Dunstan Ramsay, the novel's narrator and protagonist, is an intellectual man looking for meaning in his life, forever haunted by the effects of a wayward snowball that struck Mrs. Dempster. As described by Liesl late in the novel, he is "Fifth Business," the type of person always destined to play a supporting (and never a lead) role in life.
Dunstan is, however, a rebel in his own academic way. Even as a boy, he was not afraid to challenge the conventions of society. When the town of Deptford condemned Mrs. Dempster as a social pariah, Dunstan embraced her as a saint. He is a man who changes yet fundamentally stays the same. Dunstan strives to solve his personal paradox through the study of Catholic Saints and his mythic adventures with a traveling magic show.
Percy Boyd Staunton is the epitome of an entitled, spoiled little boy. Unsurprisingly, he grows up to be an entitled, spoiled man. And yet he is arguably Dunstan's oldest friend, a foil in many ways to the main character.
In Deptford, Percy comes comes from the town's richest family. However, he reaches his greatest success later, by parleying his father’s small fortune into an industrial empire. Along with such wealth, Percy learns to get what he wants. He bullies and humiliates others, and buys his way to the upper echelons of society. Despite his uncanny knack for making money, he remains emotionally stunted. Though he recreates himself as Boy Staunton, he always remains the same person who threw the wayward snowball at Mrs. Dempster so many years before.
Mary Dempster is a kind lady, a shameless adulterer, a mentally unbalanced introvert, and for Dustan, a saint. Though viewed through several lenses, she remains something of an enigma. Dunstan feels tied to her through his guilt over the snowball which Percy threw and which hit her, leading to the premature birth of her child Paul.
At the beginning of the narrative, she is wife to Deptford’s minister Amasa Dempster. While her neurotic husband feels God is constantly testing him, Mary Dempster takes things in stride. She is calm, placid, and believes that things eventually resolve. She is eventually ostracized from Deptford because her simplicity breeds contempt, and for sexually satisfying a vagrant because “he wanted it so badly” (42).
Nevertheless, Dunstan believes her capable of miracles, and marks three - bringing his brother Willie back to life, saving him on the battlefield during WWI, and changing the life of the tramp. Throughout his life, she remains a powerful presence in his psyche.
The odds are stacked against Paul Dempster from the beginning. In Deptford, he is born pre-mature to a woman who is soon enough ostracized, and is himself teased for his physical shortcomings. His father retreats further from reality, and his only playmate is Dunstan, himself a marked introvert.
However, Paul takes what Dunstan teaches him (magic) and later re-invents himself, first as a carnival performer and then as world-famous magician Magnus Eisengrim. Like Dunstan and Percy, Paul becomes a new person, and yet remains tied to the childhood feelings (of resentment and insecurity) that plagued him as a child.
Liesl, Magnus Eisengrim's (Paul Dempster's) business partner, is like a Faustian Mephistopheles to Dunstan. She is a rather hideous bearded woman, but most important for leading Dunstan to explore the dark shadows of his soul. Liesl exhibits intellect and wisdom that transcends even Dunstan’s.
Her methods of leading him into his 'shadow self' employ Jungian theories, and she is the one to explain to him his destined role as "Fifth Business." Liesl eventually convinces Dunstan to embrace his dark side in order to finally become whole.
Padre Blazon is a member of the Jesuit Bollandistes, the group who welcomes and aids Dunstan in his European saint research. Though equally intellectual, Blazon also possesses a wicked wit and a transgressive streak. Many priests consider him eccentric, but his sense of a personal mythology is extremely important to Dunstan's development. Overall, he is the first mentor to lead Dunstan to explore his inner contradictions and ultimately his darker impulses.
The beautiful Diana Marfleet is the first person Dunstan sees after awakening in an English hospital. A devoted nurse, she helps Dunstan to adjust to life as a wounded man and to reinvent himself (from Dunstable to Dunstan). She is clever, witty, and refreshingly honest (all a nice contrast to his childhood crush, Leola). Though the two enjoy a deep romantic relationship, her matriarchal nature reminds Dunstan too much of Mrs. Ramsay, and so he breaks up with her. They nevertheless remain friends throughout his life.
Leola Cruikshank is the prettiest girl in Deptford. Though Dunstan always admires her as a boy, she soon enough aligns herself with Percy, eventually marrying him. Her simple tastes and character prove a poor fit for life as a trophy wife to a playboy like Boy, so Dunstan maintains a deep sympathy for her struggles even though his affections dwindle. Overall, Leola continues to represent the small-town mentality that both Dunstan and Boy attempt to transcend in their own ways, and she suffers a tragic end because she cannot adapt to a world of reinvention.
