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Literature / Fifth Business

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Fifth Business (1970) is the first novel of the Deptford Trilogy, a series of books written by the noted Canadian novelist Robertson Davies which tread a line between normalcy and magic realism, which trace the chaotic consequences of a single act of cruelty on the lives of three young men from the small Canadian village of Deptford.

The novel takes the form of a letter from retired schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsey to his unnamed headmaster; annoyed at being portrayed during his own retirement party as a doddering old geezer who'd never had any sort of life outside of the classroom, Dunstan begins to relate his life's story to illustrate that the younger colleagues who dismiss him don't know the first thing about what he's really like. So he begins with the winter day in his childhood when he and his sometime-friend Percy Boyd Staunton were quarreling more fiercely than usual: Percy throws a snowball with a rock in it, Dunstan ducks, and the snowball strikes a passing woman, Mary Dempster, the heavily pregnant young wife of the local parson. The resulting injury brings her to premature labour, causes her severe mental trauma, and forever alters the lives of three boys associated with the event: Dunstan, Percy, and Mary's premature son Paul Dempster.


Despite its rather dense prose and frequent highbrow allusions, Fifth Business ultimately explores a fairly simple idea. Simply put: not everyone is the hero of their own story. While destiny might single some people out for momentous deeds and accomplishments, the world is also full of people who are fated to play unacknowledged supporting roles in the lives of the great and powerful, and those people's lives are just as worthwhile and fulfilling as anyone else's. If all the world's a stage, some people will always have to play the part of "fifth business"—that is, parts that don't fit cozily into the four basic roles of "Hero", "Villain", "Lover", and "Confidant", but are nonetheless crucial to resolving the plot.

Over the course of his long life, Ramsey gradually comes to realize that he's one such person; although he has no great destiny of his own, he spends his life on the sidelines of other people's great world-altering trials. By turns, he becomes a supporting player in the lives of a revered corporate CEO, a godly saint, and a world-class Stage Magician. Each of those three figures walks a different path, but they're all the embodiment of a different form of power: worldly wealth, the grandeur of the divine, and the subtle and mysterious art of mysticism.


The novel derives a lot of its popularity from its resonance with national anxieties in Davies' native Canada. While its narrative is open to interpretation, it's often viewed as an allegory for the Canadian people's struggle with their reputation as the "supporting players" of modern history.

Tropes featured in this novel:

  • Abusive Parents - By modern standards, Dunny's mother is this, and although Paul's father the Reverend Amasa Dempster has decent intentions, he comes off as a combination of this and a passive-aggressive Church Militant. Boy Staunton is also this to David.
  • All of the Other Reindeer - The Deptford villagers to Paul Dempster, after the incident at the gravel pit with his mother. Dunstan is pretty much the only person in the whole village who still tries to be kind to him after that. Years down the road, we find out Paul/Magnus hasn't forgotten that petty cruelty, although he *has* risen above it.
  • Arc Words - "Who killed Boy Staunton?"
  • Awesome Mc Coolname - Magnus Eisengrim!
  • Beauty = Goodness: Subverted every which way with Liesl. While she's far from being good (Dunstan even compares her to the Devil at one point), she's certainly brilliant, fascinating, and apparently quite the lover despite her simian appearance, and Dunstan winds up having an enduring, fulfilling, and intellectually complex relationship with her, a sharp contrast to the pretty but shallow "one that got away", Leola.
  • Broken Ace: Boy, as it turns out.
  • Deadpan Snarker - Dunstan Ramsey. It's actually his trademark and first line of defense as a child.
  • Driven to Suicide - it's implied this may have happened to Leola, by leaving the windows open while sick. Later, it happens to Boy Staunton in a very literal sense.
  • The Ditz - Leola Staunton. Much more tragic than most instances of this trope.
  • Foil - Boy to Dunstan, over the course of their entire lives. Strangely, a lot of the time they don't actually dislike each other, and usually get along despite being diametrically opposed in personality.
  • Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Averted in Dunstan's reaction to finding out about Liesl and Faustina.
  • I Kiss Your Hand - Dunny to Faustina.
  • I Have Many Names - Being one of the "twice-born" is an important thread through the book, especially towards the end, and especially regarding Paul Dempster /Magnus Eisengrim
  • Jerkass - Boy, although he's much more sympathetic than most. He screws up his family something fierce, has a very high opinion of himself to the end, and utterly refuses to take any sort of responsibility for ruining the lives of the Dempsters.
    • Given Ramsey's often uncharitable narration, almost every major character in the book has their share of Jerkass moments, and he's brutally honest about his own shortcomings and petty motivations.
  • Karma Houdini - Subverted with Boy. It looks like his cruel behaviour during childhood and his adult years have rewarded him with wealth, fame, and position in Canadian society. But for various reasons entirely appropriate to his character, he's fundamentally unhappy in spite of it all. Then he has a fateful encounter with Magnus Eisengrim, the literal inheritor of the legacy of Houdini...
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is Mary Dempster really a Saint? Are Magnus Eisengrim's magic tricks more than simple illusions? And—most importantly—did magic play some role in Boy Staunton's death?
  • Meaningful Rename – Boyd Staunton becomes Boy, an icon of youthful success, while Dunstable Ramsay starts calling himself Dunstan, after Saint Dunstan, and Paul Dempster ditches his old identity entirely to become Magnus Eisengrim.
  • My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad - Staunton to Ramsey, when they were both 10, at the start of the book.
  • My Greatest Failure - Dunstan feels responsible for Mrs. Dempster's mental illness and Paul's premature birth.
  • P.O.V. Sequel - The Manticore mostly covers the same chronological period as Fifth Business, but told from the perspective of David Staunton; key scenes from the first novel take on a completely different perspective in his eyes.
  • Punny Name - the pseudonyms that Dunny gave to his past lovers: Anges Day, Gloria Mundy, and Libby Doe (puns on the Latin phrases: Agnus Dei, Gloria Mundi, and Libido).
  • Stage Magician - Dunstan tries to do this and fails hard. His pupil Paul Dempster is rather better at it, although he pays a price for becoming Magnus Eisengrim, the greatest magician in the world.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Dunstan, but since he stays involved in Boy and Leola's lives enough to watch her ungraceful aging and the collapse of their marriage, he doesn't regret it nearly as much as some do.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Subverted. Dunstan has a knock-down drag-out fist fight with Liesl after she comes on to him in the aftermath of the Faustina incident. They...make up later.


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