Fifth Business

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Overview

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a ...

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Overview

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy in the end prove neither innocent nor innocuous. Fifth Business stands alone as a remarkable story told by a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141186153
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Series: Deptford Trilogy Series , #1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 157,398
  • Product dimensions: 5.05 (w) x 7.73 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) had three successive careers during the time he became an internationally acclaimed author: actor, publisher, and, finally, professor at the University of Toronto. The author of twelve novels and several volumes of essays and plays, he was the first Canadian to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
One of the most ambitious works of fiction of the twentieth century, Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy reaches from rural Canada to the Swiss Alps and introduces a cast of characters as varied and fascinating as any in recent literature. It is a work of towering intellect, exploring ideas of good and evil, history and identity, truth and illusion, art and mysticism, and much more. But at the center of each of the three novels—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders—is a theme that connects the trilogy’s many intertwining stories: the need to recover a genuine experience of the marvelous, a sense of wonder, in a world from which it has been all but banished.

Each of the main characters in the three novels—Dunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim—narrates his life story. And in the course of each of these interrelated stories, we find a common desire for a mythical or magical world that exists within the confines of ordinary, rationalist, desacralized modern society. In Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay, history teacher and hagiographer, finds access to the marvelous through his study of saints and their miracles. He delights in “pointing out the mythical elements that seem to . . . underlie our apparently ordinary lives” (Fifth Business, p. 38), and feels certain that Mrs. Dempster, the mother of Paul Dempster (aka Magnus Eisengrim), whom others consider morally degenerate and mentally deficient, is in fact a saint. David Staunton, a highly successful criminal lawyer, embodies a thoroughly rationalist belief system. As a law student he takes his teacher’s advice and puts his “emotions in cold storage.” He eliminates from himself all the messy feelings that so often get his clients into trouble. Nevertheless, after his father’s sudden and mysterious death, he undergoes Jungian analysis—and a perilous descent to the underworld—to reconnect both with his emotions and with humanity’s mythic past. The trilogy’s most enigmatic character, the magician Magnus Eisengrim, both enacts and elicits a sense of wonder, as he satisfies “a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels” (The Manticore, p. 242). Indeed, Magnus’s greatest work of magic is his own self-transformation, from a shy, abused, and outcast boy growing up in a small Canadian village to the greatest magician in the world. He is an exemplar of what his friend and manager Lisel calls the “Magian World View,” which prevailed in the Middle Ages and which is based on a “sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world” (World of Wonders, p. 293).

Around this central theme, Robertson Davies spins a story, or rather a multitude of stories, that illuminate the human condition with uncommon brilliance. The novels themselves, written with extraordinary wit, charm, and intelligence, are wonders to behold. In this sense, Davies not only points his readers to a world of marvels and mysteries, he gives us one.

ABOUT ROBERTSON DAVIES

Robertson Davies (1913–1995) had three successive careers during the time he became an internationally acclaimed author: actor, publisher, and, finally, professor at the University of Toronto. The author of twelve novels and several volumes of essays and plays, he was the first Canadian to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  • Dunstan Ramsay feels compelled to write his autobiography after reading a patronizing portrait of himself in the school newspaper, in which he is presented as “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose” (p. 5). He feels the piece depicts him as a man who never had a life outside the classroom. How does Ramsay present himself in correcting this account? In what ways does the novel show the depth and complexity of character that lie beneath the clichés we quickly, and sometimes dismissively, use to sum up the lives of others?
     
  • Ramsay titles the chapter dealing with his war years “I Am Born Again” (p. 58). In what ways does the war change him? Why does he vow, after returning home, to “live henceforth for my own satisfaction” (p. 79)? What is the most life-altering experience he has during the war?
     
  • Padre Blazon asks Ramsay about the significance of Mrs. Dempster: “What figure is she in your personal mythology? If she appeared to save you on the battlefield, as you say, it has just as much to do with you as it has with her—much more probably” (p. 165). Why is Mrs. Dempster so important to Ramsay? In what ways has his interaction with her changed the course of his life? Why does Ramsay think she is a saint?
     
  • Dunstan Ramsay is fascinated by what he calls “a world of wonders”: saints, mythologies, miraculous events. “Why do people all over the world, and at all times,” he asks, “want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?” (p. 186). How would you answer these questions?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 10 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 9, 2010

    One of the classic books of Canadian Literature

    I feel that this book by Robertson Davies is one of the classics of Canadian Literature. It is an extremely well written book that although short in length, covers the entire life span of the protagonist. It beautifully captures Canada during the first half of the 20th Century. The story weaves us through the complexities of life in a small Canadian town, the politics of a private boys school, the horrors of World War II, and travels to many exotic locations in Europe and South America. Universal themes of love, loss, family, and circumstance are explored. Other interesting elements of this book include the study of hagiology and magic. This book is a must read.

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  • Posted April 28, 2009

    A Schoolmaster's Last Say

    I haven't read all of the trilogy but found this while searching for works dealing with World War I. Surprisingly, it combined a story of a retired school master with that of a WWI vet. If you like school-teacher-stories -- To Serve Them All My Days and the like, this will satisfy you. If you are looking for World War I material, this is a little light in content as it covers the man's entire life. Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves is a better WWI read. BUT, that said, it is an interesting and easy way to pass a few hours on a summer afternoon and is filled with interesting characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2001

    Fantastically interesting!

    The protagonist is understandable, likeable and SO smart! He goes all over the place, gets interested in hagiography/the classification of saints and is confidante to one of the richest, most powerful men in the Dominion of Canada. A great, easy read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2001

    It All Begins With 'Fifth Business'

    No one has yet written the Great Canadian Novel, but in Fifth Business, World of Wonders and the Manticore, Robertson Davies may have given us something like the Great Interlinked Canadian Trilogy. I would recommend you buy the paperback Fifth Business/World of Wonders/Manticore trilogy. It only costs a little more than buying Fifth Business by itself, and more than likely you'll want to read the other books once you've finished Fifth Business. Fifth Business is the novel with which to start. The book's central figure is schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay, who grew up in the tiny village of Deptford in the sugar-beet growing district of Southwestern Ontario. The town's pretty boy-slash-bully Percy Boyd Staunton hits the minister's wife with a snowball containing a rock, which causes her to go into premature labor and give birth to the underweight Paul Dempster. (This is an early 20th Century level of obstetrics, you understand.) The rest of the book is a fascinating weave of Canadian social and political history from the 1910s thru the 1960s as Dunstan, Paul and Percy Boyd (now the raffish 'Boy') Staunton are pushed together by the whims of fate. Boy and Paul become world famous in very different ways. Not bad for two kids from the sticks and Dunstan, the humble schoolteacher, has reason to envy them. Or does he? A 'fifth business' is theater talk for a leavener, a kind of enzyme agent that, while not significant in itself, makes other things happen. In the telling, both the reader and Dunstan himself come to appreciate the life he has led.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2000

    Interesting

    Interestin right from the beginning. Apparently Robertson Davies is an intellectual. The reader may not understand the symbolism but still readable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2000

    A masterfully plotted novel

    And best of all, it's the first of a triology! Magical, mysterious, it is about the strange murder of Boy Staunton. Compelling, from the beginning to the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 1999

    AMAZING!!!!!

    I thought that Fifth Business was one of the most amazing, original novels I have ever read! Davies gets right to the point. I love the fact that the event most important to the story happens within the fist page of the novel. The characters are original, and the story is pure brilliance!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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