Amasa Dempster is Deptford's Baptist preacher, wife to Mrs. Dempster, and father to Paul Dempster. Though he was always marked by a humorless nature, he becomes far more obsessive and fanatical after his wife is hit with the snowball and her simple-mindedness grows more apparent. Believing his wife the cause of his misfortunes, he treats her like a child, eventually locking her away after her tryst with the vagrant. For Dunstan, Amasa personifies the town’s disgust over his wife, as well as the perils of religious zeal.
Dunstan's strong-willed but judgmental mother is a source of torment to him in his youth, constantly criticizing his eccentricities. Her staunch morality is one of the main reasons Dunstan leaves Deptford.
the current headmaster
The current headmaster of Colbourne College is the man to whom Dunstan is addressing the letter that comprises the narrative. He was appointed after WWII, following Dunstan's temporary assignment to the post.
Deptford's primary physician, Dr. McCausland helps to deliver Paul Dempster and later mocks Dunstan for believing that Mrs. Dempster brought Willie back to life.
This is Dunstan's given name, which he used until being rechristened Dunstan, with Diana's help.
Milo Papple is the son of Deptford's barber, and somewhat of a clown. He later grows up to replace his father as the town barber, and shares gossip with Dunstan from that vantage.
Percy's mother, who calls Percy Pidgy Boy-Boy, a name that Dunstan uses to mock him.
Joel is the vagrant with whom Mrs. Dempster is caught having sex in the Deptford gravel pit. He had intended to rape her but did not have to when she gave herself willingly out of pity for him. He later devotes his life to philanthropy for the poor and homeless. Dunstan considers this transformation the third of Mrs. Dempster's miracles.
A sexually promiscuous young girl in Deptford, Mabel temporarily disrupts Percy and Leola's courtship when she is caught in sexual congress with Percy. The Stauntons pay her family off to avoid any obligations.
Mother of Mabel, who is caught in sexual congress with Percy when both children are young. Mrs. Heighington accepts payment from the Stauntons, and in return does not put any pressure on Percy to marry Mabel.
Willie is Dunstan's older brother. After seeming to die from an unspecified sickness, Willie returns to life under Mrs. Dempster's hands. Dunstan considers this her first miracle. Willie later dies in WWI.
Bertha is Mary Dempster's aunt, which whom she lives after Paul leaves and Mr. Dempster dies. Dunstan later develops a relationship with Ms. Shanklin once he reconnects with his saint.
This is the stage name used by the carnival performer who seduces Paul Dempster into running away with the circus. His pedophilia is implied.
When Dunstan returns to Deptford on his search for Mrs. Dempster, Mr. Mahaffey is the magistrate who tells him about Bertha Shanklin and implies that Dunstan was somehow involved in the tragic snowball accident.
The Catholic priest in Deptford, Father Regan mocks the adult Dunstan for considering Mrs. Dempster a saint.
David is the son of Percy (Boy) and Leola. He later attends Colbourne College, and Dunstan looks after him there. David has a deep resentment of both of his parents.
Orpheus is Bertha Shanklin's lawyer. An affable fellow who loves hunting, he later kills himself after squandering his client's money in the stock market before the crash. As a result, Dunstan is left as Mrs. Dempster's guardian, but without any extra income with which to care for her.
This is Paul Dempster's stage name, which he uses after forming his own show. Dunstan writes the stage biography for Magnus.
This beautiful young woman performs in Magnus Eisengrim's stage show, and enchants Dunstan when he tours with them, into a rather juvenile affection. He assumes she is sleeping with Paul, but later discovers she is involved with Liesl.
Denyse is a politically savvy woman whom Percy (Boy) marries after Leola's death, in order to help his political career. An unpleasant woman, she ostracizes Dunstan and Percy's children (David and Caroline).
Caroline is daughter to Percy (Boy) and Leola.
Percy's father, the wealthiest man in Deptford and a snob who raises Percy to expect great wealth. Percy (Boy) later surpasses his father's fortune by a remarkable degree.
Dunstan's father runs the printing business in Deptford when Dunstan is young. He is a much weaker person than Mrs. Ramsay, who as a result runs the household.
Fifth Business Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fifth Business is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The world of the 1900's reflects the novel well. The backdrop of WW1, for example, permeates the social and economic themes of the book. Percy uses his influence and family name to profit from the impoverished masses (he makes cheap bread) while...