangelical Protestant, an enthusiastic uniformed member of the Salvation Army. In Davies’ work, no religion or denomination is portrayed as holding all the answers.

The key to Davies’ persistent but not proselytizing interest in religious matters lies, perhaps, in his interest in psychology. In the 1930’s, he read Freud with interest, but later he discovered the writings of Freud’s onetime disciple and later rival, C. G. Jung. Two important concepts commonly associated with Jung are the collective unconscious and archetypes. The collective unconscious is, for Jung, an inherited body of cultural—or species—knowledge that links the individual with everyone else, living or dead. Archetypes, located within the collective unconscious, are patterns and tropes that manifest themselves in mythology, religion, literature, and life. These concepts play significant roles throughout much of Davies’ fiction, but they are discussed most explicitly in Fifth Business.

Taken together, the novels of Davies offer a particular and yet full picture of twentieth century life in Canada and beyond. His concerns are at once the commonplace and the cosmic, as he frequently depicts the solitary individual’s flirtation with the eternal. His tone, frequently satirical but generally sympathetic, allows him to depict human shortcomings and successes with equal mastery. His three loosely connected trilogies afford his writing a scope that transcends that of many comparable writers, and his journalistic eye and ear permit him to report his subject matter in a way that is at once artful and honest.

Tempest-Tost

First published: 1951

Type of work: Novel

A mathematics teacher auditions for a community theater production of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and becomes infatuated with a young cast member.

Davies’ first novel, Tempest-Tost, draws heavily on his own involvement in community theatrical productions. While the novel uses multiple points of view, its protagonist is clearly Hector Mackilwraith, a lonely mathematics teacher who bravely chooses to vary the routine of his day-to-day existence by auditioning for a part in the Salterton Little Theatre production of The Tempest. Though he admonishes himself to “do nothing foolish,” the thought that he may soon be leaving Salterton for a different job encourages him to take the chance. His audition for the part of Gonzalo is not excellent, but he suggests that if he is not given a part, he will no longer serve in his essential role as treasurer of the Salterton Little Theatre. This production will be the company’s first outdoor production, to be performed at St. Agnes’s, an estate owned by George Alexander Webster.

Other important characters include Freddy (Fredegonde) Webster, the fourteen-year-old daughter of George Alexander Webster, and Griselda, her eighteen-year-old sister, with whom Hector becomes infatuated. As in a Shakespearean comedy, there are several other characters and relationships that provide a perspective on the story’s main action. Some characters involved with the Salterton Little Theatre seem designed to allow Davies to highlight, satirically, certain aspects of small-town life, and the conflicts, artistic and otherwise, that arise in local theater groups. Indeed, Salterton bears considerable resemblance to Kingston, Ontario, where the author spent much of his younger life, and several of the novel’s characters can be traced to individuals that Davies encountered there and in his earlier theatrical endeavors.

The fuller characters are the ones whom Hector perceives as threats to his future with Griselda. Solly Bridgetower is the wise-cracking young assistant director who is dominated by his mother, and he is the man in whom Griselda is actually interested. Roger Tasset is the play’s leading man, a womanizer who eventually fights with Solly. The play’s director is thirty-six-year-old Valentine Rich, a professional director who has taken on the Salterton Little Theatre production as a favor. She is also in town to settle the estate of her grandfather, Dr. Adam Savage.

Conflict arises as Hector, a very shy man but one who nonetheless has set his mind and heart on Griselda, begins to perceive Solly and Roger as romantic rivals. Griselda is moderately interested in Solly, who is sincerely attracted to her; Roger is only interested in her money and in winning her away from Solly, and declares his intention of taking her to the June Ball.

Hearing this, Hector decides to attend the ball as well, obtaining a ticket through shady means. Solly attends as the escort of Pearl Vambrace, the professor’s shy and sheltered daughter, who is smitten by Roger. At the ball, Griselda rejects Roger after he kisses her passionately. Hector witnesses only the kiss and assumes that a seduction is inevitable.

The novel’s climax comes with the performance of The Tempest. Before it opens, Solly declares his love for Valentine, who is flattered and accepts his statements as a compliment. Midway through the play, a despondent Hector attempts to hang himself in the shed that serves as the backstage area. Valentine berates him for endangering the performance and plays his role through the remainder of the play. At the end of the novel, order is restored when Hector comes to his senses and seems prepared to move past this episode.

Fifth Business

First published: 1970

Type of work: Novel

Dunstan Ramsay, a history teacher with an interest in saints, describes his lifelong interactions with a disturbed, saintly woman and others whose lives she touched.

Taking the form of a first-person memoir, Fifth Business is the life story of Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay, a retired school teacher whose life has been guided by the conviction that there are saints in the contemporary time period, and that his childhood neighbor is one such person. The novel’s title refers to a figure in an opera who is not directly involved in the action but exists only to observe and comment on it; clearly, Ramsay is such a figure. His story begins when, at the age of ten, he dodges a snowball thrown by Percy Boyd Staunton; the snowball hits Mary Dempster, the wife of the Baptist minister. The incident sends her into labor, and Paul Dempster is born eighty days early. Young Ramsay feels himself responsible.

