Fifth Business

Fifth Business


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141186153
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/2001
Series: Deptford Trilogy Series , #1
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 134,638
Product dimensions: 5.08(w) x 7.74(h) x 0.46(d)

About 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.

Table of Contents

Introduction vii
Fifth Business xv
Mrs. Dempster
I Am Born Again
My Fool-Saint
Gyges and King Candaules
The Soiree of Illusions

Reading Group Guide

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.


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.

  • 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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    Fifth Business 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
    iron_queen on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    An awe-inspiring, if brief, novel about the wondrous mythology of life. Davies seamlessly weaves in the miraculous with the tapestry of one ordinary man's long life in such a real, believable way that one is forced to ponder the nature of the miracle and what it means to the everyday person. Davies takes a loving, intelligent look at what it means to live in a world where saints and God are all around, if only we can see them. Not fun, per se, but enlightening in a way that is rare and satisfying.
    lukeasrodgers on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    Good, classic book. My only complaint is that some of the characters feel like they are thrown in for the purpose of serving an idea, rather than existing as full-blown characters in their own right.
    Smiler69 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    After retiring from forty five years of service as Senior History Master at a boy¿s private school, our narrator Dunstan Ramsay, offended by an article which depicts him as a senile old man, decides to write a letter to the school¿s headmaster so he can relate his life story in his own words. He recounts his complex friendship with childhood friend Percy Staunton (aka Boy) who married Dunstan's love interest and takes advantage of life to the fullest as an industry magnate who managed to grow his fortune during the great depression. There is also Mrs Dempster who occupies much of Dunstan¿s thoughts, as he takes responsibility for an incident which occurred in his boyhood and which everyone believes has brought on her mental deterioration and the premature birth of her son Paul, who eventually runs away to join the circus and reappears later in Dunstan's life while on a trip through Europe. Robertson¿s skill as a master storyteller keeps things interesting, and a sudden twist toward the end creates a nice bit of intrigue to lead us into the next installation of the trilogy.
    deweydui on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    Very metaphysical. Shows the unseemly underbelly of the magic profession. It kind of reminds me of that movie "The Prestige" with Christian Bale.
    actonbell on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    This is the story of Dunstable Ramsey's life, written out in first person and addressed to the headmaster of the school where Ramsey had spent about forty years of his professional life. After all these years, Ramsey leaves behind this testament with the simple desire that someone understand what he had lived for.His story gets off to a dismal start, as he is raised in a very rigid fashion in Deptford, a small village in Canada. Ramsey starts his memoir with the story that informed the rest of his life--or rather, it was his interpretation of the events of this fateful afternoon and the guilt he carried around with him that affected him forever. There is another boy involved in this story, Percy "Boy" Staunton, and the two of them make perfect foils.While Ramsey lives an almost monkish life, Staunton grows rich and very well-known. While Ramsey is a scholar quietly publishing books on his subject, Staunton is hosting and attending lavish parties and building a business empire. That their friendship survives seems surprising at first, but it gradually becomes apparent that they do have their own form of symbiosis.This is a fascinating story, in which Ramsey wrestles with his own life's meaning and duties. Some of the interesting characters he meets while studying in Europe (on sabbatical) do much to help him out. A memorable quote from a character named Liesl:"Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. You don't know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out."Without ruining the plot, there are corresponding characters in Ramsey's story, and it doesn't give too much away to say that Percy Staunton is certainly the villianous one. Also, there is a mystery of sorts that will be solved at the very end.I'm leaving out a very important character entirely, so the future reader has something to discover. One of the things that made this book such a pleasure to read was the dialogue Ramsey has with some of the most vivid, engaging characters I've read in a long time.Check this one out! It's the first book in The Deptford Trilogy, and it is highly likely that I will read the other ones, as well.
    Cecilturtle on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    Part of the outstanding Depford trilogy - a real treat for its depth of characters, ideological themes, and diversity of ideas
    glammonkey on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    What is fifth business? The extra man in the story, neither hero nor villain. He is the man with no female counterpart, the one who moves the story along without it every really being his story. This is the life story of Dunstan Ramsey and his relationships with Mary Dempster, her son Paul, Boy Staunton and the mysterious Lisle. Starting in small town Ontario at the turn of the last century and spanning the world and seven decades, this is an amazing narrative experience. The characters are vivid, the prose is perfection and the story just evolved as I read. A completely wonderful book. Five stars and a maple leaf.
    laughingwoman6 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    This was the first book of Robertson Davies that I ever read way back when I was a teenager...I think I had borrowed a copy from someone. I absolutely loved it, I've re-read it many times. Definitely a favourite book, I would recomend it to anyone.
    Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It¿s a fictional memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, born in a small town in Ontario, not an exceptional figure, neither a villain nor a hero, more Fifth Business- which is to say a nevertheless essential figure, for whom a boyhood happening dictates how his whole life will unfold.In many ways it¿s a perfect novel which works its magic through an excellently executed plot seamlessly weaving a great dose of reality and satire with Jungian psychology, and mythology and its archetypes with its bearded ladies, magicians and saints. It is all told in intelligent, witty and elegant narration, and dazzling enough masterful storytelling.
    DanDanRevolution on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A quick, well-worded read, though non-substantive. A story of a man reflecting on his life, a saga of small town life, world war one, and its impact on the narrator. I would have liked to see more explicit literary themes and emotional character development.
    tripleblessings on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The first of the Deptford trilogy. Dunstan Ramsay the schoolteacher writes his memoirs, including the story of Boy Staunton who threw a snowball one day, hit Mary Dempster and caused her son's premature birth.A classic, and often used as a text in highschool or university Canlit.
    SmallandMighty More than 1 year ago
    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.
    maggiesaunt More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Interestin right from the beginning. Apparently Robertson Davies is an intellectual. The reader may not understand the symbolism but still readable.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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!