Fifth Business Critical Essay Format

On By In 1
November 25, 1970

A Magical Mystery Fiction


By Robertson Davies.

ow to convey the haunting effect of this fourth novel by the Canadian writer and critic Robertson Davies? Its plot seems outlandish in summary, and adjectives won't do. Perhaps I'd better just say that after one reads it one begins to muse, and the more one muses, the more interesting it gets. Some pieces click into place. But how on earth, one wonders, did the stone get into the corpse's mouth? He would have to have put it there himself before he died. But why? Of course! He was hypnotized. But Magnus Eisengrim had just finished explaining that one cannot force the hypnotized to act against their wishes. Oho! The stone is phallic. Then how does that reflect on the supplier of the stone, Dunstable Ramsay, who was the dead man's lifelong friend? And why does Dunstable change his name to Dunstan, after the saint who twisted the Devil's nose when he tried to tempt him in the form of a fascinating woman? Twisted a fascinating woman's nose? Give a phallic stone to his friend? Hmmm. Oh, well, soon everyone will be reading "Fifth Business," and then one will be able to exchange theories wherever one goes.

An Essential Professor

Fifth business? Here is the definition that Davies offers in a preface: "Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless 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."

Fifth Business in this case is Dunstable Ramsay, a crumpled old history professor with a wooden leg and an interest in mythology, magic and hagiography, who has just retired after 45 years of teaching in a private Canadian boys' school. A report of his retirement ceremony in the school's newspaper has "disgusted" him, not merely because of "its illiteracy of tone" but also because of "its presentation to the public of a portrait of myself as a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." To set the record straight and illustrate what "the vital though never glorious role of Fifth Business" can involve, Ramsay addresses a lengthy and indignant autobiographical letter to the school's headmaster. Mr. Davies's novel is the letter.

The story it tells revolves around a misaimed snowball thrown late one afternoon in 1908 in the tiny Canadian village of Deptford. As it turns out, the lives of all five of the people involved in the incident are forever defined at the moment it happens.

It is not immediately apparent that they are. Percy Boyd Staunton, who throws the snowball, will grow up to marry the town's beauty and become one of the richest, most powerful men in Canada. Mary Dempster, whom the snowball strikes in the back of the head, will become a simpleton, the town's "hoor," and possibly a saint, too. Her husband, the Reverend Amasa Dempster, will live on for a time. Paul Dempster, whose premature birth is brought on by the impact of the snowball, will grow up to be the world's greatest magician. But certain paths will cross again and the incident will be resolved.

A Freudian Dream

And what of Dunstable Ramsay, the narrator? Ramsay, for whom the snowball was intended (as Fifth Business, he ducked in front of Mrs. Dempster), will never marry. He will go off to fight in World War I, become a hero and lose a leg at Passchendaele, change his name to Dunstan, return to teach history at his school, travel the world over in pursuit of information about saints, meet odd and unforgettable people, become a famous writer, twist the Devil's nose, work out his final piece of Fifth Business, retire, and write his letter. But he will never marry.

Why emphasize that fact? Because as one muses, Mr. Davies's novel replays itself as a Freudian dream, or a Jungian myth, as Ramsay would doubtless prefer to have it (his masterpiece being "The Saints: A Study in History and Popular Mythology"). The central scene floats back transformed: A powerful male figure hurls a projectile, a woman falls, a child is born, Ramsay assumes the burden of guilt. He will be locked in his fantasy for the rest of his life.

Enigma and Elegance

Is it a homosexual fantasy? In part it is, as many other incidents in the novel, as well as the denouement, make clear. But it is not simply that. For if "Fifth Business" freezes the primal drama of father, mother and son, it also re-enacts the myths of Man, Christ and Devil, and Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It is as much about hermitage as homosexuality, as much about sanctity as sexuality. And, anyway, everything that happens twists on hinges of irony.

A marvelously enigmatic novel, then, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force. One thinks of "The Magic Mountain" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," although Mr. Davies hardly needs Thomas Mann and John Fowles to prop him up. I'll read "Fifth Business" again and muse some more before I understand it well. But I look forward to doing so.

Return to the Books Home Page

by Ted Gioia

Since his death in 1995, Robertson Davies
has fallen off the radar screens of many
contemporary readers, even those with a
serious interest in modern literary fiction. I
can't help feeling that his oft-repeated
reputation as the preeminent Canadian
novelist of his generation is as much a way
of marginalizing as honoring his con-
tributions.  Do we call Joni Mitchell a great
Canadian singer or Alexander Graham Bell
a great Canadian inventor?   

