The narrator states that he is ill-qualified to discuss the war. Despite the fact he spent the
years between 1915 and 1917 in the infantry, he says his memories seem to have little to
do with the campaigns and military actions reported by historians. All he remembers from
his days of dodging bullets in the mud is sheer chaos and confusion. At the beginning of his
military service, Dunstable recalls suffering greatly from homesickness, having never been
away from Deptford before. He forms no friendships with the other members of the Second
Canadian Division, although he would have liked to have a friend. He suffers from the
intense boredom that accompanies the loss of all the pleasures that make life worth living.
In training camp, he performs the routine chores that make up a soldier's life reluctantly,
yet thoroughly. In appearance, he becomes a man, and both his mother and Leola
Cruikshank notice this when he returns home for a final leave before heading for the war
The commanding officers indoctrinate the troops to believe that all Germans are the devil
incarnate. Dunstable cannot help but notice that his own fellow soldiers display many of the
traits attributed by the officers to the Germans, such as thieving, whoring, and lying. Once
in France, his boredom remains, but his loneliness is replaced by fear. He spends many
months at the Front, watching his comrades die in the mud, or worse, be injured beyond
repair and yet live on. To ward off the boredom, he carries around a pocket Bible, as it is
the only book small enough for him to keep on his person. For this he gains the nickname of
Deacon, which he finally manages to live down one day by performing a raunchy
vaudevillian impersonation of Charlie Chaplain for the troops. Dunstable remains astounded
to this day that his fellow soldiers had been so shocked to learn that there was more than
one side to his personality. Dunstable has always understood that people have many, often
seemingly opposite, sides to their characters.
However, life in the trenches leaves him little time to philosophize. Survival is his
predominant concern. He achieves the rank of sergeant before he is twenty-years-old, and
shortly thereafter his fighting days are brought to an end by a terrible wound. He is sent on
a night raid with a handful of other men; in an effort to find shelter from the bullets, he
rushes a nest of German snipers, killing all three and thus saving his troops from the enemy
fire. Aware that his own side will soon bombard the sniper nest, Dunstable is forced to re-
enter the fray to seek better shelter. Exploding shrapnel slices into his leg, and he somehow
crawls towards a bombed-out building to relative safety. At death's door from loss of blood,
Dunny recalls Mrs. Dempster's parting words. She had told him that no matter what
happens, it does no good to be afraid. As these words return to him, Dunny looks up and
sees a statue of the Virgin and Child. He is in the ruins of a church, and the statue is the
exact likeness of Mrs. Dempster. With that miraculous image in his mind, he sinks into
Dunstable wakes up in a hospital in England, where he is tended by a beautiful girl named
Diana Marfleet. His leg has been amputated, and Dunny discovers that a large portion of his
torso bears deep and permanent burn scars. Diana's presence soothes his wounded spirit.
At twenty-four, she is four years his senior, and he benefits from her wisdom and maturity.
She confides that her fiancy, a Navy lieutenant, had gone down with his ship in the early
part of the war. It is Diana who brings him the news that his actions in his final battle have
won him the prestigious V.C. award. However, Dunny has been declared dead, and the
award given posthumously. The doctor sends word to Dunny's parents that he is alive, but
the letter arrives too late. Both his mother and father are already dead, killed by the flu
epidemic in early 1918. Before they died, they received news of Dunny's death.
Dunstable admits to feeling relief at the news of his parents' death. The narrator interjects
that later, in his thirties, he comes to see his parents as human beings who had done the
best they could by him. "But as I lay in that hospital I was glad that I did not have to be my
mother's own dear laddie any longer, or ever attempt to explain to her what war was, or
warp my nature to suit her confident demands. I knew she had eaten my father, and I was
glad I did not have to fight any longer to keep her from eating me. Oh, these good,
ignorant, confident women! How one grows to hate them!" (pg. 89) Dunny does not share
these feelings with Diana; however, he confides all of his war experiences to her, and they
grow very close. As Dunny's health improves, he meets her family, and Diana begins to
instruct him in the social etiquette which he had not learned in his rustic home village of
Dempster. Eventually Dunny realizes that Diana believes they will marry.
Dunny knows he is not in love with Diana, yet he is not ready to part from her either, and
so he lets her believe they may have a future. The war's official end is celebrated while
Dunny is still in the hospital. Very soon thereafter, Diana initiates Dunstable into the art of
lovemaking; he remains to this day grateful for her loving tenderness with his scarred body.
Shortly afterwards, Dunny is presented with his V.C. - no longer a posthumous award - by
the King himself. Dunny has mixed feelings about the award. He feels that people need
heroes, but realizes that heroes are merely human beings like himself who are cast in that
role by others. Does he deserve to be a hero? He decides that someone has to play the role,
and it might as well be him. When the King pins the medal on Dunny, their eyes meet, and
Dunstable has a sudden intuition that kings, like heroes, are merely human beings playing a
role, and that the King, like himself, is somewhat puzzled as to why he was the man chosen
for the role. "Ever since, I have tried to think charitably of people in prominent positions of
one kind or another; we cast them in roles, and it is only right to consider them as players,
without trying to discredit them with knowledge of their off-stage life - unless they drag it
into the middle of the stage themselves." (pg. 90)
Afterwards, he celebrates over dinner with Diana and her parents. By now, Dunny has
learned to walk with a prosthetic leg and a cane, and is enjoying the role of hero. He loves
his time with Diana, too, but begins to see he could never possibly marry her. She is the
woman who nursed him back from the dead. As such, she feels that he is her creation, and
because of this, Dunny sees his mother in her. He has no desire to be anyone's own dear
laddie ever again. The narrator remarks that he has often regretted the life he might have
had with Diana, and yet he has always known he made the right decision. However, at this
point, he has yet to tell Diana his decision. Meanwhile, letters arrive weekly at the hospital
from Leola Cruikshank. Diana questions him endlessly about his relationship to Leola,
however Dunny is unsure whether Leola considers them engaged or not, and her letters are
maddeningly vague. One night, Dunny and Diana hash out their relationship; they talk until
three in the morning, and Diana finally accepts that marriage is not in their future.
However, Diana wants to know what Dunny does plan to do with himself. Dunstable tells
her he has no intention of marrying Leola either; he needs to figure out his future on his
own. He plans to return to Canada and enroll in a university, and hopes to grow up and
become a man. "The war had not matured me; I was like a piece of meat that is burned on
one side and raw on the other, and it was on the raw side I needed to work." (pg. 102)
Diana's final gift to Dunstable is to rename him. She tells him about the saint named
Dunstan, whom she believes to have been a man similar to Dunny. St. Dunstan had a
passion for learning, and he was well-known for resisting temptation. Once, the Devil tried
to tempt St. Dunstan with a beautiful woman, but St. Dunstan caught and twisted the
Devil's nose with his goldsmith's tongs. Diana and Dunny part as friends, and her parents
approve of their decision not to marry, although they still like Dunny.
Thus, rechristened Dunstan Ramsay, Dunny returns to Canada at long last. Deptford goes
all out and throws a huge parade in celebration of Dunstan's return. The entire village
gathers in the Opera House to honor their war heroes. When Dunstan doesn't see his
brother, Willie, gathered with the other returning veterans, he feels the reality of Willie's
loss for the first time. However when he sees the large diamond ring on Leola Cruikshank's
finger as she stands proudly next to Percy, Dunstan feels only relief, and a measure of
irritation that Leola had not bothered to inform him of this development in her letters.
Unwilling to let Percy win so easily, Dunstan approaches Leola and kisses her quite publicly,
forcing Percy to explain in front of everyone how he has stolen the war hero's girl. To
complete his performance, Dunstan graciously gives Percy and Leola his blessing. Percy has
been decorated with a few medals himself, but Dunstan is pleased to see that none of the
medals come close to rivaling his V.C. award.
Before leaving town, Dunstan visits his parents' now-empty house. He clears out the few
things he wishes to take, including a secret object which the narrator does not reveal to the
reader. Then Dunstan visits the barbershop to get the local gossip and have his hair cut by
his childhood schoolmate, Milo Papple. Milo tells him about his parents' death. Dunstan's
father had died first, and his mother had lost heart and followed a week later. According to
Milo, Dunstan's mother was a saint, and everyone in town knows that it was she who sent
Dunny to sneak regular visits to Mrs. Dempster after the incident with the tramp. Mrs.
Dempster, it turns out, did survive the flu epidemic, but her husband, Amasa, did not. And,
because young Paul Dempster ran away with the circus when he was ten-years-old, Mrs.
Dempster was left all alone by Amasa's death. An aunt from Mary Dempster's side of the
family had come to take her away, and presumably she is still living with the aunt
somewhere in Weston, near Toronto. The next day, Dunstan visits the Presbyterian Church,
the bank, and the local auctioneer, before boarding a train out of town.
Chapter 2 AnalysisThis chapter covers the narrator's coming of age. The war forces
him into manhood quite violently, and after the war, Diana gently urges him to complete the
journey. But the narrator reveals himself to be a thoughtful young man. He has become
mature enough to admit that he has a long way to go yet, on the path to manhood. His
parents' deaths have freed him from the tyranny of their narrow beliefs, and the sale of
their estate provides him with a measure of economic freedom as well. Dunstan uses his
newfound freedom to indulge his love of learning, and to live up to the family reputation of
being literary leaders in the community. As the narrator himself hints at the very end of the
chapter, he has left Deptford in the flesh, but its spirit remains with him.
Having provided the reader a darkly fascinating portrait of Deptford's spirit in Chapter I, the
narrator's statement is meant to imply that Dunstan may not be fully free of his parents'
narrow views. In fact, Dunstan's rejection of Diana - a seemingly thoughtful and mature
decision - also reflects his rebellion against his mother and everything she stood for in her
role as leading woman in Deptford. Thus, the narrator has not escaped Deptford's views, he
is in fact arranging his life in opposition to those views. His parents and Deptford taught him
to fear love, and now he gives up his love of Diana in reaction to that fear. Similarly,
throughout this chapter and throughout his life, the narrator will have trouble forming solid
attachments and friendships.
Symbolically, Dunstan's new name is important to the theme of his life's story. Renamed
after St. Dunstan by Diana, this new name symbolizes several things. First, it underscores
the narrator's love of saints, which will soon become a prominent part of his life. To be
saintly typically implies holiness, or a devout attention to religion, yet in Deptford, Papistry
is considered heretical by Amasa Dempster. Thus Dunstan's interest in saints is not as pure
as it would seem. It is in a sense a rebellion against the dictates of Deptford, and tyrannical
religious leaders like Amasa Dempster. Second, because he is not Catholic, and Dunstan's
religion does not recognize saints, by becoming a saint in name at least, Dunstan is keeping
a distance between himself and his fellow human beings. He is an outsider to the Catholic
Church, but his interest in saints makes him an outsider to his own faith as well. Finally, his
rechristening by Diana gives the reader an idea of the kind of man he's becoming. She
teases him about St. Dunstan's ability to resist temptation, thus indicating to the reader
that Dunstan is becoming a temperate, thoughtful, and disciplined man.
Chapter 3 Summary
In the fall of 1919, Dunstan Ramsay enters University College in Toronto as an honors
student in history. He has sold the family house and its contents at auction, and also sold
the family newspaper to a printer. Dunstan has himself a modest, but decent, nest egg,
including the annual stipend he receives for his V.C. award. This allows him to afford four
years in college, followed by a fifth year to earn his Masters in Arts degree. Socially,
Dunstan keeps to himself during college, but academically he thrives. Dunstan loves
learning, and he is so glad to be out of the mudholes of France that he works harder at his
studies than he realizes.
