In a preface, Robertson Davies describes “Fifth Business”
as the theatrical and operatic roles that aren’t the heroine, the
confidante, or the villain but are nonetheless essential to the plot.
In this first novel in Davies’s Deptford trilogy, Dunstable Ramsay is
Fifth Business, the odd man out. He doesn’t throw the snowball that
sets in motion the plot, but he was the intended target and ducked.
The snowball hits the pregnant Mary Dempster in the head. She has a son prematurely and lapses into erratic behavior in which Ramsay sees saintliness. Ramsay’s guilty connection to Mrs. Dempster will thread together his life. He surreptitiously visits her when she is an outcast. He teaches her son, Paul, magic tricks as a child, and Paul will grow up to be a famous magician. Mary’s is the inspiring face Ramsay thinks he sees on a religious statue when he is critically injured in World War I. Recovered and wearing a wooden leg, he returns to Canada and continues to keep track of Mrs. Dempster as he teaches at a boys’ school and pursues his interests in mythology and hagiography. He never marries.
The boy who threw the snowball, Percy Boyd Staunton, will become one of Canada’s richest men. He will get his punishment at the end of the book after Ramsay brings him together with Paul Dempster, who learns then of how Staunton damaged his mother’s life. The long-ago incident is resolved, with Ramsay realizing his destiny was to be Fifth Business.
The first-person novel is written as a letter to his school’s headmaster after Ramsay’s 45 years of teaching. He was piqued by how he was portrayed in the school newspaper’s account of his retirement ceremony. The letter to the headmaster upholds “the vital though never glorious role of Fifth Business.”
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