Davies is too large a talent to
be pigeonholed as a regionalist,
and his name is not out of
place alongside those of his
contemporaries Saul Bellow,
Graham Greene, Albert Camus
and Walker Percy.  And like
them, he crafted a deep,
thought-provoking brand of
fiction that wasn't afraid to
animate characters
and events with a degree
of a philosophical, psychological and
existential force that one rarely encounters
in the current crop of literary novels.

Fifth Business is an ambitious work by any
measure—except, perhaps, word count (it
clocks it at around 250 pages).   How
ambitious is it?  Davies stops short of
Milton’s goal of justifying the "ways of God
to men," but not by much.  This quirky and
intelligent novel aims, at least, at
reconciling the real and the miraculous.  
Certainly others have trod these same
steps, but rarely from the point of view of
fiction, and almost never with such little
deference for metaphysics.  

"Why do people all over the world, and at
all times, 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?"
So asks Dunstan Ramsay, narrator of
Robertson Davies's Fifth Business. Ramsay
is a man of many achievements—he is a
war hero, a teacher, and a scholar.  But
above all, he is a connoisseur of the

Ramsay feels that his own life has been
touched, at several junctures, by uncanny
forces.   These miracles center on an
eccentric local woman, Mary Dempster, the
wife of the Baptist parson.  When Ramsay's
brother Willie succumbs to kidney failure,
Dunstan runs to bring Mrs. Dempster to
the bedside, where he watches as she
revives the boy who, only a short while
before, had stopped breathing and shown
no pulse.  Ramsay is ridiculed by his
parents and friends when he tells them he
has witnessed a miracle. "Obviously he was
not dead," counters the local doctor who
arrives on the scene a short while later; "if
he had been dead I would not have been
talking to him a few minutes ago."

Dunstan's awe in regard to Mary Dempster
is tainted by a shameful sense of guilt.  Her
strange behavior dates back to a winter day
in 1908, when she was struck by a snowball
that a local bully had thrown at Ramsay.  
When Dunstan ducked, the projectile
instead hit Dempster in the back of the
head. The shock caused the parson's wife,
then seven months pregnant, to go into
early labor. Both the mother and baby,
Paul Dempster, survived—thanks in large
part to the constant care of Ramsay's
mother—but Mary Dempster would act in a
wild and unpredictable manner in the
aftermath. So much so, that her husband
would be driven from the pulpit, and her
son eventually run away from home.  
Ramsay is burdened by his indirect
responsibility for these unintended
consequences, although Boy Staunton, the
youngster who actually threw the snowball,
shows no remorse.

This incident, in which Ramsay is at the
center of peculiar events he neither causes
nor controls, is emblematic of the novel as
a whole. Indeed, the title itself makes clear
what kind of hero we will encounter in
Fifth Business. Davies presents a passage
from Danish scholar Tho. Overskou as the
epigraph to his novel—later shown to be a
literary hoax, since both Overskou and his
ostensible work proved to be a fabrication
of the novelist—that defines our terms of
engagement:  "Those roles which, being
neither those of Hero nor Heroine,
Confidante nor Villain, but which were
nonetheless essential to bring about the
Recognition or the dénouement, were
called the Fifth Business in drama and
opera companies."  Many have taken this at
face value, and anyone researching "fifth
business" on the Internet today, will be
reassured by dozens of web sites that it is
an old theatrical term.  But Davies invented
it for his story—not an inappropriate
gesture for a work focused on the ways in
which myths are created and disseminated.

Ramsay encounters Mary Dempster's
miraculous intervention again, but in a
very unexpected setting.  After Canada
enters World War I as a British ally in 1914,
Ramsay enlists and soon finds himself in
the midst of deadly trench warfare at the
front.  At the battle of Passchendaele, one
of the bloodiest encounters in military
history, he earns the Victoria Cross for his
bravery in single-handedly taking out a
German machine gun nest.  But Ramsay is
injured severely while trying to return to
his unit, and collapses in the mud with his
left leg bleeding and unresponsive.  Night
has fallen, and he crawls to a collapsed
stone wall, where he realizes that he will
almost certainly bleed to death before help

"It was then that one of the things
happened that make my life strange—one
of the experiences that other people have
not had or do not admit to," Ramsay
explains.  An exploding flare allows him to
glimpse briefly his surroundings: a
demolished church. "As the hissing flame
dropped I saw there about ten or twelve
feet above me on the opposite wall, in a
niche, a statue of the Virgin and Child….
But what hit me worse than the blow of the
shrapnel was that the face was Mary
Dempster's face."

