Fifth Business: the Theme of Acting Differently Because of Guilt

Fifth Business, written by Robertson Davies, is a historical fiction novel that focuses on a man reflecting back on his life and how it has shaped him as a person. The novel is written in first person told by the main character Dunstan Ramsay, an old school teacher and a war Veterin. An early event in his childhood involving his rival at the time Percy Boyd Staunton, has caused him to feel guilt and responsibility for the premature birth of Paul Dempster and the impact it caused to Ms. Dempster. The novel touches on how this event affected each of the three boys differently, and the climax occurs when they all meet again near the end of book and discuss back to this event.

Fifth Business focuses on guilt, new identity, religion, magic, and isolation. The feeling of guilt or absence of guilt can alter the way a person thinks and acts can be seen as the main theme throughout the novel. Also the three boys represent the theme of finding or creating success through new identity. Finally, the reality of power and reality of spirit can be used when comparing characters. Focusing on setup and structure, Fifth Business demonstrates the theme of acting differently because of guilt or an absence of guilt. To begin, the narrator, when telling the story of his life, switches from past to present. When writing in the past, he is part of the story, the story of his life from his perspective and the actions that took place. Whereas the sections in present time the narrator is talking directly to the reader, addressing them as Headmaster: “In making this report to you, my dear Headmaster, I have purposely begun with the birth of Paul Dempster, because this is the cause of so much to follow”. The narrator's guilt all can be traced back to one event and wants to make it clear to the reader that this is why he talks to them directly. The plot of the book can be related to the plot scheme of a magic show. The beginning hooks the reader in, it draws their attention. The novel begins with the tragic event of Ms. Dempster getting struck by the snowball and the aftermath it causing her go simple. Dunstan says with a heavy heart, “I was contrite and guilty, for I knew the snowball had been meant for me".

The middle section is content, the actions are still happening but they are space fillers. Dunstan tries to find himself, in doing so he becomes a teacher as well as researcher about Saints. The ending of the novel, has a big climax leaves the reader or audience in awe or shock of the events that took place. Fifth Business ends with the death of Boy Staunton. The significance of magic can be related to the guilt Dunstan felt after teaching Paul magic; which was unacceptable morally by his parents. When comparing the characters Dunstan and Boy, they each deal with guilt differently. Boy is self-absorbed and pushes his guilt aside, he completely forgets about the incident as he is far too self-absorbed in his own success. Dunstan on the other hand, felt guilty and obliged to live his life for her. Checking in on her in the asylum she was put in, as everyone thought she had went crazy. All of Dunstans thoughts and actions revolve around the guilt he feels for Ms. Dempster.

Fifth Business uses symbols, foreshadowing, and overall tone helps show that the feeling of guilt or absence of guilt can change the way a person acts. First of all, the significance of the stone that was in the snow ball affected each character differently. The stone is significant as it appears at the beginning of the novel, and reappears at the end for a dramatic ending concerning the death of Boy Staunton. Dunstan feels responsible, and keeps the stone in a box for a constant reminder of the incident. “Insert quote". When shown the stone, Boy has no idea what it’s significance is, and this upsets Magnus who claims to have not cared about his mother but evidently still does. The novel ends with the death of Boy and it is suspected that Magnus killed him and placed the stone in his mouth in return for what Boy had done to his mother.

The use of foreshadowing is seen throughout the novel as Dunstan switches from past and present: “I need more my book 56”. This hints towards him going to war, which the reader finds out later that he does; and loses his leg. His new wooden leg also has a significant meaning. Dunstan believes his wooden leg is a result of what happened to Ms. Dempster and this is punishment. He continues to carry his guilt with him and believes everything that happens to him is a result of the incident. This leads to the novel having an overall tone of self-reflection. Through all of his experiences, Dunstan grows as a character, and the people he meets help him develop a new sense of identity. The most significant character he meets is Liesl, who instructs him that in order to grow he needs to move on from being fifth business by confronting Boy about the incident. “You should take a look at this side of your life you have not lived” she says, and continues “You are a lot more than that. But every man has a devil, and a man of unusual quality, like yourself, Ramsay, has an unusual devil. You must get to know your personal devil". Dunstan finally understands that he needs to embrace what he has been running away from his whole life. He must move from being fifth business and embrace his dark side. Dunstan cannot keep hiding. In order to become whole again, he must confront the others about the incident, relieving the weight off of his chest from all the guilt he carried throughout his life. Dunstan’s past shaped who he was, however, he can now choose his future and what he wants to do.

Finally, the novel displays that the purpose and value of literature is finding yourself through emotions and creating a new identity. All three of the main characters express their emotions differently, and they all change their name in the process. Each character isolates themselves from others around them that might change their perspective on how they choose to live. Firstly, Dunstan isolates himself from the opinions and advice of others. In spirit, he never left his hometown of Deptford, his feelings of guilt contain and trap him. By changing his name from Dunstable to Dunstan he is able to create a new identity, one that embraces his past, his emotions, and gives his life meaning. Next, Boy isolates himself so he is only focused on himself, money and power. He changes from an irresponsible young man to a man with great innovation and has great success in helping the country through the Great Depression. Finally, Paul, a weak child bullied because of his mothers past, runs away and creates a new name for himself. Magnus Eisengrim, a famous magician, isolates himself from his past emotions regarding his mother, which later, seems to explode in anger towards Boy.

By creating a new identity, each character was able to create and live a life separate from their past. This created an opportunity for them to grow in their character. They all grew up in the same small town of Deptford Ontario, but each of them made a significant impact in the world.

15 July 2020
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