Percy, too, attends the university in Toronto, and like Dunstan, has renamed himself. Percy
Boyd Staunton is now simply named Boy Staunton, and indeed he epitomizes the glory of
youth. Boy is young, handsome, rich, and a combat veteran. "Where his looks and style
came from I never knew; certainly not from cantankerous old Doc Staunton, with his walrus
moustache and sagging paunch, or from his mother, who was not a charming woman. Boy
seemed to have made himself out of nothing, and he was a marvel." (pg. 123) The narrator
comments that at this stage in his life, Boy selects for his role model the Prince of Wales,
Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. The Prince is reputed to be a ladies
man and social carouser, but he is also a serious man fated for greatness, and this is how
Boy Staunton sees himself, too. Boy studies law, but majors in women, socializing, and
making money. His father, Doc Staunton, continues to increase his fortune by producing
sugar-beets. Boy's vision exceeds his father's, and he talks the elder Staunton into investing
in the process of refining sugar from the beets. The refined sugar makes the Stauntons a
great deal of money, and on top of this, Boy has a remarkable knack for investing in the
Boy generously shares stock tips with Dunstan, enabling Dunstan to accumulate his own,
albeit much smaller, fortune. Dunstan feels grateful to Boy, but primarily, Boy's help
increases his jealousy of his childhood friend and rival. Socially, they are in different
spheres, and although Dunstan has no desire for flashy cars, clothes, or women, he still
resents that Boy has all these things. Boy, for his part, views Dunstan as a trusted
confidant. Dunstan, as the reader may recall, learned to keep confidences at a young age,
and now Boy makes use of that gift. Boy cheats on his fiancy, Leola, constantly, and tries to
get Dunstan to help him justify the cheating. Boy explains to Dunstan that the girls he
cheats with know what they are doing and therefore Boy has no responsibility to them
whatsoever. In Boy's twisted logic, since he is not in love with any of the other women, he
is not really cheating on Leola, whom he does love. Dunstan listens to all of this with hidden
spite. He resents losing Leola to Boy, although he does not and has never loved Leola.
Nonetheless, he recognizes something that Boy does not: That Boy enjoys lording his
conquest of Leola over Dunstan. The only woman Dunstan pines for is Diana. She is the
epitome of a marvelous woman; he cannot imagine anyone better. Yet he is unwilling to
marry her or anyone else because he feels that all women are fundamentally as controlling
as his own mother.
After completing his Masters, Dunstan applies for a job teaching at Colborne College. He
takes to teaching quite naturally and is glad to be teaching boys, not girls. The narrator
believes that women do not benefit from the type of education provided to men. The
narrator reflects on his forty-plus year career. He feels he has been a good teacher, and
that it was the right career for him, but he never gave it much thought at the time; it simply
seemed natural for him to teach. Certainly he never expected to spend his entire career as a
teacher at Colborne when he first began. As the years went by, the narrator realizes, he
became subject to the rumors of homosexuality which plague every bachelor schoolteacher.
He has never been attracted to boys. His affinity for teaching them is simply that he
understands boys. "I have been a boy myself, and I know what a boy is, which is to say,
either a fool or an imprisoned man striving to get out." (pg. 132) The narrator admits to not
having lived chastely either, despite his criticism of Boy's affairs. There have been a number
of women over the years, none of them serious, but he claims to have liked them all and
played fair with each one of them.
By the time the narrator begins his teaching career at Colborne, he is twenty-six years old,
and the five thousand dollars he started out with has grown, despite education expenses, to
eight thousand, with the help of Boy Staunton's advice. Dunstan does not know how much
Boy has accumulated by this point, but Boy's wedding to Leola is quite a fashionable affair.
Leola is a radiant bride, and Boy arranges a honeymoon trip for them to Europe.
Unfortunately for Dunstan, they all wind up aboard the same ship, for Dunstan, too, is going
to Europe to reward himself for the hard work, dedication, and modest living which got him
through college. Class distinctions were quite important at this time, relates the narrator, so
he is pleasantly surprised when Boy sends a note to him in second-class, inviting Dunstan to
dine with the newly married Stauntons in first class. That night, Boy tells Dunstan that Leola
is striving hard to overcome the limitations of her narrow upbringing, in order to be the
sophisticated wife that Boy needs.
The Stauntons disembark at Southampton, but Dunstan continues on to Antwerp, where he
tours the battlefields where he once fought. He searches for the Madonna statue he had
seen the fateful night on which he was injured, but to no avail. However, this quest
introduces him to an interest that will become life-long: the study of the saints and statues
found in the historical churches of Europe. Dunstan approaches his new passion with a
historical, rather than religious, bent. The Old Testament Presbyterianism with which he was
raised decries the worship of saints, or Papistry, as do all the other churches in Deptford.
However Dunstan is fascinated by the historical tales, which remind him more of the
literaryArabian Nights tales than of religion. He visits Catholic church after Catholic church,
feeling foolish for taking an interest in religious statuary that contradicts his own spiritual
background and beliefs. Nonetheless, he finds himself happier than he has ever been in his
life. By the time Dunstan returns home, he knows he has found a life-long passion.
Back home, Boy continues to educate Leola on the finer points of being a business
impresario's wife, as meanwhile his financial star continues to rise. Leola takes tennis and
bridge lessons, and learns to converse brightly about nearly any topic of interest to Boy's
associates. She is a woman deeply in love with Boy, around whom her life revolves. Boy
experiences a stroke of luck when the Prince of Wales tours Canada, meets Boy, and hires
him as an aide-de-camp for the tour. After the Prince leaves, the Stauntons settle into their
life of being young social leaders. Their first child is born and named Edward David, after
the Prince, who sends them a christening mug to celebrate the baby's birth. Boy and Leola
leave the Presbyterian Church and become Anglicans, which estranges her from her
parents. Baby Caroline comes along two years later. Boy is concerned with Dunstan's odd
fixation on saints, and encourages him to drop this hobby, leave school-mastering behind,
and make something out of his life. Dunstan prefers to allow chance and destiny to decide
his fate, and waits patiently until one day his fate announces itself.
A man named Joel Surgeoner, head of the Lifeline Mission in Toronto for poor and destitute
people, comes to Colborne College to speak. Surgeoner tells the audience when he prays for
God's help for his Mission, he always receives the help he needs. Surgeoner has his back
turned to Dunstan when he says this, but suddenly whirls and points at the narrator,
accusing him of unbelief. Indeed, Dunstan does not believe that it is possible for Surgeoner
to command God's will to receive the material support he needs for his charity. However,
when Surgeoner turns to confront Dunstan, Dunstan instantly recognizes him as the tramp
from the gravel pit; the same tramp who led Mary Dempster to her downfall. That very
night, Dunstan appears at Surgeoner's mission. A religious sermon is in progress, and
Dunstan listens to Surgeoner request several items from God for his Mission. After placing
his supply order with God, Surgeoner begins telling uplifting but improbable tales of spiritual
redemption that Dunstan believes to be lies. After the service, Dunstan confronts him, and
Surgeoner admits that the stories were pure exaggeration, but he also insists that stories
about improbable miracles are the kinds of stories that offer hope of redemption to vagrants
Dunstan tells Surgeoner who he is, and reminds him of the incident with Mrs. Dempster in
Deptford. Surgeoner responds that Mary Dempster changed his life. By loving him willingly
that night, she redeemed his soul. He left Deptford the next day feeling reborn, and began
his new life after that. Dunstan starts to realize that he cannot build his future by forgetting
the past, although both he and Boy have done their best to forget Deptford. When he leaves
the Mission, Dunstan gives Surgeoner a ten dollar contribution. Surgeoner tells him it will
buy the items he prayed for earlier that night, and asks, "'Do you see now how prayers are
answered?"' (pg. 153)
Thus at the narrator's first opportunity, he returns to Deptford. From the magistrate, he
obtains the address of Miss Bertha Shanklin, the old maid aunt who had taken Mrs.
Dempster away to live with her in Weston. The magistrate insinuates that whoever had
thrown the snowball at Mrs. Dempster ruined her life, her husband's life, and their son
Paul's life. Clearly the magistrate suspects Dunstan of being the culprit. Dunstan admits
nothing, but his sense of guilt and obligation to Paul is renewed by the magistrate's implied
Following this interview, Dunstan goes to see the local Catholic priest. Dunstan has a theory
that since it takes three miracles for someone to be pronounced a saint by the Catholic
Church, and because he believes Mrs. Dempster has performed three miracles, he therefore
believes she may be a saint. The priest laughs at his theory, reminding him that only the
Catholic Church can determine who is and is not a saint, and that neither Dunstan nor Mrs.
Dempster are even Catholic. The priest doesn't believe Mrs. Dempster raised Willie from the
dead; he doesn't believe the tramp, Surgeoner, is truly reformed; and he doesn't believe
Dunstan's sighting of Mary Dempster's face on the battlefield was anything other than a
wounded man's fantasy.
However, the priest does introduce Dunstan to the Jewish concept of a "fool-saint." (pg.
157) A fool-saint is a person who seems holy, and is filled with love for mankind, but who is
also insane, and therefore every good deed the fool-saint attempts to accomplish actually
comes to nothing. The priest says fool-saints are bad luck to be around, and advises
Dunstan to stay away from Mrs. Dempster.
Dunstan decides to ignore this well-intended advice. Within a week of leaving Deptford, he
finds himself in Weston, visiting Mrs. Dempster. Now forty, she looks much younger, but
she does not remember Dunstan at all. The aunt, Bertha Shanklin, is protective of Mary,
and tries to send Dunstan away. Without going into the miracle business, Dunstan explains
his connection to Mrs. Dempster, and admits that he feels guilty he did not seek her out
sooner. Miss Shanklin's attitude softens. She knows a lot of terrible things happened to her
niece in Deptford, and she, too, feels guilty for not having gone to Mary's assistance during
the dark Deptford days. Miss Shanklin admits that she was foolish and proud, and when
Amasa refused to take money from Mary's wealthy family, Miss Shanklin cut her off
spitefully, and left her to the cruelties of Deptford. The aunt tells him the Mary remembers
very little of those dark days, and becomes upset anytime her son Paul is mentioned. If
Dunstan promises not to tell Mrs. Dempster who he really is, so as not to remind her of the
past, the aunt will allow him to visit as often as he likes.
With that, he returns to his life at Colborne College. A few days before the stock market
crash of 1929, Boy advises him to sell off his stocks. Thus both Boy and Dunstan survive
Black Friday unscathed. Dunstan is thus free to take the trip to Europe that he has already
planned, in the interests of saint-hunting, saint-describing, and saint-identifying. These trips
will become an annual ritual for Dunstan, and this first trip leads to the publication of his
first book, A Hundred Saints for Travelers. His main target is a little-known saint named
Wilgefortis, called upon by women who wish to avoid unwanted suitors. Legend has it that
Wilgefortis miraculously grew a beard overnight in order to avoid marrying a cruel man.
Because of the beard, statues of Wilgefortis are commonly confused with male saints, and
thus she is relatively obscure. Dunstan wishes to rescue her from obscurity, and hopes to
update the legend with some modern scientific research he has discovered which documents
unusual hair growth in women who are crossed in love. Apparently the hair growth is
initiated by the hormonal imbalances that accompany deep emotional distress.
In a tiny village in Tyrol, he finds a statue of Wilgefortis, and he also finds Paul Dempster.
Paul is traveling with Le grand Cirque forain de St Vite, a circus named for the patron saint
of traveling showmen. Dunstan goes to the circus hoping to find a bearded lady and ask her
if she has been crossed in love. The circus is a dismal affair, and he is on the verge of
leaving when a young man takes the stage and begins a series of brilliant card tricks. This,
of course, is Paul. After the show, Dunstan badgers him until he finally admits that he is
Paul Dempster. Paul wants nothing to do with Dunstan, but Dunstan cagily invites everyone
in the circus out for free drinks. Over drinks, the Bearded Lady confides to him that Paul
only stays with this sad little circus out of loyalty to its owner, a man who goes by the name
Le Solitaire. Le Solitaire has been a father-figure for Paul, and is actually the man who
recruited him into circus life. When he takes his leave, Dunstan asks Paul if he can tell his
mother that he has found him. Paul prefers that he does not, for Paul Dempster intends to
stay lost. The next morning, Dunstan finds his wallet missing; all of the evidence tells him
Paul took it.
Chapter 3 Analysis
In this chapter the author solidifies all of the elements of Dunstan's adult life. The storylines
initiated in his youth are updated and carried forward into the future, and the now grown-up
narrator initiates new storylines. In Chapter III Dunstan finds the career which will carry
him through life, and he begins his annual trips to study saints, trips which will eventually
generate the entire body of his work as an author. Fate begins to assert itself as a theme in
his adult life, and the narrator shares his views about co-creating with fate. Boy Staunton
takes the opposite approach, telling Fate, and life, what he wants from it, and expecting to
get it. Thus the seeds of their characters, sewn in childhood, begin to assert themselves
more fully in adulthood.