The snowball and emergency childbirth bring about a change in Mrs. Dempster. She becomes unhealthily generous, disgracing her husband by having sex with a tramp. Later in the novel it is revealed that this act brings about a miraculous transformation in the tramp, who becomes an inner-city missionary. Her other miracles entail apparently bringing Willy Ramsay back from the point of death and, years later, appearing to Dunstable Ramsay on a statue of the Virgin Mary in a World War I battlefield. These miracles lead Ramsay to the belief that Mary Dempster is a saint.

Young Ramsay develops an interest in conjuring—stage magic—and introduces the art to Paul Dempster. Later, while Dunstable is fighting in the war, Paul runs away with a circus, eventually becoming a world-famous stage magician. Ramsay’s interest in magic connects with his interest in sainthood; his curiosity about saints has less to do with Christianity than with the supernatural in general. In fact, the New Testament is associated in his mind with the tales of the Arabian Nights. In Jungian fashion, he traces the parallels between Mary Magdalene and many similar figures in pseudohistory and mythology in search of their archetypal significance.

Ramsay returns from the war severely injured—he has lost a leg, and his body is scarred from burns. He is also a decorated hero. A girlfriend rechristens him Dunstan, after a saint who allegedly twisted the devil’s nose with a pair of tongs. He reconnects with his friend Percy Boyd Staunton, who has also renamed himself Boy Staunton; thus they are both “twice-born,” which in mythological terms sets them apart somewhat from normal people.

After earning two degrees, Ramsay becomes a teacher in a boarding school and takes annual “saint-hunting” trips to Europe; eventually he writes several significant books on saints and earns a reputation as a hagiographer. On one such trip, he visits a traveling carnival, where he is reunited with Paul Dempster, now a magician.

Many years later, Ramsay encounters Dempster yet again, this time under the stage name Magnus Eisengrim. The magician’s closing illusion dramatizes the union of Sacred and Profane Love in the Eternal Feminine. Ramsay agrees to travel with the show and write Eisengrim’s (Dempster’s) fictional autobiography. He has an encounter with the show’s backer, Liesl, that significantly parallels St. Dunstan’s encounter with the devil.

Eventually he introduces Boy Staunton to Dempster and tries to make Staunton accept responsibility for throwing the snow-covered stone that induced Mary Dempster’s early labor and apparently triggered her madness. Staunton and Dempster leave Ramsay’s home together, and the next morning, Staunton is found in his submerged automobile with the stone in his mouth, the implication being that Dempster, a hypnotist and an escape artist, has encouraged him to commit suicide, as he must have unconsciously wanted to do.

What’s Bred in the Bone

First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

Francis Cornish is exposed to a variety of childhood influences and leads an extraordinary life as an artist and collector.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of What’s Bred in the Bone is the use of a double frame. The novel tells the story of Francis Cornish but opens with Arthur Cornish, Francis’s nephew, arguing with his own wife, Maria, and Francis’s erstwhile friend Simon Darcourt over whether Darcourt should complete the biography of Francis Cornish he has begun. Arthur has turned up evidence that Francis “faked” paintings, producing a masterpiece that has passed for a previously unknown Renaissance painting. The second, more playful framing device is an ongoing conversation between Francis Cornish’s guardian spirit (“daimon”) Maimas and the Angel of Biography, the Lesser Zadkiel.

Early influences on Francis Cornish include his grandfather, Senator James Ignatius McRory, his grandmother Mary-Louise, his great aunt Mary Ben, and his aunt Mary-Tess. His mother, Mary-Jim, and his father, Major Francis Cornish, are largely absent from his early life. His parents married for convenience: Mary-Jim became pregnant as the result of a brief, drunken encounter and thus needed a husband, and Major Cornish wished to attach himself to the affluent McRory family. In a Dickensian plot twist, their first child is born retarded and not expected to live; it is reported that he has died, and a funeral is held, but instead he is confined to the family mansion, raised by Victoria Cameron, a kind but outspoken cook.

Young Francis is subjected to a broad range of religious influences. His nanny, Bella-Mae, is a member of the Salvation Army. Later, his aunt raises him in the Catholic faith, but secretly, because of his father’s opposition to Catholicism. At school, he is an outsider, the victim of bullies (later, as the heir to his family’s fortune, he finds himself bullied by an unfaithful wife and others who make demands on his wealth). At home, he relishes time spent with his grandfather, Victoria Cameron, and Zadok Hoyle, who prepares the village dead for burial. Zadok, it is revealed late in the novel, is the father of Francis’s elder brother.

Art plays an important role in the novel. Francis learns to draw by studying the cadavers with which his friend Zadok works. Later, at boarding school, his aptitude for art as a painter and as a connoisseur gains him some attention. In England, he is recruited by British intelligence, and later, in the days before World War II, he serves an artistic apprenticeship in Germany, restoring old paintings, and becomes involved in a shady art-dealing ring aimed at defrauding the Nazis.

The artistic principles Francis learns under the tutelage of the “Meister” Tancred Saraceni are very significant. He learns that he will never be a modern artist in his own right, but he eventually manages, in a way, to become a Renaissance painter, producing two undetectable fake paintings. He experiences a brief victory when his painting is deemed genuine, but toward the end of his life, he sacrifices happiness by refusing to give his only friend Aylwin Ross the painting, sparing Ross the embarrassment of displaying a fake painting in the national museum. As a result, Ross commits suicide, and Cornish lives out the remainder of his life in miserly seclusion.

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