Fifth Business Summary

  • Last updated on July 15, 2023
Title: Fifth Business
Author: Robertson Davies
Published: 1970
Genre: Fiction
Page Length: Approximately 300 pages

Fifth Business, a novel written by Robertson Davies in 1970, takes readers on a profound journey through the life of its protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay. Through its intricate plot and richly developed characters, the book delves into various themes such as guilt, fate, and the power of illusion.

Set in the small town of Deptford, Ontario, the novel introduces Dunstan Ramsay, who acts as the "fifth business" in the narrative, a term coined by the author to represent the character who inadvertently plays a significant role in the lives of others. The story is divided into three major parts.

Part One: Dunstan's childhood and World War I experiences
The first part of the narrative focuses on Dunstan's childhood in Ramsay, his relationship with his parents, and his fascination with saints. An incident involving a snowball and a pregnant woman named Mary Dempster plays a pivotal role in Dunstan's life, causing him guilt and shaping his destiny.

As Dunstan grows older, he becomes friends with his neighbor, Percy Boyd Staunton. Their friendship becomes strained when Percy takes an interest in Leola Cruikshank, a girl Dunstan loves. Eventually, Dunstan leaves Ramsay to serve in World War I, where he is injured and befriends another soldier named Paul Dempster, who is haunted by his past.

Part Two: Dunstan's search for meaning
In this part, Dunstan leaves the war and attends university. He becomes fascinated with the study of hagiography and devotes his life to teaching and writing about saints. Throughout his career, Dunstan crosses paths with various intriguing characters, including Magnus Eisengrim, a renowned illusionist, and Liesl, a mysterious woman with a deep connection to him.

Dunstan's search for meaning and understanding leads him to explore the arts and theater, where Magnus, now a famous magician, plays a crucial role. The illusions performed on stage become metaphors for the illusions woven through the characters' lives.

Part Three: Resolution and Reconciliation
In the final part of the novel, Dunstan reflects on the significant events of his life, reconnecting with Paul Dempster, who has become a successful man and performer. Paul's journey parallels Dunstan's own path of self-discovery.

Dunstan ultimately returns to Deptford as an old man, seeking resolution and closure for the guilt he has carried throughout his life. A dramatic confrontation between Dunstan, Paul, and Percy forces the characters to confront their pasts and find redemption.

- Dunstan Ramsay: The novel's protagonist and "fifth business," Dunstan experiences guilt and responsibility for the events that occur in the lives of those around him.
- Mary Dempster: A pivotal character in Dunstan's life, Mary's tragic incident shapes Dunstan's journey and quest for understanding.
- Percy Boyd Staunton: Dunstan's childhood friend turned rival, Percy's choices and actions have lasting consequences for both himself and Dunstan.
- Paul Dempster: A troubled individual haunted by his past, Paul's interactions with Dunstan reveal deep connections and foreshadow their intertwined destinies.
- Liesl: An enigmatic woman who enters Dunstan's life, Liesl symbolizes the power of illusion and helps Dunstan confront his guilt.

1. Guilt and Responsibility: The novel explores the ways guilt can shape and drive a person's actions and the profound impact it can have on their lives.
2. Fate and Destiny: Through interconnected events and characters, the story highlights the role of fate and how it directs the course of their lives.
3. Illusion and Reality: The power of illusion, whether through magic or personal narratives, is seen as a force that can both deceive and enlighten.
4. Search for Meaning: Dunstan's lifelong search for meaning and understanding is a central theme, highlighting the human desire to find purpose and fulfillment.

Overall, Fifth Business is a thought-provoking and intricately woven novel that examines the complexities of human nature, the influence of past experiences, and the interconnectedness of lives. It offers readers a profound exploration of guilt, fate, and the quest for personal meaning in a captivating narrative.

Categories: Books