The same is true for Paul Dempster, who becomes a professional magician. This is curiously
ironic, for Amasa Dempster had seemed so tyrannical when forbidding his son from doing
magic tricks. Paul had thus made the decision in his youth to rebel against his father by
running away to become a circus magician. This youthful decision has shaped his adult life,
and when Dunstan finds Paul again, working for a pathetic little circus act and clearly down
on his luck, it seems that Dunstan may have been a bad influence after all. As an adult,
Dunstan hopes to set this right, and takes on the responsibility he feels to the Dempsters by
seeking out Mary Dempster. Several twists of fate have convinced Dunstan that Mrs.
Dempster is a saint, although the world around him refuses to believe. Yet Dunstan knows
how narrow-minded people can be, having been raised in Deptford, and refuses to allow
anyone to shake his faith in Mrs. Dempster.
Dunstan's search for the Madonna statue symbolizes his search for Mrs. Dempster, but the
author does not yet reveal her meaning to his life. The search for meaning is a core tenet of
the book, and ultimately will be revealed as the purpose for Dunstan's life. In this chapter,
he indulges in exploration for meaning through his historical research on saints. The lives of
the saints interest him from both a dramatic and historical perspective, and his fascination
with their lives summarizes several facets of his character. His interest in the mystical
accomplishments of the saints combines his boyhood love for magic tricks with his other
boyhood love, reading about the dramatic lives of Catholic saints. Dunstan is a thinker, and
even presumes to analyze his own interest in saints. He ponders much on why people feel
the need to believe in the mystical, in the magical, and addresses this theme in his second
book on Catholic saints. Thus every one of Dunstan's childhood interests and traits becomes
more pronounced in his adult years. The author and narrator's acknowledgment of this fact
makes it clear to the reader that the events of Chapter I, Dunstan's childhood in Deptford,
were a mere foreshadowing of events to come. Thus far, the author has demonstrated a
pattern of increasing significance for every element of the childhood years in Deptford. It
stands to reason that the events of Chapter I will continue to grow in importance until the
Chapter 4 Summary
Boy Staunton makes a fortune during the Depression, because he specializes in providing
cheap, bulky, comforting foods. His sugar business expands to include doughnuts, soft
drinks, and a variety of cheap foods that provide a feeling of fullness and sweetness
otherwise unavailable to the poor, starving masses. Boy's best-selling product is the
vitamin-enriched bread he makes, which he promises to keep at a steady price throughout
the Depression. Boy takes a lot of heat for being a rich capitalist, yet his cheap bread
provides nourishing sustenance for many families during these tough years. His obsession
with the Crown Prince remains strong, although his association with the man is nothing
stronger than an annual exchange of Christmas cards. Leola has not faired well over the
years. Her tennis and bridge lessons have come to nothing. Her tacky sense of fashion and
lack of refinement embarrass Boy. She simply lacks the depth that Boy is looking for in a
wife, and as she begins to realize that she is a failure in Boy's eyes, she gives up trying to
improve herself. Boy has become even more polished and refined over the years, but is a
bully with Leola. He punishes Leola for what he perceives as her failures, with the silent
treatment and other intimidating behavior.
Dunstan remains Boy's most trusted confidant, and despite his concern for Leola, never
interfered in their affairs, except on a couple of occasions. One time Dunstan felt the need
to get involved was when Boy gave him several rolls of film to develop by hand. As he is
developing the film, Dunstan discovers several sexy pictures of Leola. Dunstan is enraged
by Boy's callousness; however, it is not Leola's honor that concerns Dunstan; rather he is
furious that Boy considers him so much of a neuter that he gives him dirty pictures of Leola
to develop. Dunstan thinks that maybe Boy might be telling him to take Leola off his hands,
having tired of his wife. Instead of destroying the film, as he is tempted to do, Dunstan
enlarges the pictures of Leola and returns them to Boy. The next time Dunstan has dinner
at the Stauntons, which he does frequently, Boy pulls out the photos and humiliates Leola
by showing them to Dunstan in front of her. Dunstan responds by telling Boy the story of
Gyges and King Candaules. King Candaules was so proud of his wife's beauty that he
insisted his friend Gyges see her naked. Dunstan tells Boy that there are two endings to the
story. One is that the Queen becomes Gyges' lover, and together they push Candaules off
his throne. The second version is that Gyges kills his friend Candaules. Boy doesn't respond
to the story, but Dunstan realizes later that their son, David, was born exactly nine months
after that night.
Dunstan develops the habit of visiting Mrs. Dempster and her aunt every other Saturday,
except during his annual trips to Europe. Mrs. Dempster never indicates any memory of
having known Dunstan in the past. During all this time, Dunstan only sees one other visitor
to the household, Miss Shanklin's lawyer, Orpheus Wettenhall. In 1932, Miss Shanklin dies
from pneumonia, and a letter from Wettenhall notifies Dunstan. After the funeral,
Wettenhall informs Dunstan that he has inherited five thousand dollars a year on the
condition that he uses the money to care for Mrs. Dempster, who has inherited the rest.
Upon Mary's death, the entire fortune is to go to Dunstan. Wettenhall advises Dunstan that
he has three days to consider whether he wishes to take on the responsibility of Mary's
care, which he must do to receive the inheritance. Fully intending to take on the
responsibility, Dunstan immediately looks into having himself appointed her guardian.
However, before the three days elapse, he receives a call from the police informing him that
Wettenhall has committed suicide, and the police wish to speak to him about it.
It turns out that Wettenhall had been investing his client's money in the stock market for
himself. For years he had earned high returns on the investments, and paid his clients a
solid return, keeping the rest for himself. He lost all of his client's money in the stock
market crash of '29, and has been using Miss Shanklin's money to pay his clients and cover
up his losses ever since. Her death has made that impossible, and the money that had been
willed to Dunstan for Mary's care has all been spent. Thus Wettenhall takes his own life,
leaving Dunstan to care for Mary out of his own pocket. Unable to afford private, round the
clock care, Dunstan reluctantly commits Mary to a public hospital for the insane in Toronto.
The place is horrible, but Dunstan can think of no other option; he leaves her there and
In addition to caring for Mrs. Dempster, teaching, and being Boy's primary confidant,
Dunstan suddenly finds himself very busy writing for theAnalecta Bollandiana, a publication
of a group of Jesuits, called Bollandists, who are dedicated to hagiography (the study of
saints). Although not a Catholic, and certainly not a Jesuit, in the Bollandists, Dunstan finds
an educated and eager audience for his writings about saints. Very few of Dunstan's
acquaintances know what the Analecta is, or why Dunstan is so proud to have his writing
accepted by their scholarly editor, a leader in the field of hagiography. Boy tells all his
fashionable friends that Dunstan is a writer, and gives them the impression that Dunstan
writes about current events. Thus Boy's guests are forever asking Dunstan his opinion about
politics, social trends, and the economy. Dunstan is diplomatic and educated enough to
answer well on virtually any subject, and is a welcome addition to Boy's group of rich
Now thirty-four, Dunstan suffers from frequent misgivings that he has wasted his life. He
has no wife or child, a teaching job that Boy considers dead-end, and part of him thinks he
should go back to school, earn his PhD, and make something of his life. The other part
wallows happily in his scholarship of the saints. Mainly, Dunstan believes he has made the
right choices. He sees himself as a "collaborator with Destiny, not one who put a pistol to its
head and demanded particular treasures. The only thing for me to do was to keep on
keeping on, to have faith in my whim, and remember that for me, as for the saints,
illumination when it came would probably come from some unexpected source." (pg. 193)
Seeking to find a more sincere sense of belonging, Dunstan visits the Bollandists on his next
trip to Europe. His Protestant upbringing has taught him to be wary of Jesuits, who he was
raised to believe are wily manipulators. Instead, he finds them to be very friendly and open,
and not offended by his Protestantism. The most colorful Jesuit priest he meets is a man
named Padre Ignacio Blazon. Padre Blazon dresses rather theatrically, to look like a priest,
although the Jesuits discourage wearing priestly vestments in public. He is loud, garrulous,
and ignores many of the minor social conventions of Jesuit society. His fellow Jesuits
tolerate these indignities because Blazon is a highly learned man, and a man of very
advanced years. Blazon develops the habit of dining out with Dunstan, for they both share a
love of food, though Blazon insists that Dunstan pay every time, in exchange for the
information Blazon can provide him about the saints. If Blazon is forced to pay the bill, he
insists, it will be Dunstan's responsibility to entertain him throughout the meal and make it
worth the money. Dunstan pays gladly.
With Blazon, Dunstan is able to discuss his overriding concern, which is what causes people
to worship saints in the first place. Dunstan is intent on finding a social or spiritual
explanation to explain man's need to worship fellow human beings (saints) rather than just
worship divinities (i.e., God, Jesus, Mary.) Blazon insists that people love saints not because
saints have risen above their humanity to a divine state, but because they are human
despite their divinity. If a saint can be fat, or have a bad temper, this gives hope to cross,
overweight people. Blazon and Dunstan continue this conversation as they travel together
to Vienna. Blazon arranges for them to have a private car by carrying on a loud sermon in
the train car until everyone has boarded; all the travelers avoid entering the car containing
the apparently overly-fervent priest. Blazon winks at Dunstan as they settle in to enjoy the
ride in the privacy of their car.
On the way, they discuss Mary Dempster. Dunstan confides his belief that she is a saint,
and explains about her three miracles. Blazon's response is that if Dunstan believes she is a
saint, then to Dunstan, she is a saint. Why should he worry what anyone else thinks? But
Dunstan insists that the miracles prove her sainthood. Blazon believes that miracles are
commonplace, not rare. In the Middle Ages, he says, Dunstan's artificial leg would have
been considered a miracle. "Life is too great a miracle for us to make so much fuss about
potty little reversals of what we pompously assume to be the natural order." (pg. 200)
Blazon believes the life of the flesh is a miracle in itself, and not, as the church would have
it, a blasphemy against God. His personal theory is that when Jesus returns, it will be to
unify the life of the flesh with the life of the spirit, to make life bearable for everybody. But
all Blazon wants is to find a God who can teach him how to be old. Jesus died in his thirties,
and Blazon, with all his many long years of life experience, wishes he had an older role
model to follow. Blazon tells Dunstan that what matters, spiritually speaking, is an individual
decision for everyone. Blazon wants a God to teach him how to be old, and Dunstan needs
to discover what Mary Dempster means to him in his life.
On this matter, Blazon does have some theories. He suggests that Dunstan put aside his
guilt about the snowball incident. Perhaps, he suggests, Mary Dempster was meant to save
him from the snowball as she saved him on the battlefield. Many men, says Blazon, have
visions of their mothers on the field of battle. Why did Dunstan have a vision of Mrs.
Dempster instead of his own mother? Blazon tells Dunstan he must figure out who Mrs.
Dempster is in Dunstan's personal mythology. Perhaps sparing Dunstan's life at the price of
Mary's sanity is God's plan. He tells Dunstan to quit feeling guilty and to get on with figuring
out what it all means; otherwise, warns Blazon, Dunstan will wind up in the madhouse with
The narrator interjects at this point that Padre Blazon follows up this advice by sending
occasional post cards over the years, asking Dunstan if he has figured out what Mary means
to him yet. Dunstan continues his weekly visits to Mary in the public mental hospital. Each
Saturday she waits for him with her hat and coat on, a sign of her hope that this is the day
Dunstan will take her away from the madhouse. Each week she is disappointed anew.
Dunstan consoles himself with the knowledge that she does enjoy his visits, but ultimately
he feels that she is the part of his soul that is condemned to a living hell. By now, Dunstan's
first book has been well-received, and he is collecting material for a follow-up book, even as
he continues to write for the Analecta. He continues to hold his place in Boy's entourage,
although he feels that Boy is to some extent using him. Dunstan is always good for a last
minute invitation when a more important friend calls and cancels, and Dunstan can be relied
on to keep the dullest guests company, saving the livelier guests from this bother.