Ramsay passes out, and when he regains
consciousness, months later, he is in a
British hospital.  Here he learns that he
lost his leg in the battle, but acquired a
medal, and is now a celebrated war hero.
When he returns to Canada, he tracks
down Mary Dempster, whose mental
derangement has grown more severe in the
intervening years.  Ramsay is torn between
pitying her as a mad woman or honoring
her as a saint.  He even consults a Catholic
priest—a humbling step since Dunstan is a
Presbyterian, and an ambivalent one at
that, but forced to take that step, since only
the Church of Rome takes seriously the
concept of modern-day sainthood.  He
wants to find some way of proving, if only
to himself, that the woman, who magically
appeared to him on a battlefield half a
world away, is worthy of canonization.  But
the priest discourages Ramsay's obsession.

"Look Mr. Ramsay, I'll tell it to you plain as
it comes: there's a lot of very good people
in the world, and a lot of queer things
happen that we don't see the explanation
of, but there's only one Church that
undertakes to cut right down to the bone
and say what's a miracle and what isn't and
who's a saint and who isn't, and you, and
this poor soul you speak of, are outside it.
You can't set up some kind of a bootleg
saint, so take my advice and cut it out. Be
content with the facts you have, or think
you have, and don't push anything too far—
or you might get a little bit strange

Ramsay abandons his quest for official
recognition of Mary Dempster's miracles,
but he persists in his own obsession with
the miraculous.  He develops an expertise
in saints and shrines and writes several
scholarly and popular books on the
subject.  Yet Ramsay is no credulous
believer, and his delight in miracles is
hardly undermined even when they are
shown to be contrived illusions.  In time,
he nurtures a second, related passion for
carnivals and the stage shows of conjurers,
and learns behind-the-scenes secrets about
the dodges and sleights of hand employed
by professional magicians.

This interest leads him into chance
encounters with Paul Dempster, Mary's
son who had run away with a carnival
group years before and has now developed
into a polished magician.  Ramsay also
maintains an uneasy friendship with Boy
Staunton, the childhood bully who has now
grown to be a very crass and successful
businessman.   The uneasy relationship
between this odd trio will eventually set in
motion the strange events that will
conclude Davies’s novel—an ending that, in
fitting form, presents another miracle.  The
reader can decide whether it is a real one or
merely another Houdini-like conjuring

You might think that a novel so fixated on
hagiography could hardly have relevance
for our skeptical modern lives.  Without a
doubt, we find ourselves in an age that
prides itself on practicalities and hard-
headed realism.  But our era also defines
its deepest hopes and aspirations in terms
of myths and creeds, perhaps no less
than did previous generations. This
tendency is not exclusively—or even
primarily—a matter of religion nowadays,
but rather a core part of our shared culture,
realized in movies, books, games, music,
even politics and business. Many
contemporary novelists have played along
with this obsession, seeing their own
vocation as akin to freelance myth-
making—embracing a rather Nietzschean
concept of the place of fiction in the
modern day.

In the midst of all this, Davies takes on the
more difficult role of iconoclast, a word
that in its original meaning signifies the
bold person who dares to handle and
sometimes even shatter a prevailing myth.  
In truth, a few myths actually seem to
survive the rough handling here, but not
for lack of scrutiny and examination on
Davies's part. This is a rare kind of fiction,
and Fifth Business exemplifies an
uncharacteristic approach to the modern
novel, but one perhaps all the more
therapeutic the less we initially grasp its
applicability to our own situation.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and
popular culture. His newest book is
The Jazz
Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

Click on image to purchase

The Year
(click here)

Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the course
of 2012,  I will explore an important
work of fiction that incorporates
elements of magic, fantasy or the
surreal.  My choices will cross
conventional boundary lines of genre,
style and historical period—indeed,
one of my intentions in this project is
to show how the conventional labels
applied to these works have become
constraining, deadening and

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only in
recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels
are not without their value, but too
often they have blinded us to the rich
and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very few
retain into adulthood this sense of the
kind of enchantment possible only
through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in our
imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and
Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia

Week 24:  Little, Big by John

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by Rafi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *