Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business

Fifth BusinessI was fourteen when I first read Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, the first entry in his Deptford Trilogy and certainly one of the most acclaimed Canadian novels ever written. Davies was something of a Canadian institution, widely enough read in his day but sadly little known outside of Canada today. He helped to found both Toronto’s Massey College and the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, and has been recognized for his accomplishments as a journalist, playwright and literary critic. In other words, his bona fides are in order.

Fifth Business takes the form of a letter, written by schoolteacher Dunstan (née Dunstable) Ramsay, who is looking back on his life as he prepares for retirement. In the fictional Ontario town of Deptford, a young Dunstable dodges a snowball and sets off a chain of events that ripple outward, affecting him and everyone close to him for years to come. We follow him through the First World War, the subsequent economic depression and his side career as a hagiographer (one who studies and writes about the lives of saints).

Davis weaves faith and mythology and Jungian archetypes to tell a compelling story of a man’s personal development, always with an eye to the question of fate. “I chose it [hagiography] as my special study,” Ramsay informs us, “because during my fighting days I had become conscious that I was being used by powers over which I had no control for purposes of which I had no understanding” – doubtless an unpleasant condition. The title itself, an allusion to theater, points to this sense of grand design that pervades the novel:

Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

It is Ramsay who is cast as Fifth Business, his choices that precipitate larger events, but he is also the book’s one true protagonist, the person for whom the reader feels the most affection. And his fate, intimations towards myth and divine purpose notwithstanding, is rooted firmly in psychology.

Ramsay’s relationship with his mother is an unhappy one, because her image of what a son ought to be, informed largely but not exclusively by her religious beliefs, constrains who he really is, or might wish to become:

She did not know how much I loved her, and how miserable it made me to defy her, but what was I to do? Deep inside myself I knew that to yield, and promise what she wanted, would be the end of anything that was any good in me; I was not her husband, who could keep his peace in the face of her furious rectitude; I was her son, with a full share of her own Highland temper and granite determination.

So Ramsay leaves his mother and his father and his small town behind, but not without paying an emotional toll for the loss, given physical manifestation in his loss of a leg during World War I. What that loss entails is not easily defined, but it is most apparent in his romantic relations, where, apart from one or two odd dalliances, he has kept himself largely celibate. His affections are instead concentrated on one woman, an invalid named Mrs. Dempster whose fate Ramsay feels responsible for and who he comes to think of, quite literally, as a saint.

It is Davies’ special gift for combining the best of psychology with the best of religion (where religion is defined in terms of accumulated wisdom rather than divine inspiration). One of the most perceptive characters, a German circus operator who becomes close to Ramsay, diagnoses his particular unhappiness:

You despise almost everybody except [Mrs. Dempster]. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. Do not look at me with that tragic face. You should thank me. At fifty years old you should be glad to know something of yourself. That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a moral monster. Well, it’s not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity.

Ramsay is a “moral monster” not for what he does but for what he doesn’t do. Anger and hate, even lust, find no outlet in him. He denies himself these feelings, mostly by concentrating on a life of the mind, but the price, as that same character later puts it, is that life becomes a spectator sport, something to be observed rather than lived.

Fifth Business deserves a much wider audience than Canada has been able to give it.