Nonetheless, Dunstan really does like Boy, is grateful for his financial advice, and enjoys
meeting the interesting people at Boy's parties.
Sex dominates Boy's life to a degree that fascinates and horrifies Dunstan. Boy's sexual
energy is channeled into everything that he does; being manly is of the utmost importance.
Boy raises his son David under impossible to meet standards of manhood, and spoils his
daughter Caroline rotten. Leola still loves Boy desperately, but she is the only one on whom
he expends none of his sexual power, except in the form of bullying. Dunstan tries to stand
up for Leola, but if he says anything negative about Boy, she takes her husband's side. Boy
has confided an astounding number of marital infidelities to Dunstan over the years, and
Dunstan has always kept his secrets. The type of sex that Boy requires sounds exhausting
to Dunstan; Boy describes sex as if it were a round of boxing. Another facet to Boy's
sexuality which intrigues Dunstan is what he calls Boy's Corporation Homosexuality. Boy is
unconscious of the homosexual element that Dunstan sees in Boy's associations with young,
up-and-coming employees. Boy latches onto a clean-cut, good-looking and promising young
man with the intent of helping him up the corporate ladder. Boy mentors the young man,
providing opportunities in abundance, until the young man begins to take it all for granted.
When this happens, the protygy begins to resent, rather than admire, his boss, and Boy
finds himself disillusioned. Not one of these many young men ever succeeds in Boy's
company; they usually wind up being set up in some out of the way office or department to
live out their days in a middle-management dead end.
During the Christmas season of 1936, Leola finally awakens to the fact that her husband is
a philanderer. On December 11, the Crown Prince, Boy's hero and now the young King, is
forced to abdicate from his throne. This sends Boy into a black fury of depression, and come
Christmas day, Boy's surly attitude makes his family miserable. Dunstan remains at the
Staunton home to soothe the upset children after Boy announces he is going to take a walk
by himself. Leola rushes to get his coat so that he won't get a chill; while looking for his
gloves in the coat pocket, she finds a note from one of his lovers. She begins howling, and
Boy, instantly realizing what she has found, responds angrily. "'Your situation is perfectly
secure,"' he tells her. "'But if you think I intend to be tied down to this sort of thing' - and
he gestured toward the drawing room, which was, I must say, a dismal, toy-littered waste
of wealthy, frumpish domesticity - 'you can think again.' And off he went, leaving Leola
howling." (pg. 214)
She disappears to her room. After a while, Dunstan goes up to check on her. Leola asks him
to kiss her, and when he pecks her lightly, she insists he give her a real kiss. Dunstan
thinks of the story of Gyges and King Candaules again, and kisses her again, with more
warmth. Half in mind to cuckold Boy Staunton, Dunstan recovers himself and hurries out of
the bedroom. She begins to cry that he doesn't love her, which is all too true. It's been at
least ten years since Dunstan has thought of Leola with anything but pity, he thinks, and he
does not intend to become a victim of her self-pity. Dunstan leaves and goes about his
business. When he returns to his room at the school a few hours later, he finds an urgent
message to call the Stauntons at once. The children's nurse answers the phone and insists
he come to the house immediately. When Dunstan arrives, he finds Leola's wrists bound
with white gauze and the bathtub full of blood. The nurse hands him Leola's suicide note,
which is addressed not to Boy, but to Dunstan. She has written that she always loved
Dunstan, and that she is killing herself because neither he nor Boy ever loved her.
Dunstan is infuriated by her selfishness. If she had died, he would have looked like a
monster at the inquest. But when she comes to, Dunstan doesn't have the heart to mention
the note; they never speak of it. Boy cannot be found until after the New Year. Dunstan
never learns what transpires between husband and wife upon Boy's return, but afterwards
they go on as usual, although Leola begins to look much older than her years. Dunstan
believes that the children are suffering the most from this incident. Many years later, David
would confide in Dunstan that he hates Christmas more than anything else in the world.
Chapter 4 Analysis
The wise voice of Padre Ignacio Blazon is introduced in this chapter to provide guidance for
Dunstan Ramsay. Padre Blazon speaks of his wish for a God who can teach him how to be
old. The Jesuit priest feels a lack of guidance from the figure of Jesus, who died in his
thirties and thus is unable to provide a role model for Padre Blazon in his elder years.
Blazon's loving, spiritual response to his own dilemma is to provide a role model for Dunstan
Ramsay. He shows Dunstan the importance of man's search for meaning. In this, he
confirms Dunstan's own views. Dunstan believes in Fate, and believes it is each man's job to
discover and co-create their individuals fates. Padre Blazon confirms that this is the
meaning of life. Their similar beliefs make Blazon an excellent role model and father figure
to Dunstan. Dunstan's own father had died young, and yet even while he was alive, Dunstan
didn't consider him an appropriate role model. Mr. Ramsay had given into his wife about
everything, and had been unable to show Dunstan how to become his own man. Blazon is
the opposite, very much his own man. Blazon, like Dunstan, enjoys a little rebellion. Thus
he dresses and behaves in ways he knows will irritate his Jesuit brethren, to mark his
independence of thought. His well-learned and intelligent mind is much respected by the
other Jesuits, and so even his disrespect is tolerated, as is his independent thinking.
Padre Blazon is perhaps the first open-minded man of the cloth Dunstan has ever met, and
it is natural for Dunstan to seek his guidance about Mrs. Dempster. The narrow-minded
Catholic priest in Deptford tells Dunstan she is, at best, a fool-saint, yet Padre Blazon
encourages Dunstan in his belief that she is truly one of God's saints. Blazon does not give
Dunstan's beliefs a seal of approval, but rather reminds him that it is a waste of time to
seek the approval of men. Blazon encourages Dunstan to be himself, to develop his own
beliefs, and to always seek to better himself through a continual, open-minded study of life.
Padre Blazon represents the man Dunstan wants to be, and by admiring Blazon, he is
actually accepting himself for who he is. At this stage in the story, Dunstan has not yet
discovered the truth about Mrs. Dempster's role in his life, or the role he himself is fated to
play, but the author hints, through Blazon, that it is the search for discovery which provides
the ultimate meaning.
Chapter 5 Summary
World War II increases Boy Staunton's stature as an industrialist. He is appointed Minister
of Food in a coalition Cabinet, and does a wonderful job of feeding the population of Canada
and its armed services, and even feeding Great Britain. "If the average height of the people
of the British Isles is rather greater today than it was in 1939, much of the credit must go to
Boy Staunton. He was one of the few men, not a professional scientist, who really knew
what a vitamin was and where it could be found and put to work cheaply." (pg. 219) The
position keeps him away from home for most of the war, and he becomes further estranged
from his wife and children, even his beloved daughter Caroline. His son David is now a
boarder at Colborne, where Dunstan keeps a fatherly eye on the twelve-year-old.
Two years later, in 1942, it falls to Dunstan to inform David of his mother's death. Leola
dies of pneumonia, but Dunstan thinks it suspicious that Leola had opened the windows on
such a cold winter afternoon. Fourteen-year-old David's alarming reaction is that Leola is
better off. Boy is in England and unable to return for the funeral; he asks Dunstan to take
care of it all, which he does. Dunstan keeps David close by his side for several days at
school, and during the funeral. Milo Papple shows up to pay his respects, and comments
how hard it must be for Dunstan to lose Leola for the second time. Dunstan is ashamed that
he feels no sense of loss whatsoever.
In 1947, Boy returns for good from his war efforts in Europe and gives Dunstan some bad
news. Dunstan has been serving as temporary Headmaster since the former Headmaster
died. With the war on, they had been unable to find a replacement, and Dunstan had been
doing all the work for no additional salary. He expects to be offered the job and additional
compensation as soon as the war is over, but instead Boy tells him that the Board wants to
hire a married man. Dunstan offers to get married, but Boy admits the board is looking for
someone more conventional; Dunstan's interest in saints has given him a reputation for
being eccentric. At this point, the narrator tells the Headmaster, for whom he is writing this
chronicle, that the man, Boy chose, was of course the Headmaster himself. Dunstan is
furious to be cast aside by Boy and the Board after eighteen months of thankless service,
doing double duty as teacher and acting Headmaster. He insists that the Board help him
save face by announcing that Dunstan has turned down the job due to his writing
commitments; Dunstan also insists on a six-month, paid leave of absence, so that he can
visit the shrines of Latin America.
Thus, the narrator finds himself, a few months later, at the Shrine of the Virgin of
Guadalupe. He sits in the shrine day after day and wonders what will happen to mercy,
compassion, and divine wonder in the face of the rising industrialization of America. The
world is freeing itself from belief in God, and putting its faith in modernity, capitalism, and
science. The narrator insists he has nothing against financial and educational advances, he
just wonders at what price they come. Just as in his younger days, he still wonders why
people have faith in miracles and wonders. He wonders if it is a childish escape from reality,
or if it is a recognition of some deeper knowledge we all hold, that the miraculous is actually
a part of reality.
Dunstan only spends part of each day on such speculation; the rest he spends in light-
hearted tourism. He sees a notice in the paper of a magic show, and enthusiastically
reserves a theater seat. His love of magic has never fully died, and he has seen many great
illusionists in his time, including the remarkable Harry Houdini. He has, however, never
heard of the magician scheduled to perform that night's show - a man named Magnus
Eisengrim. The show captivates him immediately. Unlike most magic shows, it is artistic
rather than merely showy and entertaining. The illusions are ghostly and dramatic in a dark,
sexual, yet elegant way. When he sees Magnus Eisengrim take the stage, he recognizes him
at once as Paul Dempster. The final, climactic illusion is based on the story of Faust, and a
beautiful woman plays the roles of Gretchen and of the goddess Venus. Her stage name is
Faustina. After the show, Dunstan is summoned backstage at the request of the magician
A horrifyingly ugly and manly-looking woman takes him to Eisengrim's dressing room,
where he finds Eisengrim arguing amicably with Faustina about the stage lighting. Eisengrim
makes polite but unenthusiastic conversation; it is evident to Dunstan that Paul does not
really want him to be there, so he prepares to leave. However, the ugly woman, whose
name is Liesl, insists that he accompany them to lunch the next day. Before he leaves, Paul
thanks him for the "temporary loan," a reference to having stolen Dunstan's wallet at their
last meeting. Paul taps him lightly on the pocket where Dunstan hides his cash. When
Dunstan gets back to his hotel room, he finds that the stolen money has been replaced with
interest. He begins to think better of Magnus Eisengrim.
Liesl and Paul meet him for lunch the next day. Liesl turns out to be Paul's partner, and a
student of hagiography. She has read several of Dunstan's books, and wants him to write
Magnus Eisengrim's autobiography. She wants Dunstan in particular, because the fictional
biography of the fictional Eisengrim should be, she thinks, a mythical story along the lines of
the life of a saint. Now fifty-years-old, Dunstan cannot resist the adventure. From that day
forward, he becomes a part of Eisengrim's entourage, and agrees to write the book.
Dunstan takes pleasure in watching Eisengrim perform so brilliantly the tricks he taught him
as a boy. Eisengrim has found his true calling, and cares deeply about every aspect of his
show. The tour in Mexico is designed to perfect the show; Paul wants to take it international
and hopes to become a huge name like Houdini, or better. Dunstan makes several good
suggestions, including cutting a less valuable act so that Liesl can incorporate a thought-
reading number called the Brazen Head.
Picking the pockets of the guests as they wait in line, and eavesdropping on their
conversations accomplish the Brazen Head scheme. All the items are replaced in the guests'
pockets, and when the Brazen Head randomly makes psychic predictions about certain
audience members, the chosen few are astounded at how the head could possibly know
such personal things about them. It is Liesl who provides the voice of the head and decides
what it will say.
Meanwhile Dunstan finds himself falling hopelessly in love with the young, empty-headed
Faustina. In addition, for the first time in his life, Dunstan finds himself gossiping endlessly.
