‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies

Fifth-Business

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 272 pages; 2005.

First published in 1970, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business is a Canadian literature classic and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It is the first volume of the Deptford Trilogy, but can be read as a standalone novel. The title refers to the idea of a person being neither hero or heroine, confidante nor villain, but still being a vital part of a plot — without them the denouement or resolution would not happen. And that is the perfect description of the role with which our narrator, Dunstan “Dunny” Ramsay, fulfills — he is the “fifth business”.

A seminal moment

The novel opens by recounting a rather compelling and ultimately seminal moment in Dunny’s life:  It is “5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908” and he is “ten years and seven months old”. He is returning from a sledding adventure with his friend (and occasional enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton and snowballs are being thrown. Hidden in one of the snowballs is a stone.

Percy throws this dangerous snowball at Dunny, who ducks to avoid it, and it hits a woman, walking nearby, on the back of the head. She cries out and then collapses to the ground. Her name is Mrs Mary Dempster and she is out taking a stroll with her husband, the local Baptist minister. They do not see who threw the snowball — no accusations or confessions are made — but Dunny is plagued by guilt because of two shocking outcomes: Mrs Dempster is pregnant and the fall results in her baby being born prematurely; she also spends the rest of her life as a “simpleton”.

From this one incident, Dunny finds himself forever tied to three people: Percy, who threw the stone; Mrs Dempster, who he helped carry home on his sled; and Paul, the premature baby, who grows up to become one of the world’s leading illusionists.

The bigger picture

From this exciting start, the book suddenly expands into a wider view as we learn that Dunny is now in his early 70s and has recently retired as a teacher. In fact, what we are reading is a report to a headmaster in response to an “idiotic piece that appeared in the College Chronicle in the issue of midsummer 1969″. It seems Dunny did not appreciate the portrait of himself and wishes to correct the impression that he is “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose”.

But what most galls me is the patronizing, dismissive tone of the piece,
as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the
full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or
hate…

The rest of the novel fills in the gaps by telling the story of Dunny’s life. And he is right — if you can forgive the slight snobbery in his voice and his often hard-hearted tone (he feels no emotion on the death of his parents, for instance) — Dunny has done much more and experienced much more than the drab biography of him in the newspaper might suggest. Not only has he devoted 45 years of his life to teaching boys in a private school in Toronto and become a decorated war hero (the latter a point of embarrassment rather than pride), he has developed an interesting sideline as a hagiologist (a specialist in saints) and sold 10 books on the subject, some of them to extraordinary best-selling success.

He has travelled the world, not only as a soldier in the Great War — in which he was “frightened for three years”, mistakenly thought dead on the battlefield and awarded the VC “posthumously” — but in pursuit of knowledge about the saints he finds so fascinating.

Along the way he has fallen in love with various women — his affairs are recounted in the narrative — but has never been able to commit to any one in particular, except perhaps Mrs Dempster, who he comes to believe is a religious saint after he sees her face on a Madonna in a church he seeks refuge in during the height of the war.

And he has kept in contact with Percy, almost his polar opposite, who becomes a very rich man focused on material gain, and constantly runs into Paul, who reinvents himself under another name to become a magician renowned around the world.

Problematic novel

I have to be honest and say I thought The Fifth Business a rather hit-and-miss affair, which may partly explain why it has taken me so long to pen this review (I finished the book in late January). I think there are two factors at play here.

First, because the narrative is essentially composed of a series of set pieces and “chapters” in Dunny’s life, the interest level (or entertainment value, for want of a better description) was not consistent throughout.  I enjoyed the early parts of Dunny’s life and I loved his experiences during the Great War and in the immediate aftermath, but for me other parts waned and when I put the book down I struggled to pick it back up again.

