Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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I apologize for the delay in posting (a round of sickness swept my house and we were all down for number of days). Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoy this response to a long-loved book of mine.

I don’t remember why I first read Fifth Business, it wasn’t for school, I just remember that reading it changed my life. When I first read Fifth Business, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I devoured this book and have many times since that first reading. Every time I read Fifth Business, I find something new to admire whether it be a turn of phrase or a foreshadowed event, but, ultimately, I enjoy being in the company of the main character.

Is it strange that I, a girl of 14 or 15 years of age when I first read this novel, identified with a male character in his seventies? That’s right, Fifth Business (1970) tells the life story of Dunstan (Dunstable) Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher with a scholarly interest in saints. Told in the form of a memoir written to the Headmaster of the school where Dunstan taught, the story begins with the event that would shape the rest of Dunstan’s life – the injury of Mary Dempster as a result of being hit in the head by a snowball. The snowball was meant for Dunstan and after being hit by it, Mrs. Dempster goes into labour, delivers a premature son, and turns “simple.” The guilt he feels compels a lifelong sense of responsibility for Mary Dempster, which is fed by his belief that she is a saint.  

I feel like my description is doing a disservice to this remarkable book. It doesn’t sound like a compelling read: schoolteacher, saints and guilt. But that, perhaps, is part of the point. Fifth Business, as described in the novel, is a player in an opera who is neither “Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain” but is essential to making the plot come together. Dunstan writes the Headmaster after a disappointing sendoff for his retirement. He feels his life was poorly represented and sets out to show his place on the stage. The schoolteacher is revealed as magician, decorated war veteran, lover, traveller, author, and confidant. His life didn’t change, but the way his role was cast did.

Davies develops Dunstan’s character naturally, with the voice of the elder Dunstan often reflecting on the actions of his younger self. Dunstan’s choices are explained and his thought process left open, allowing the reader to see how his decisions impacted his life. A good example of showing Dunstan’s character comes after he has survived World War I and been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. He is called a hero but doesn’t wholly accept that role for himself:

…I knew that I was no more a hero than many other men I had fought with, and less than some who had been killed doing what I could not have done, I determined to let society regard me as it pleased; I would not trade on it, but I would not put it aside either.

He knows he is one of many men who fought and died and that it was circumstance rather than something unique within himself that made him a hero. Still, Dunstan knows his own value, knows himself and accepts himself.

The memoir defends his life’s significance, if only to one person, “…I address this memoir to you, Headmaster, hoping thereby that when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice.” Dunstan’s life was not in the spotlight. He was not a major world player, he did not shine brightly, but his role was still significant, still valuable. That is something a self-conscious, awkward teenaged girl needed to hear when I first read Fifth Business and a self-conscious, searching adult still needs to hear now and again.

So this post has turned out very differently from my first look at a novel (click here to read my discussion of The Coming of Winter), but I think that is okay. We all go to certain books to fill a particular need. Fifth Business is a core novel for me; it is a pleasure to read and an inspiration for my writing, and I get something more from it with each reading.

And the ending of Fifth Business never fails to put a smile on my face. It is an end that, to me, is not unlike the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects – a slight of hand that gives Dunstan a heart attack but gives the reader great pleasure.

All quoted passages are from Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.

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