He spills all of his secrets to Liesl, despite the fact that she is not a discreet woman, and
likely to repeat his confidences to others. Liesl reassures him that he should not live with
the pressure of so many secrets, and that it is good for his soul to release them. Liesl
further tells him that his obsession with Mary Dempster is a result of his inability to connect
with his fellow human beings. "That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a
moral monster. Well, it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal
humanity." (pg. 250)
For the moment, all of Dunstan's feelings towards his fellow human beings are directed at
the beautiful Faustina. Despite the hopelessness of his love, he lies awake at nights,
tormented by thoughts of her. The fact that she is too empty-headed to appreciate his
scholarly accomplishments makes him question the value of everything he's ever done with
his life. Faustina is Eisengrim's mistress, but this does not threaten Dunstan because he
believes Eisengrim's true love affair is with himself. What strikes him to the core, however,
is discovering Faustina one day, making love in her dressing room to Liesl.
That night, Liesl knocks on his door, quite late. She invites herself in and tells him she
noticed him watching her and Faustina that afternoon. Liesl tells him that life is not a
spectator sport, and it is his own fault he has never made a pass at Faustina. Dunstan has
thought only of his being a poor prospect for her to consider marriage; he never considered
merely loving her physically. Yet this, insists Liesl, is Faustina's destiny - not marriage to
some dull, stodgy academic. Liesl ends her speech by making a pass at Dunstan. When he
tries to refuse, she fights him to the bed. He pushes her off and she grabs his wooden leg,
which he has taken off for the night, and beats him with it mercilessly, trying to get him to
submit to her lust. Dunstan's Highland temper ignites and he takes the leg from her,
backing her into a corner. Dropping the weapon, he punches her several times. As she turns
to retreat out the door, he grabs her nose between his fingers and gives it a parting twist.
After Liesl flees, Dunstan finds that he feels better than he's felt in years.
Moments later, Liesl humbly taps on his door; she has left her room key inside. His spite
forgotten, Dunstan invites her in and attends to her bruises. They share a drink, and Liesl
explains that she only wanted to remind Dunstan that he is human. She tells him he is
decent to everyone except to himself. Liesl was raised Calvinist, she tells him, and knows
something about the cruel moral oppression of religion. "'But you - there is a whole great
piece of your life that is unlived, denied, set aside. That is why at fifty, you can't bear it any
longer and fly all to pieces and pour out your heart to the first really intelligent woman you
have met - me, that's to say - and get into a schoolboy yearning for a girl who is as far from
you as if she lived on the moon. This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it
makes a fool of you."' (pg. 260) She goes on to tell him that he needs to get to know the
devil a little, his personal devil. She is not advising him to throw over his moral code, but
merely to do something inexplicable and irrational for once. She insists it would be good for
him, and it would help him get to know himself.
To further that end, Liesl tells him who she thinks he is. To her mind, Dunstan's role in life
is the role of Fifth Business. Liesl explains that on the opera stages of Europe, one must
have a Prima Dona heroine, a tenor who plays her lover, a contralto to play the female rival,
and a basso who plays the villain or the male rival. But, she says, the plot cannot work
without another man, usually a baritone, to play the odd man out. This man is called Fifth
Business because he has no partner of the opposite sex. His presence is necessary to
advance the plot, however, because he is the secret-keeper and the conscience of the hero,
and the man who comes to the rescue of the heroine. Fifth Business is integral to the plot,
but not a part of the central drama; it is a crucial, supporting role. Having said her piece,
Liesl at last accomplishes her goal of seducing Dunstan. To his surprise, he finds the
experience delightful, tender, and healing.
Chapter 5 Analysis
Dunstan's magical time spent with the cast and crew of Eisengrim's show is written in a
style that evokes the Magic Realism genre, although the magical elements are confined to
the show itself. For the first time in his life, Dunstan allows his creative imagination full
play. He and Paul Dempster have come very far from the narrow-minded village of
Deptford, indeed. Stage magic and religious mysticism are intertwined in the mind of the
narrator, and thus he is fully captivated by Eisengrim's allusions to good and evil in his
magic show. The tribute to Faust symbolizes the war between God and the Devil, and helps
to underscore Dunstan's internal war between what he considers good, and what he
considers evil. The author, Robertson Davies, is noted for his interest in the theories of Carl
Jung, and Jung's concept of making friends with one's dark side, or shadow-self, is similar
to St. Dunstan making friends with his devil, Liesl. Liesl gets him to see that good and evil
have various definitions, and that the definitions he learned in the murky religious
environment of Deptford are not necessarily true. Her perspective liberates Dunstan's spirit
from the moral tyranny he has imposed upon himself. But for her trouble, Dunstan
characterizes Liesl as the Devil. Her attempts to talk him into broadening his moral
perspective sound, to St. Dunstan's ears, like the devil's logic. Ultimately, he gives in to this
devil's logic, and to his surprise, finds it a balm to his soul.
The chapter ends before Dunstan has a chance to return to his normal life; thus the reader
cannot be sure at this point how he will incorporate his new experiences and knowledge into
his former frame of reference. And so the author has set up the events to be unfolded in the
next and final chapter by sending Dunstan back to his schoolteacher's life with a whole new
perspective. As the reader will recall, the beginning of this chapter relates the growing
problems in Dunstan's regular life. Boy's treatment of Leola and of the narrator himself has
degenerated. Dunstan has always in the past been relied on by Boy to clean up Boy's
messes. However, the beginning of this chapter shows Dunstan so fed up with Boy and his
messes that he must flee to South America to escape them. Now that Dunstan has met his
personal devil, personified by Liesl, and made friends with him, the reader can be sure he
will return to Colborne College a changed man. What this will mean to his friendship with
Boy remains to be seen, but it seems doubtful that Dunstan will continue his complicity with
Boy's schemes by continuing to keep his secrets.
Chapter 6 Summary
Dunstan enjoys writing the autobiography of Magnus Eisengrim. He does not need to worry
about fact-checking or historical accuracy. For the first time in his writing career, he lets his
imagination run wild and writes whatever he wishes. He produces a book which he himself
would enjoy reading about a magician's life, and the book becomes a best seller, although it
is published under a pen name. For Eisengrim he invents a persona that is grim, fascinating,
sexy, and driven to succeed through hard work. The public eats it up, and Eisengrim's star
soars. Before he leaves to return to Colborne, Dunstan convinces Eisengrim to contribute
financially to his mother's upkeep. Wisely, Liesl suggests they set up an automatic payment
at the bank so that Eisengrim will not forget or change his mind. He parts from Liesl as
friends, and returns to his normal life.
Dunstan uses the money to offset the cost of moving Mrs. Dempster to a private hospital,
which greatly improves her circumstances. However, Eisengrim's financial generosity causes
Dunstan to make a major tactical error. He tells Mrs. Dempster that he has found Paul. In
Mary Dempster's mind, Paul is still a boy of ten. Dunstan's news creates an emotional crisis
as she is forced to confront the reality that he has been missing all these years. Dunstan
informs her that Paul is now a man over forty, with a demanding career, and is currently
unable to visit her, but that he is supporting her financially. Mrs. Dempster takes from this
conversation the notion that Dunstan Ramsey is a snake in the grass who has pretended to
be her friend, but who is only keeping her in the hospital to prevent her from seeing Paul.
She attempts to scratch his eyes out, and is restrained by hospital staff. The hospital bars
him from visiting her as she has taken a permanent turn for the worse and is now kept
under restraints full time.
As he laments this loss, Dunstan suffers another loss of sorts. Boy remarries, this time to a
powerful woman, a feminist, political activist, who holds much clout. Denyse Hornick is a
wily woman who captivates the notoriously fickle heart of Boy Staunton by playing hard to
get. Boy works long and hard to convince her to marry him, and in the end, she graciously
concedes. A great many important people show up for the wedding, and a good time is had
by all - except for David and Caroline. Leola's children dislike Denyse, and resent her gawky
Unfortunately for Dunstan, Boy's new wife does not care for him, and his former intimate
association with the Staunton household is curtailed after the wedding. Dunstan believes
that Denyse regards him as anti-feminist, and indeed their views on women are quite
divergent. Denyse is as ambitious as Boy, and she has her sights set on getting him
appointed Lieutenant-Governor. This is a complicated plan, as Boy suffers from a lack of
political popularity. His efforts to run for office in the past have not gone well, as the voters
have a tough time identifying with a rich capitalist who fails to court the populist vote.
However, Denyse believes she can succeed in having him appointed Lieutenant-Governor,
which would make Boy an officer of the Crown; given his continuing love for the royal
family, this idea suits Boy well.
The narrator notices that as Boy ages, his worst qualities from childhood seem to be
resurfacing. As a boy, he had been a bully, a braggart, and a poor loser. As a young man,
Boy had learned to hide these characteristics, just as Dunstan had learned to soften the
sharp tongue he wielded in boyhood. However Dunstan realizes that he himself has reverted
to his childhood habit of "getting off 'good ones,"' and he notices that "Boy Staunton had
reached a point in life where he no longer tried to conceal his naked wish to dominate
everybody and was angry and ugly when things went against him. As we neared our sixties
the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thin." (pg.279)
Mrs. Dempster dies the year after Boy's wedding. Dunstan blames himself for having broken
her spirits by telling her about Paul. Towards the end, she suffers many minor ailments, and
her mind is bent on paranoid rage. She considers Dunstan the evil architect of her life, and
his visits are reduced to peeping through the keyhole at her. Dunstan refuses to allow the
doctors to medicate her for her emotional state, although they treat her for her physical
maladies. Although he can see that the end is near, Dunstan is still surprised to receive the
call from the hospital telling him of her heart attack and advising him to come see her
immediately, for her time is short. At the hospital, the nurse assures him Mary has been
asking for him, and so Dunstan goes in to speak with her for the first time in years. Mary
opens her eyes and asks him if he is Dunstable Ramsay. Dunstan agrees that he is; after a
long silence, Mary tells him that she thought Dunstable was a boy. Half an hour later, she
dies in her sleep. Dunstable weeps as he has not done since the time his mother beat him
as a boy; not even during the worst of the war did he cry. Before sending her corpse for
cremation, Dunstan sniffs her body to see if she smells of violets, as it is said that the
bodies of dead saints give off such an odor. Unfortunately, he cannot tell, for the funeral
home has given the body a dose of Chanel No. 5.
The summer after her death, Dunstan returns to Europe to visit the Bollandists. He hopes
they will compliment him on his new book about saints, and he also hopes to see Padre
Blazon. Blazon, now extremely old, is in a hospital in Vienna, and Dunstan makes the trip to
visit him. Blazon, coy about his age, but admitting to being on the far side of one-hundred,
is thrilled to see Dunstan. He compliments Dunstan's new book, and asks about Dunstan's
fool-saint. Dunstan is surprised to hear Blazon refer to Mary Dempster with that term.
Blazon has never used it before, but the Catholic priest in Deptford had introduced him to
the term fool-saint some years before, when Dunstan had asked if Mrs. Dempster's three
miracles qualified her for sainthood. When Blazon hears that Dunstan asked the village
priest about this, he chides him for being so foolish. Blazon asks to be refreshed about the
details of Mary's life before rendering his own opinion.
After thinking it over, Padre Blazon says that Mary Dempster lived her life heroically; she
had a hard fate, but endured it well. This makes her a hero in God's cause, to Blazon's way
of thinking. Blazon suggests that there would be nothing wrong with Dunstan honoring Mary
Dempster in his prayers on All Saints' Day, for Dunstan's life has been illuminated by his
fool-saint. After making this pronunciation, Blazon changes the topic to the Devil, and asks
Dunstan if he has met his own devil yet. Dunstan tells him all about Liesl, sparing no detail,
and Padre Blazon listens to the story with great relish and theatrical prudery - especially at
the part where Dunstan finds Liesl making love to Faustina. Blazon laughs uproariously to
hear that Dunstan twisted Liesl's nose in the hotel room, just as St. Dunstan twisted the
Devil's nose when the Devil appeared to the saint in the guise of a beautiful woman. All in
all, Blazon approves of Dunstan's meeting with the Devil, agreeing that a little compromise
did not hurt Dunstan's character, and in fact likely has improved it. Blazon tells him he is fit
to be the Devil's friend, without fear of losing himself to Him. Dunstan asks Blazon if he has
found a God to help him be old, and Blazon assures him he has indeed. The old friends part
for what will likely be the final time.
