I first read this novel as a graduate student not many years after it was published, and it actually comprised part of my introduction to Canadian Literature. As you can see, the copy I have is that old Signet copy that was my course text a lifetime ago. I know I’ve reread the book a couple of times since, but I was pretty sure when I began this current reread that I hadn’t visited the Deptford trilogy in at least a decade. Coming back to the work after so long a time, I was wondering how I would react to it. I remembered Fifth Business as my favourite text in that required Canadian Literature course. Davies’ whiff of sulphur was a welcome change from the other writers we were studying. Susanna Moodie, Frederick Philip Grove, Ralph Conner to name a few: all so terribly earnest and serious, puritanically moral even. I remember Davies delighting me in his apparent lack of rectitude.
What struck me most as I found myself galloping through the first few chapters was the pace of the novel. It was very easy to read, moved very quickly, and felt so plot driven that I found myself thinking, “Now why did I remember this book as a thought-provoking work?” By the time I’d finished, I remembered and understood. Fifth Business is indeed a thought-provoking book.
I suppose the first question the novel raises is the whole issue of guilt and responsibility. Beginning in 1908, when the narrator is ten, the novel spans over sixty years and follows the lives of three boys from Deptford, a small town in Southern Ontario: the narrator, Dunstable, who becomes Dunstan, Ramsay V.C., private schoolmaster and hagiographer; Percy Boyd, who becomes Boy, Staunton, wealthy industrialist and profiteer, and Paul Dempster who becomes the famous magician and illusionist Magnus Eisengrim. Paul is born prematurely because a stone embedded in snowball thrown by Percy and intended to hit the narrator, who ducks, instead hits Paul’s mother and induces labour. Who is the guilty one here? Who is responsible for Mrs. Dempster’s early delivery and subsequent decline: the thrower of the loaded snowball or the boy who ducked? From this action so many other things follow.
One cannot help but notice that names and personae are important in Fifth Business. We are told that Boy “seemed to have made himself out of nothing” (100) and also that he has “chosen forever to be a Boy” ( 233). The characters, some more than others, are shape changers, remaking themselves, writing their own stories, changing their names and spinning their own histories. None more so perhaps than the narrator, Dunstan, himself. To just what extent do we trust him? Are his pronouncements and insights valid? His friend the Bollandist Padre Blazon tells Dunstan to “stop trying to be God”(159). But then aren’t all spinners of tales attempting apotheosis when they attempt to give substance to the worlds of their imaginations? A rather mediaeval dilemma.
Fifth Business is a twentieth century example of that mediaeval genre the Saint’s Life. Is Mary Dempster a saint, and if so what kind of a saint? Dunstan Ramsay believes so, and he, scion of a Presbyterian family, has made hagiography his life’s work. And then, of course, there is Ramsay himself, Dunstable reborn as Dunstan, sharing his name with the English Archbishop believed to have twisted the devil’s nose. Dunstan Ramsay twists the devil’s nose, but in this case the devil is woman called Liesl, ugly as a “gargoyle” with whom Ramsay had never known such “healing delight” (203). Perhaps some times one has to commit a lesser sin to avoid the sin of pride.
While the novel is not redolent of moral earnestness, it is a novel about recognising and defining good and evil. Fifth Business treads the same ground as those late medieval morality plays like The Castle of Perseverance or Mankynde and shares with them something of their comedy and spectacle. It draws on the traditions not only of the Saint’s Life but on the traditions of romance, myth, and folk tale. And in so doing, it is very much of its time, the late sixties, when the work of Northrup Frye especially his Anatomy of Criticism was deeply influential. Further, in its examination of balance and opposites, the novel lends itself easily to a Jungian approach.
So, at the end of my recent engagement with the book, what did I feel? I understood the sense of refreshment I remembered upon my first reading. The novel invites us in for intellectual play. One senses Davies behind his creation saying let’s see what the book makes us think about. Isn’t it fun? Aren’t we a little self indulgent? But this is who we are, readers of and participants in literature. It isn’t such a great sin to enjoy intellectual play, not so bad to enjoy myth and metaphor. Fifth Business is a novel that encourages us to forgive and to celebrate our humanity, for “that is the beginning of wisdom” (160). I’m rather tempted to agree.
If you’re interested in Frye, then the following may afford some amusement https://macblog.mcmaster.ca/fryeblog/library/adjectives-for-frye/