And second, I found the way in which all the women were depicted as problematic — and chauvinistic. I realise that is probably a reflection of the time in which the book was set (and written), but Dunny’s treatment of all the women who come into his life is so reprehensible (or alien) that I did not find him particularly empathetic. He cannot understand his mother (and feels nothing upon her death), he puts Mrs Dempster on a pedestal, and he treats the nurse who falls in love with him during the war very badly indeed. The girl waiting for him at home is portrayed as empty-headed and husband-hungry, and another woman he meets in later life comes across as a vicious manipulator. They are all desperate and needy.

That said, I loved the eyewitness view of history presented here and being able to follow the way in which people’s lives play out — Percy’s rise to riches and Dunny’s complicated friendship with him is one of the novel’s highlights. Similarly, Davies’ portrayal of small town Canadian life, where alliances are forged depending on which church you attend, and how communities can band together (or pull apart) at times of need, is deftly portrayed. And its exploration of moral responsibility, the ties that bind us to people and places, and our diametrically opposed hunger for new experiences and the comforts of home, makes it a high-quality read.

But I think it is fair to say I didn’t love Fifth Business enough to want to explore the two follow-up novels, The Manticore and World of Wonders. Others may feel differently.

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16 thoughts on “‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies

  1. Robertson Davies is one of those Canadian staples read by most high school students. I read Fifth Business years ago when I was in high school. At the time i remember liking it a lot, and it is a book i’ve often considered going back to. Your review has kind of made me rethink that. Maybe it is better to keep Fifth Business as I remember it in my head. Part of the appeal of Davies is that he represents a Canada of a certain period.

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  2. Thanks for the article. I read the trilogy back in the 80’s and loved it. I didn’t pick up on the chauvinism, but, as you say,it was a different time then, and Davies does come of out the 19th century literary tradition. Also, as Tanya says, he represents a Canada — and I would add, small town life — of a certain period.

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  3. Well, as you can tell, I did like this book but certain elements grated. I can see why it would be taught in schools — Dunny’s life is perhaps the story of Canada’s life too. I thought the elements of what it was like to live in Deptford at that time very well done. You get a real sense of the social mores (and prejudices) of the place — the fact that the community looked down on Mrs Dempster for walking about in public while pregnant, was a case in point, and then the way they pretty much banished her afterwards (for another unfortunate misdeamour) is another. But then I loved how it banded together to throw a welcome home parade for Dunny when he came back from the war. All of that comes across as being very authentic.

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  4. I’m not overtly sensitive to chauvinism — I read more than my fair share of men’s fiction — but this one kind of grated. I think it was his attitude — the fact he simply didn’t care for any of the women, as if they didn’t have feelings or brains or were, indeed, people at all. And his dismissive attitude came across in many instances as arrogant and snobby. One or two examples, I could forgive, but when he treated all women like this I got a little sick of it.

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  5. While it do not affect me the way that it did you, I can’t dispute your analysis of Davies’ treatment of the female characters in the book. I suspect that it is one of those things that, after having first noticed it, only becomes more obvious as the novel proceeds.
    Having read the trilogy a couple of times, I would suggest that that is probably a product of both the times and simple oversight on the author’s part — his focus is on a number of other themes, a number of which you have pointed out. While I certainly found the next two volumes worth the read, it has to be said that a lot more people read Fifth Business than opt to continue with the next two books.

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  6. I have to admit it took me awhile to clock what was annoying me about the narrator… and then once I’d realised it was his attitude to women I became a bit fixated by it 🙂
    It was an interesting read, though, and I’m glad I dug it out of my TBR, where it has been sitting for a good few years now. I was hoping to read Atwood’s Surfacing as part of your 2013 project but then realised I didn’t have it after all (I’ve got the Handmaid’s Tale — don’t know how I mixed them up cos I realise they are very, very different).

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  7. This one was a favourite of mine in my later teens, sparked by its inclusion in my last high-school English course, and I loved the next two novels in the trilogy as well (for the psychology and the magic, not necessarily in that order, as well as the continued stories of characters I was attached to). I read and enjoyed others of his as well, but about ten years ago, I returned to re-read the first of one of his other trilogies and was overwhelmingly disappointed in the characterization of the female characters (and shocked that I hadn’t noticed that at all in earlier readings); since then, I’ve been reluctant to revisit and, yet, I’m curious, so I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on it.

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  8. I read the trilogy about 15 years ago, when I lived in Japan. I was a Canadian (sort of) living in Japan and after years of Atwood love and Margaret Laurence dislike, I thought it was time to deepen my Canadian lit knowledge and read the trilogy in one tome.
    As time went by, I realised that I didn’t really feel anything about the book, which is unusual for me. I either like or dislike but Robertson Davies masterpiece left me thinking that it was a bit…meh. Ok, but not great. I remember thinking that the three were not terribly well linked but I liked the style in which he wrote, even if I couldn’t appreciate the plot. I can’t remember much else about it. I toy with picking it up again, but I can’t really justify rereading something I didn’t really enjoy, can I?
    I’d like to read something else by Davies, seeing as he is one of the canons of Canadian literature. KevinfromCanada, can you recommend anything else?
    Surfacing by M. Atwood is the only Atwood I never finished. I was pregnant at the time and very, very sick. All the descriptions of wide open spaces and Canadian vastness made my sickness worse. I will read it one day, though.

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  9. Yes, I realise some of my comments have probably pissed off half of Canada, but I’d rather be honest than pretend to love something I didn’t. 😉 I did like the book, and I appreciated the storytelling, but it wasn’t as wonderful as I’d initially hoped.

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  10. I’m something of a Davies fan, I can’t remember now if I started with this one or with his campus trilogy (Salterton trilogy?). I do remember loving it, partly because Dunny isn’t a particularly lovable – or likeable character. I say give him another go some time…

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  11. If you didn’t like this trilogy, I suspect Davies is just not for you — the Cornish trilogy would be my next favorite, but I am afraid you find many of the same frustrations.
    As much as I like Davies’ work, I can understand why many readers find his books and style somewhat dated. Kim’s observations about his treatment of female characters is just one example. Those who like him find offsetting strengths.

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  12. Interesting that you picked up on the poor female characterisation on your second read. I suspect if I had read this book maybe 10 or 20 years ago I would have, indeed, loved it and that aspect would have completely bypassed me. It’s good old fashioned storytelling after all. But I guess over time you mature and your tastes change and you are also more demanding of a text — I know that my reading is more inquisitive than it was a decade ago; I think about narratives/plot/characters a lot more and always try to figure out what makes the book work/not work.

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  13. I don’t mind unlovable characters — and I certainly didn’t love Dunny, particularly as he comes across as such a snob — but this book didn’t entirely gel for me. It’s a good read (hence my three-star rating) and I can appreciate why it has such a great reputation, but it’s not one I’ll be pressing into everyone’s hands saying, “here, you must read this”. Glad to hear you have enjoyed this and Davies’ other books in the past though.

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  14. Kim, I think you provided a balanced view (complete with 3 stars!) to someone who’s never read a Robertson Davies and wants to explore. It’s what most people would like to see.
    Kevin, I will give Davies another try, so thanks for your suggestion of the Cornish trilogy. I think it’s only fair. I keep thinking that I was too immature for him, as a reader, and should have probably just stuck to Terry Pratchett (who was my favourite at the time). I keep thinking that as I didn’t understand molecular chemistry until mid-20s, maybe I won’t understand Davies until my late 30s. Some things you just have to grow into.

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  15. Everyone should definitely read or reread this novel. One discovers new connections with every read. It is humorous with its sarcastic tone. It represents how social taboos can restrict peoples freedom. Dunstan’s ability to defy such taboos when his Headmaster’s position is at stake to continue his passion with saints is commendable. While Boy’s persistence to be what others define makes him ignorant to what is truly important and he is so disillusioned that the shock of reality results in his suicide. There is so much more to discover. Personally, I feel that one learns extremely about human nature and begins to accept the fact that we are not always the stars of the show, we may be at times the Fifth Business. However there is no plot without such a role, exemplifying the importance of each person in the ‘Mystical’ (as Dunstan views it) life.

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