With this visit fresh on his mind, Dunstan visits Salzburg to view a special display of saint
statuary in the local Cathedral. Here, years after having abandoned his search, he finds the
Little Madonna which he had seen in the war, the night he lost his leg and almost died. He
examines her closely and realizes that she does not bear Mary Dempster's face, although
the resemblance is great. Dunstan visits his Madonna every day for a week, engraving her
forever in his memory and heart.
Here the narrator interjects to remind his audience, the Headmaster at Colborne College, of
the details of Boy Staunton's death. The details had all been published in the newspaper at
the time, given the unusual circumstances and the stature of the deceased, however
Dunstan now wishes to reveal to the Headmaster the truth behind the mysterious death.
The papers reported only that Boy Staunton's body had been recovered from his Cadillac
convertible, which had found its way to the bottom of Toronto harbor, apparently entering
the water at high speed. Boy was found gripping the steering wheel tightly, and in his
mouth, the police were puzzled to find a stone - an ordinary pinkish granite stone
approximately the same size as a small egg. Boy, in death, becomes a hero to the same
press that had been his enemy throughout his political campaigns. Boy dies just a few days
before it is to be made public that he has been appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.
The funeral is a great affair; Denyse invites all the most prominent citizens, and everyone
arrives to pay tribute. In Boy's obituary, Denyse is described in glowing terms, but Leola is
scarcely mentioned. Denyse prevails upon Dunstan to write the official autobiography of
Boy's life. Dunstan does not know how he can refuse, but the thought of having to write
such a memoir makes him ill. As a historian trained to suppress nothing, Dunstan cannot
imagine how he can possibly write the positive memoir which Denyse expects, for he knows
too many of Boy's dirty secrets. Fortunately for Dunstan, he suffers a heart attack a few
days later, and thus is let off the hook regarding the memoir.
For the truth of Boy's death is something the narrator plans to reveal to no one besides the
Headmaster, who he is certain will keep the matter to himself. It begins with Magnus
Eisengrim's tour of Canada. Now a great celebrity, Eisengrim arrives in Toronto for a two-
week run of his show. Dunstan spends a great deal of time visiting with his old friends in the
show, including Eisengrim and Liesl, although the beautiful Faustina has been replaced by a
younger model. Dunstan invites Eisengrim to speak at Colborne College, and the young men
greatly enjoy his demonstration of hypnotism. After the talk, Dunstan introduces Eisengrim
to Boy. Boy, not realizing Eisengrim's true identity, is thrilled to meet the famous magician,
and tells him that he had seen the show the previous week and greatly enjoyed it.
Eisengrim responds that he knows Boy was in the audience; Boy actually came two nights in
a row, and Eisengrim even remembers his seat numbers. Eisengrim tells him that the
Brazen Head had chosen not to reveal Boy's appointment to Lieutenant-Governor as a
courtesy to Boy. Boy is shocked that Eisengrim could know this, but Eisengrim points out
that Boy is carrying an official letter bearing that news in his pocket at this very moment.
The three men set off for Dunstan's room to have a drink together; Boy can tell that
Eisengrim does not like him, and this makes Boy determined to win him over. Dunstan
notices a strong tension between them, but is irritated when Boy tries to charm Eisengrim
by making fun of Dunstan. Eisengrim stands up for Dunstan, so Boy changes tactics; Boy
tells the magician that he and Dunstan go way back, having come from the same small
village of Deptford. Eisengrim reveals that he, too, comes from Deptford, and, to further
astound Boy, Eisengrim tells him that Dunstan is the author of Eisengrim's best-selling
biography. Eisengrim reveals that he is actually Paul Dempster, and that Dunstan was his
first magic teacher. In a voice dripping with rancor, Eisengrim tells Boy that he remembers
him clearly; he always thought of Boy in those days as the Rich Young Ruler.
Eisengrim reveals more of his past, telling them how he wound up running away with the
circus. Apparently young Paul had been lured by a conjurer, the man who was later known
as Le Solitaire, but who was actually a morphine addict and a pedophile. By the time Paul
realized his mistake, the man had him in captivity, and treated him like a slave. The man
convinced Paul that if anyone found out about their sexual activities, ten-year-old Paul
would be sent to jail, or perhaps even hung. Fear chained Paul to his side for years, and by
the time he was old enough to escape, he had accepted his lot, and even come to feel
loyalty and duty towards the pedophile. Eisengrim likens his irrational loyalty to the
irrational loyalty that Dunstan had felt for his mother, Mrs. Dempster. Eisengrim reminds
Boy that Boy had often called his mother a whore - or "hoor," which was the colloquialism
used in the village. Eisengrim explains that this is what inspired him to run away in the first
However, Boy does not even remember having insulted Mrs. Dempster. In fact, Boy does
not remember the Dempster family at all - not Mary, not Paul, not even the Reverend
Amasa Dempster. Boy states that he does not remember things that have no use to him.
Dunstan is shocked to learn that Boy has edited his memories so thoroughly that he does
not even remember the incident with the snowball. Dunstan reflects that Boy only
remembers the good things, while Paul seems to have edited his memories so that he only
remembers the bad. Dunstan wonders for a moment what memories he himself has edited
of his own life. He does not have to wonder long, for as Paul discusses the names they have
chosen for themselves - commenting that Percy Boyd Staunton had chosen to forever
remain a Boy, Dunstan had become a Saint, and Eisengrim is a name which means Wolf -
Paul also reveals that Dunstan is not as tight-lipped a secret-keeper as he imagines himself
to be. Dunstan apparently told young Paul that Percy's mother called the Rich Young Ruler
by the nickname Pidgy Boy-Boy. Dunstan is shocked, thinking he had always kept Boy's
secrets, even that one. But Paul reminds him that he told Paul about the embarrassing
nickname to cheer up Paul one day after Percy had called his mother a hoor.
Dunstan comments that all three men have changed their names and become something
their parents could not have foreseen. Dunstan tells them how Diana renamed him during
the time when Dunstan had finally broken with his mother. Liesl had called Dunstan one of
the twice-born because of this name change. Eisengrim remembers Dunstan's mother, and
what a hard woman she was. Dunstan tells him that she had a softer side as well; for the
first time Paul learns about all the months Mrs. Ramsay had spent helping him survive when
he was a newborn, after the fateful snowball incident. He is surprised to learn that Mrs.
Ramsay had paid him the compliment of calling him a "fighter." Disconcerted by this news,
Eisengrim reaches for a cigar. But what he thought was a cigar box is actually the box
containing his own mother's ashes.
Stunned, Boy asks Dunstan why he would keep Mrs. Dempster's ashes. Dunstan replies that
he keeps them out of guilt. Eisengrim asks why Dunstan should feel guilty about his mother,
and at long last, Dunstan reveals the story of the snowball. Boy is unmoved by the story. He
tells Dunstan that he has long since forgotten it, and that Dunstan should forget it, too;
they were just boys, after all. Dunstan is not prepared to let it go so easily; he feels his role
as Fifth Business calling him to serve as Boy's conscience. With that in mind, he hands Boy
the stone which he has long used as a paperweight, and asks Boy if he recognizes it. Boy
says naturally he recognizes Dunstan's paperweight. "'It is the stone you put in the snowball
you threw at Mrs. Dempster,' I said. 'I've kept it because I couldn't part with it. I swear I
never meant to tell you what it was. But, Boy, for God's sake, get to know something about
yourself. The stone-in-the-snowball has been characteristic of too much you've done for you
to forget it forever!"' (pg. 305)
Boy responds unpleasantly, accusing Dunstan of ingratitude after all the financial advice Boy
has given him over the years. He feels that Dunstan and Eisengrim are in league against
him, and accuses Dunstan of wanting revenge for losing Leola. Dunstan's sharp tongue
asserts itself as he tells Boy that Boy got the woman he deserved. Eisengrim stands and
announces he must leave. Boy offers him a ride, and Eisengrim accepts, saying that
Dunstan's revelation has put Boy in debt to Eisengrim, but that he will forgive the moral
debt in exchange for a ride. As they leave, Dunstan offers Paul his mother's ashes, but Paul
tells him he already has everything he needs. Not until the next morning, after Boy's death
is announced, does Dunstan realize his paperweight is missing.
The Saturday after Boy's funeral, Dunstan attends Eisengrim's magic show. When the
moment arrives for the Brazen Head to make its predictions, an audience member calls out
for the head to tell them who killed Boy Staunton. The head responds that he was killed by
the usual suspects: himself, by the woman he knew, by the woman he did not know, by the
man who granted his deepest wish, and by the inevitable fifth man, the keeper of his
conscience and the keeper of the stone. Sitting in the theater box, listening to this
revelation, Dunstan has his heart attack. While he is incapacitated, Denyse uses her
influence to hound the police, but no killer is ever found. When Dunstan recovers, he
receives a postcard from Liesl, apologizing for her role in giving him a heart attack, and
inviting him to join the company in Switzerland. The narrator ends his story by advising the
Headmaster that there is no more to the tale. The narrator lists the date and location in
which this chronicle was written as Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, 1970.
Chapter 6 Analysis
It is only when the final secrets are revealed that the reader learns just how close-mouthed
Dunstan Ramsay has been. Not once in all the previous discussions of the snowball incident
has Dunstan revealed the presence of the stone inside the snowball. The stone, nearly the
size of an egg, drastically changes the seriousness of Percy's offense. Mrs. Dempster was
not a frail young woman who slipped in the snow after being hit by a childish snowball. She
was the victim of assault with an actual weapon, an assault which Percy had intended for
Dunstan. All these years Dunstan has kept the stone as a paperweight. Each day, as he
looked at the stone, it was an ever-present reminder for him. But a reminder of what? That
Percy had once nearly killed him? That Mrs. Dempster's injury and resulting fate could have
been his own? Did it remind him of his own complicity in the grown-up Percy's schemes?
The stone in the snowball helps clarify, for the reader, the reasons behind Dunstan's
antipathy towards Boy.
However, the narrator does not reveal his own judgment about what the stone should mean
to Boy Staunton. As is typical of the narrator's character, he presents the stone in order for
Boy to increase his own self-understanding. For Dunstan, the meaning of life is the search
for meaning. Dunstan at last assumes his role as Fifth Business by providing the critical
information which Boy and Paul lack. Only by revealing the secret about the stone can
Dunstan provide them both with the means to resolve their own personal dramas. Thus the
meaning of Dunstan's life is to act as a catalyst for Boy and Eisengrim, protagonist and
antagonist, respectively, in Dunstan's life story. At least, this is what Dunstan believes.
It is clear to the reader, however, that Dunstan is his own protagonist. His life is not a
passive observation of Boy Staunton's life. By choosing to reveal the stone in the presence
of Eisengrim, Dunstan is taking a very bold action. Dunstan is not merely a catalyst for the
ensuing murder, he is actually its engineer. Having shared painful and powerful information
in the past, such as telling Mrs. Dempster about Paul, Dunstan is all too aware of how
powerfully certain information can affect others. Thus by revealing Boy as the architect of
Paul's mother's destruction, he is attempting to encourage Paul's revenge. For Dunstan, in
his heart, feels that Boy deserves to be punished. Yet Dunstan admits none of this to
himself. He swears to Boy that he has only revealed the truth about the snowball incident in
order that Boy learn something about himself. Yet if that were so, he could have revealed it
to Boy alone. Instead, he chooses to reveal Boy's crime in the presence of Paul, all but
guaranteeing that Paul will seek revenge and Boy will be punished at last. Thus Dunstan, far
from being the passive fifth character in this drama, is the wizard behind the curtain who
manipulates events to suit his personal sense of justice.
Dunstan's heart attack confirms this theory, for he has the heart attack in the theater when
Liesl, speaking through the Brazen Head, accuses him of being part of the cabal which
murdered Boy Staunton. Recognizing the truth of Liesl's accusation sends Dunstan into
cardiac arrest. Ever since Dunstan traveled to South America and befriended his dark side
(as symbolized by Liesl in Chapter V), it has been clear that Dunstan would use this dark
side in some way to resolve the issues between him and Boy. Thus the confidant betrays
Boy's confidence in the end, and, in so doing, engineers Boy's destruction. Unwilling to
accept his own vengeful motives at first, Dunstan responds to the Brazen Head's accusation
with a heart attack. However, after thinking it over, Dunstan embraces his decision, and
leaves behind the book as a confession, to be read after his death. The narrator does not
directly state that he accepts the responsibility for Boy's death, but he indicates this
indirectly by accepting Liesl's invitation to visit the magic show in Switzerland. Liesl knows
the truth about Dunstan's role in Boy's death, and by inviting him to Switzerland, she is
indicating her acceptance of the murder. She accepts Dunstan's choice, Paul's subsequent
actions, and sees Boy's murder as delayed justice for Paul's mother. Dunstan goes off to
meet his devil in the end, and thus indicates that he, too, accepts Paul's choice to kill Boy,
as well as his own role in bringing about the murderous circumstances.
Deptford is the quaint, old-fashioned Canadian village at the heart of this novel by
Robertson Davies. Including Fifth Business, author Davies wrote three books centered on
Deptford, which is reminiscent of his own childhood home. The village of Deptford has many
of the sterling, moral characteristics associated with small-town living. However, in its heart
lurks much darkness and evil as well, which the narrator explores throughout the novel. No
matter how far from Deptford life takes protagonist Dunstan Ramsay, he is always called
back in spirit to revisit the joys and the follies of his youth.
Colborne College is the name of the private men's college where Dunstan Ramsay spends
his long teaching career. During the Second World War, Dunstan serves as acting
Headmaster. Boy Staunton got his degree from Colborne, and later, as a prominent
businessman, serves on the Board of Directors, making him, in effect, Dunstan's boss.
A Hundred Saints for Travelers
This is Dunstan Ramsay's first published book. As the title implies, it describes the statues
of saints which can be found by journeying through the churches Europe.
The study of saints; hagiography is Dunstan Ramsey's chief passion in life.
A serial publication dedicated to hagiography, published by the Bollandist sect of Jesuit
priests. The Bollandists and the Analecta are considered the foremost experts on the study
of Catholic saints. Therefore Dunstan is thrilled when they first accept his work, and their
continued approval of his scholarly writings about hagiography is the bar by which he
measures his success as a student of the saints.
The Stone Paperweight
Not revealed until the end of the story, the stone paperweight which Dunstan keeps with
him over the years is actually the very same stone that Percy Boyd Staunton put inside the
snowball he threw at Mrs. Dempster when he and Dunstan were children.
St. Dunstan's Tongs
Dunstable Ramsey is renamed by his lover Diana after St. Dunstan, who, according to
legend, once used a pair of silver tongs to twist the Devil's nose when the Devil appeared to
him in the guise of a beautiful woman.
The Little Madonna
On the dark night during World War I when Dunstable Ramsay is at death's door, he sees a
divine vision that he credits for saving his life. Bleeding from the shrapnel that burns in his
leg, Dunstable seeks shelter in a ruin. When he looks up, he realizes that he is in the ruins
of a church, and comes face to face with a statue of the Virgin Mary that bears the exact
likeness of Mary Dempster's face. Dunstable spends years searching for the statue after the
war. His growing knowledge of religious statuary teaches him that the statue is called a
Little Madonna, and depicts Mother Mary with her holy son. But not until very late in his life
does Dunstable, now Dunstan, find the actual statue. In reality, the Little Madonna does not
look as much like Mrs. Dempster as it did on the night of his vision.
The Brazen Head
A clever mechanical stage prop designed by Liesl for Magnus Eisengrim's magic show. The
Brazen Head act consists of Liesl's voice intoning predictions and revealing secrets about the
audience members. This trick is accomplished by sending spies into the audience before the
show, to eavesdrop on their conversations and to secretly rifle through their belongings. At
the end of the novel, the Brazen Head's revealing answer to the question, Who killed Boy
Staunton?sends Dunstan into cardiac arrest because - without naming names - the head
implicates both Dunstan and Eisengrim in Boy's murder.
This romantic, European-style Opera House is the principal assembly hall for the rural
village of Deptford. It is here that the village gathers to celebrate the return of their war
heroes, including Dunstan Ramsay.
Fifth Business Social Concerns
Fifth Business begins on December 27, 1908, in Deptford, Ontario. An incident occurs that
sets off a chain of events that are not concluded until October, 1968, in Toronto when Boy
Staunton, one of Canada's wealthiest men, dies mysteriously. The novel, which is written in
the form of a memoir, traces the lives of the three people involved in the 1908 incident.
One of the characters, Boy Staunton, has prospered materially, having embraced the gospel
of wealth and materialism as preached by George Maiden Leadbeater. Seemingly never
satisfied, Staunton continues to expand his economic domain and to raise the goals that
define success for him throughout his life. His contemporary, Dunstan Ramsay, has lived a
different kind of life. Becoming a history teacher, he stays in the same position for forty-five
years. In addition to teaching, he publishes in his specialty, hagiography — the biographies
of saints or other idealized individuals — being particularly interested in the connections
between history and myth. Since his specialty lacks academic respectability, it always has
something of the status of an avocation for him professionally. The third character involved
in the incident is Mrs. Amasa Dempster, the wife of a Baptist minister. Her life is apparently
changed radically by what happened in 1908. After the incident people in Deptford regard
her as simple-minded, and she eventually winds up in an insane asylum where she dies in
1959. It is never completely clear whether Mrs. Dempster's emotional problems are the
consequence of the incident. It is sufficient that for Dunstan Ramsay they are, and that he
feels responsible for what has happened to her.
This novel is not concerned with any particular social issues per se, but rather with an
individual's understanding of himself and his place in the world.
Each of these characters has his or her own way of getting through life. Boy Staunton
apparently masters the world, but he never understands it, himself, or the people around
him. Dunstan Ramsay has been cast in the role of Fifth Business, i.e., that player in a
drama or opera who is essential for the working out of the plot but who is extra, outside the
central core of action. Most people think of him as an observer, someone who watches the
world pass by but does not participate. This novel, which is written in the form of Ramsay's
personal memoir, serves as a correction to that misguided notion.
Finally, Mrs. Dempster appears to have a clear understanding of what is going on about her,
but her understanding differs from other people's, and she is regarded as mad by her
Fifth Business Themes
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.
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
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 fivemonth 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."
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 Vic toria 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.
Fifth Business Significant Topics
The Role of Women in Society
The role of women in society is analyzed in the story from the point of view of a male
narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. Dunstan minimizes the role of women in his own life by avoiding
marriage and escaping his mother. He does this because of certain dark beliefs he holds
about the negative power of women, beliefs he has gained through his upbringing in the
psychologically twisted village of Deptford. It is certainly understandable why Dunstan fears
women. He watches his own father be emotionally consumed and subsumed by his mother,
much as a black widow spider physically consumes her mate. Mrs. Ramsay lays down rules
and codes of conduct that are impossible to bear, and when either her husband or her
children thwart these codes, her wrath is terrible. Mrs. Ramsay is only comfortable with, and
loving toward, her son Dunstan when he accepts her opinions as his own. Dunstan,
suffocated by his overpowering mother, spends much of his youth trying to avoid becoming
"her own dear laddie." He instinctively understands that if he does not break away from her,
he will lose his true identity, and become, instead, the puppet man child she wishes him to
be. Thus Dunstan's fears about the suffocating love of women are perfectly understandable.
However, as he only sees things from the male perspective, his views suffer from deep
Dunstan is under the mistaken belief that the women of Deptford rule the town with their
moral authority. Their husbands always agree with the women's moral decisions, because,
as the author states, the men know the price of peace. Yet Dunstan fails to see the obvious
fact that the male-dominated religious "morals" of the town are what force the women to
behave in this manner. The moral code which the women enforce on the men has been
forced on the women in the first place, for it is the women who will suffer - at the hands of
the men - if the code is broken. Witness the way Mary Dempster is tied up with a rope in
her own house by her own husband, for years, because she commits adultery. Certainly
adultery is considered a sin by most religions, and modern psychiatry supports the fact that
adultery is one of the most hurtful things one person can do to another. But that's not why
the women of Deptford judge adultery so harshly. They judge it so because they must, to
survive. If a woman like Mrs. Dempster sins in this fashion, the male-dominated religious
society of Deptford considers a lifetime sentence of bondage and house arrest to be
Cruel and unusual punishment is deterred by the U.S. Constitution for precisely this reason.
While adultery may be wrong, what was done to Mrs. Dempster is far more wrong, and
certainly qualifies as cruel and unusual. Male-dominated religion - that is to say, not God,
but Man - has meted out dire punishments for women who violate the moral law for
millennia. This was true of Christianity in eras past, and continues today in the form of
Islamic honor killings and genital mutilation. Thus it is small wonder that the women of
Deptford use their influence with their husbands to enforce the strict codes of their religions.
For their religions, which speak of mercy and forgiveness, offer neither to the women of the
town. It thus becomes critical to the survival of women like Mrs. Ramsay to force their
families to adhere to the moral code.
Thus, Dunstan blaming the women for the codes they enforce is sheer projection. The
women, above all, are subject to these codes, and have been forced by a male-dominated
society to adhere to these codes - or else! It is an ironic and vicious circle. For millennia,
men have subjugated women, forcing them to adhere to strict social rules or else suffer
heavy consequences. Thus women have been convinced, over the years, that strict
adherence to these rules is the only way they can be considered 'good' women. In turn,
these 'good' women force these exact same rules down the throats of their men. The men,
not liking it, seek out men's clubs and other places where they can safely avoid the watchful
eyes of their women. Why did so many country clubs, until recently, prohibit women?
Because men needed a comfortable place where they could drink, smoke, swear, and in
short, 'sin', in a relaxing environment, away from the judgmental women.
This attitude of segregation, which continues today, is sad because it allows men to relax
and be human, to allow themselves a time and place where they don't have to be perfect.
The reason this is sad is because only the men are allowed this relaxation of the rules which
they themselves created. Women are never allowed to fall short of the mark of perfection; if
they do, they stand to lose their reputations, their freedom, their safety, and perhaps even
have their children taken away from them. Perfection is a tough line to maintain, as any
man can attest. If society allowed women the same margin of error which it allows men,
men would most likely find themselves under less pressure from women to act saintly all of
Boyhood is a concept thoroughly explored by the author, in the guise of narrator Dunstan
Ramsay. Fifth Business sheds some light on society's age-old quest to better understand its
children, or, at least, its boy children, for the narrator admits to ignorance when it comes to
the female gender. However boys, he understands. It is because of this understanding that
Dunstan takes to teaching like a duck to water; as he says, teaching boys is something that
comes naturally to him. Having been a boy himself, he understands what boys are.
According to Dunstan, boys are merely tiny men, trapped in boy's bodies. They are capable
of extreme tenderness and mercy, just as are their adult counterparts. Yet boys are also
capable of craven, miserable behavior, like lying and cheating and stealing.
To Dunstan's way of thinking, boys do not fundamentally change as they approach
manhood. Men learn to disguise their craven motives in order to succeed in life, just as Boy
Staunton does, and thus adult men appear mature. But Dunstan believes that maturity is
merely a socially acceptable front put on by these now-adult boys in order to fit into society.
Further, as one ages, one cares less for appearing socially acceptable, and more easily
reverts to one's natural, boyish personality. "I was going to be a sharp-tongued old man as
I had been a sharp-tongued boy. And Boy Staunton had reached a point in life where he no
longer tried to conceal his naked wish to dominate everybody and was angry and ugly when
things went against him. As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our
essential selves were wearing thin." Chapter VI, pg. 279
Man's Search for Meaning
The contemplation of life and man's role in it are frequently on the narrator's mind as he
retells his life's story for the benefit of his audience. Three strange and unusual occurrences
happen to the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, which spur him on his quest for meaning. As a
young boy in Deptford, he witnesses Mary Dempster raise his brother from the dead. Later,
of course, the village doctor insists that Willie had never died, and in this way tries to
invalidate Mrs. Dempster's miracle. But Dunstan was there, and he is personally convinced
that his brother had died and been brought back to life by the miraculous Mary Dempster.
Thus Mary Dempster takes on a larger than life role in the narrator's personal universe. She
comes to represent, for him, all things holy and miraculous. When he is in the thick of battle
in World War I, and a shrapnel wound sends him to the brink of death, Dunstan looks up
with his dying breath to see a Madonna and Child statue bearing the face of Mary Dempster.
When he awakes in the hospital a few days later, Dunstan credits his survival as another
one of Mrs. Dempster's miracles.
It is not, however, until Mary's third miracle is revealed that Dunstan begins his true search
for meaning. His search revolves around Mary Dempster, and what she means to his life. He
has long wondered if the village of Deptford was fair to Mrs. Dempster, for the villagers
considered her simple because of her kind nature and tendency to laugh often. After Mrs.
Dempster engages in an affair with a vagrant, the village changes its opinion, labeling her a
dangerous lunatic. Dunstan has a difficult time reconciling in his mind the saintly woman
who brought his brother back to life with the now-dangerous lunatic who keeps company
with vagrants. Yet when Dunstan stumbles upon the vagrant in question, several years
later, he learns something surprising, which changes the meaning of the event for him. The
vagrant, Joel Surgeoner, has miraculously turned his life around, and now runs a shelter for
the homeless called the Lifeline Mission. To Dunstan's shock, Surgeoner tells him that it was
his brief affair with Mary Dempster which brought him to his senses and caused him to turn
his life around. Her decision to have sexual relations with him voluntarily, after Surgeoner
had threatened her with rape, awakens in Surgeoner the knowledge of true compassion.
Once Dunstan learns that the very act which had led to Mary's disgrace is actually a miracle
in itself, he decides to view her as a bona fide saint; a woman who has performed the three
requisite miracles needed for the church to declare her sainthood. Unfortunately, the
Catholic priests with whom he discusses Mary do not agree with his view of her character.
Ultimately, Dunstan decides that it does not matter if others share the meaning he has
found in Mary Dempster, and thus Dunstan has found the value of personal meaning. He
realizes that life has a different meaning for everyone. For him, life is about the search for
meaning, which he comes to believe is more important than meaning itself. As age and
wisdom catch up with Dunstan, he begins to realize that Mary Dempster is only playing a
role in this world. It is not she who has provided meaning to his life, but rather he himself
has found and attached holy meaning to her existence. In this way, Dunstan broadens his
perspective on the search for meaning. Only after he has come to realize that true value is
in the eyes of the beholder does fate allow him to find once again the Madonna and Child
statue he had seen in the war. All these years later, Dunstan finally learns that it was not
Mary Dempster's face on the statue. Yet having gained the wisdom of the years, Dunstan is
not crushed by this hard reality. For Dunstan realizes the value of his personal belief
system. Because he had believed Mrs. Dempster capable of performing miracles, by seeing
her in his hour of need, he allowed himself to believe he might miraculously survive. It was
this belief - and not Mrs. Dempster all - that saved him.
Fifth Business Style
Point of View
Fifth Business employs the conceit of being a narrative written for an audience of one,
specifically, the Headmaster of the Colborne College for Boys. The main character and
narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, has recently retired from a forty-plus-year career as a teacher
at Colborne. The novel is crafted as if it were Dunstan's response to a rather condescending
article written about his teaching career upon the occasion of his retirement. With Fifth
Business, Dunstan intends to set the record straight for his former boss, the Headmaster,
by revealing, at long last, his side of the story. In addition, the narrator promises his
audience, the Headmaster, that he will endeavor to chronicle his life objectively, withholding
nothing. This conceit, employed by author Robertson Davies, is a clever way of intriguing
the reader, for it gives the story, from the very beginning, the feel of a salacious,
clandestine memoir. Dunstan's promise to reveal the full truth implies that there has been
some sort of cover-up, and the reader is about to get the real scoop.
Not only does this first-person narrative conceit provide instant intrigue, but it is also
necessary given the character traits which the author assigns to his protagonist, Dunstan.
The narrator is a man best known for his ability to keep a secret. Because of this gift,
Dunstan, throughout his life, has been trusted with many confidences. The narrator would
not, as a rule, ever betray these confidences. Thus the author is forced to concoct the
narrative conceit as a means for opening Dunstan's vault of secrets. The narrator makes it
clear that his words are intended for the Headmaster's eyes only, and that the manuscript
will not be revealed even to the Headmaster until after Dunstan's death.
Another important facet to the narrator's character that also affects the point of view of the
story is the fact that Dunstan Ramsay is a history professor. In fact, he is not only a
professor, but an author as well. Dunstan has published ten scholarly works in his lifetime,
each dealing with the lives of various Catholic saints. As such, his books are researched
from the historical perspective; Dunstan then translates the historical details into a
narrative story. Naturally this life experience, attributed to Dunstan by the author, makes
Dunstan an ideal narrator for his own life story. Dunstan is able to convey the historical
perspective as he looks back upon his life from the viewpoint of an old man, and he
incorporates many true facts from history in this fictional account of his life.
Fifth Business is set in three distinct milieus. Given author Robertson Davies' well-known
interest in Jungian psychology, it is interesting to note that each milieu can be said to
represent a different aspect of the psyche. The first and most well developed of the three
settings is the tiny village of Deptford. The portrait painted of this village is rich with dark
imagery, and in Jungian terms could be considered the darkness of the subconscious mind.
Deep in the dark heart of Deptford lurk the secrets which Percy, Paul, and the narrator,
Dunstan, think long buried. But like subconscious emotions, these secrets drive the adult
characters' actions long after they have escaped the tiny confines of Deptford. Both Percy
and Dunstan escape to Toronto, a major city in Canada. The city is not well described in the
story, but it does serve to represent the conscious mind. Here in this well-populated milieu,
Boy and Dunstan create and live out their public roles. Dunstan, a disciplined man who has
long suppressed his emotions, must travel to South America to encounter his emotional
side. In Jungian dream interpretation, this part of the world signifies man's uncontrolled,
undeveloped emotions. In the story's climax, the dark secrets buried in Deptford finally
emerge, as Dunstan, after spending time getting acquainted with his emotions in South
America, finally integrates the buried pieces of his psyche with his conscience world in
In addition to the richly symbolic physical settings, the author has introduced the actual
events from history, which take place simultaneous to the story. The stock market crash of
1929 and the abdication of King Edward both affect the characters in the novel. Both World
War I and World War II are accounted for as well, although only World War I is discussed in
detail, as it was the war in which the narrator actually participated as a young man. The
narrator's war experience is central to the story, as it leads to one of the three miracles
supposedly performed by Mrs. Mary Dempster. Boy makes his fortune during the post-war
boom, and later uses his industrial capability to feed the hungry populace of Canada and
England when food supplies become limited by the war. Without this historical backdrop,
Boy's character could not have become a captain of industry. And had their not been a
convenient war to enlist in, Dunstan would perhaps have never made it out of Deptford.
Thus these historical events help set the stage for the dramatic roles played by the
characters of Boy and Dunstan.
Language and Meaning
Fifth Business is written in a manner befitting the narrator's character. Dunstan Ramsay,
the first-person narrator and protagonist of the story, is a thoughtful, fair-minded man. The
prose reads as if it were written by a thoughtful and fair-minded man, and as the reader
learns at the end, by a secretive man as well. Dunstan is careful with his words, and often
reveals important facts obliquely. For example, when he speaks of what the villagers did to
Mrs. Dempster, Dunstan does not indignantly state that she was kept, quite literally, on a
leash by her husband, as a prisoner in her own home. Instead, the cautious narrator reveals
this fact as a rumor, and indirectly confirms the rumor later in the narrative with an off-
handed comment: "I got so that I did not notice the rope she wore (it was actually a
harness that went around her waist and shoulders, with the horse-smelling hemp rope
knotted to a ring on one side, so that she could lie down if she wanted to), or the
raggedness of her clothes, or the occasional spells when she was not wholly rational."
Chapter I, pg. 56
Thus given the narrator's penchant for indirectly establishing facts, the reader must pay
close attention to every word. In this way, the author woos the reader's attention, and
keeps it firmly throughout the story. Even the climactic ending to the story is revealed
indirectly. Dunstan never flat-out accuses Paul Dempster of killing Boy Staunton. The
narrator mentions only that he noticed his stone paperweight - the murder weapon - had
gone missing after Paul left his room in the company of Boy Staunton on the night of Boy's
death. The Brazen Head confirms the identity of the murderer with a verse of theatrical
doggerel. This theatrical accusation might easily be overlooked as unimportant, except for
the fact that the Brazen Head's words shock the narrator into cardiac arrest. The devil is
definitely in the details in this carefully worded story by Robertson Davies.
Fifth Business is structured as if it were a personal memoir, written by the protagonist,
Dunstan Ramsey. The story's overt structure follows Dunstan's life chronologically, from his
boyhood in the small village of Deptford, to his adult life in the large city of Toronto,
incorporating his travels across Europe and the Americas as well. The purpose of Dunstan's
life is to discover his purpose, and the book is structured in such a way as to gradually
reveal that purpose to the reader. The story opens with a boyhood prank gone awry,
referred to as the snowball incident; this childish prank involves both Dunstan and the
book's other major character, Percy Staunton. As the years of Dunstan's life roll by, this
incident, rather than being forgotten, becomes more and more important. By the end of the
novel this incident is revealed as being Dunstan's raison d'etre, his purpose for living. Thus
the author neatly ties everything back together at the end of the story by finally resolving
the snowball incident, and revealing its true meaning to the characters in the book and to
the reader as well.
In addition to this overt structure, a theatrical, pseudo-structure lies embedded in the plot.
The story's title, Fifth Business, refers to a key principle in the structure of operas and stage
plays. One of the core characters, Liesl, has a theatrical background, and it is she who
explains to Dunstan the structure of operatic plays, and how this structure applies to his life.
In an opera, there is a main male protagonist, and his female love interest. Additionally,
there is a female rival whose role it is to interfere with the lovers, as well as a male rival
who generally plays the part of the bad guy. The fifth character in this dramatic structure is
called Fifth Business, for he has no female counterpart. It is the role of the fifth man to keep
the secrets of the male protagonist, and to reveal them when the time is right.
Thus, the Fifth Business is the conscience of the protagonist, as well as the record-keeper of
the events of the plot. Dunstan Ramsey plays the role of Fifth Business. Thus although he is
the protagonist of the novel, in his own life's story, he is actually the odd man out, the fifth
man. Dunstan is the conscience and the record-keeper for his friend Percy (Boy) Staunton,
and in the end it is Dunstan who reveals the truth about the snowball incident at the
propitious time. This pseudo-structure is a complex concept executed flawlessly by author
Robertson Davies. As a result, Dunstan plays two distinct roles: within the novel, he is the
protagonist; within his own life's story, he plays the smaller role of supporting character.
The author meshes these two distinct structures seamlessly, and the resulting construction
provides a satisfyingly comprehensive storyline.
This section contains 1655 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Fifth Business Literary Precedents
Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-1869) is one basic source for Davies's
approach to the narrative material in this novel. In that poem the same events are
presented from the viewpoints of different people. Davies takes that idea one step further
by having his narrator write about himself. The story that we learn is incidental to what we
learn about the character. Patricia Merivale has noted that in addition to being Dunstan
Ramsay's autobiography, Fifth Business is also "Dunstan's 'lives' of the 'saints,'" and she
relates the novel to two elegiac romances, Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the
Night (1959) and Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus (1947) as well as Thomas Mann's "ironic
Saint's Life," The Holy Sinner (1951).
Michael Peterman finds several important antecedents to Fifth Business.
He notes resemblances between this novel and John Henry Newman's religious
autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). Like Newman, Ramsay is offering a defense or
justification for his life, for he is responding to Lome Packer's patronizing tribute to "Corky"
in the College Chronicle which suggested that Ramsay's approach to history was fanciful and
hopelessly dated. Peterman also points to links with J. B. Priestly's The Magicians (1954)
and Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head (1961) noting that the choice Sir Charles Ravenstreet
must make in The Magicians between "the power-wielding businessman Mervil" and "the
three mysterious magicians, Wayland, Marot, and Perperak" resembles Ramsay's conflict
"between the materialistic world of Boy Staunton and the religious realm of Mary Dempster"
and that Honor Klein in A Severed Head plays a Liesllike role in appearance and counsel.