"You should take a look at this side of your life you have not lived. Now don't wriggle and snuffle and try to protest. I don't mean you should have secret drunken weeks and a widow in a lacy flat who expects you every Thursday, like some suburban ruffian. 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."
This passage comes from the scene in which Liesl finally guides Dunstan to look into the mirror of his soul. Her Jungian logic begins to resonate, and Dunstan finally understands that what he has been running away from his whole life is what he should have been embracing. In other words, he should embrace his dark side as much as he does his good side. To become whole, he must accept his "devil." Ultimately, this lesson is what leads Dunstan to change his life, to shed his role as "Fifth Business" to become the architect of his own destiny by confronting Boy about the snowball incident. The ideas expressed here are central not only to the novel's message, but also to the character's development.
“I was afraid and did not know what I feared, which is the worst kind of fear."
Here, Dunstan finds himself in the dark looking for the missing Mary Dempster. As the other men spread out, Dunstan feels a sense of foreboding. This fear is literal - he does not know how to manage the perilous gravel pit - and metaphorical - the dark possibilities that fill his mind are the worst fears of all. In fact, Mrs. Dempster in many ways is so important to him because she represents a willingness to accept those dark parts of herself. It is telling that he finds her locked in a carnal embrace, a mindless but clear repudiation of Deptford's strict morality. Even though he fancies himself a transgressor of those morals, it will take decades until Dunstan is willing to finally feel comfortable, instead of frightened, exploring the darkness within himself.
“So at last the baker and one or two others had to go into the study and tell Amasa Dempster that his resignation was accepted. He left the church without any prospects, a crazy and disgraced wife, a delicate child, and six dollars in cash."
This passage describes what happened to the reverend Amasa Dempster’s life after his wife is found with the vagrant. The moment is important for two reasons. First, it is yet another tragedy caused by the chain of events that began with the snowball incident. These events are largely what define Dunstan's life. Second, it presents an opportunity for Amasa, to define himself outside of the strict morality of Deptford. Instead, he only doubles down on his vicious and uncharitable Christianity once his family is isolated. He treats his wife like a pariah and a criminal, locking her away. Ultimately, the moment suggests the extent of the hypocritical morality that Dunstan abhors, both in the way the town ostracizes the Dempsters and in the way that Amasa echoes that cruelty even within his own family.
“This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters.”
Here, Dunstan explores one of the novel's central points: we all play "supporting" roles now and again. Many of us over-estimate our own importance in life, unaware of our tiny role in the great scheme of life. And yet this attitude can prove self-defeating, as it does for Dunstan; it convinces him time and again to sit back rather than exploit his potential for taking what he wants. Dunstan's journey is largely about balancing his "supporting" role (he considers himself "Fifth Business" even before he learns the term) with his desire to explore himself. By the end of the novel, he discovers a happier medium; he is willing to admit his place in the world, but also excited to try and engineer his own destiny as well. The theatre of life has a far larger stage than we can comprehend, so we can only do our best to manage it.
"And (Dunstan) left Deptford in the flesh. It was not for a long time that I recognized that I had never Wholly left Deptford in the Spirit."
One of the running themes in Fifth Business is the way the past shapes the individual. Although characters like Dunstan Ramsey, Paul Dempster, and Percy Staunton expand their horizons and even re-brand themselves, that small town of Deptford never really leaves them. Try as they might to change, they are shaped by their childhoods. Here, Dunstan uses the benefit of hindsight (he is writing this entire story to the current headmaster) to explain his awareness of the futility of escape.
“But what hit me worse than the blow of shrapnel was that the face was Mrs. Dempster’s face.”
This is perhaps Mary Dempster’s greatest miracle. Amidst the gunfire and his mortal wounds, Dunstan witnesses his saint's face suddenly appear on the statue of the Virgin Mary. The woman who was mocked and misunderstood, arguably because of Dunstan's involvement with the snowball, becomes the redeemer, Dunstan’s savior. It really does not matter what happens to the earthly Mrs. Dempster after that moment. She cements herself here as forever a part of his world. Much of what follows can be understood as Dunstan's attempt to make peace with his culpability in hurting his saint. The fact that she 'saves' him can be seen as an expression of guilt, which he tries to assuage the rest of his life through his duty both to her and to saints in general.
“If you don’t hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you’ll get.”
Percy is notable for making things happen in his life, almost by force of will. Here, he criticizes Dunstan's lack of focus, suggesting that his old friend lives life a bit lazily. (Though he does not use this language, he is basically attacking Dunstan's willingness to remain "Fifth Business.") Of course, Percy himself is a bit isolated, focused only a single vision of capitalist nirvana. The wisdom is useful - since Dunstan does eventually learn to more actively involve himself in fate - but not in the way Boy intends. Instead, each of the men has his own limitations. Only Dunstan will later acknowledge these limitations and work to transcend them.
“God is subtle, but He is not cruel”
When Padre Blazon uses this phrase to talk about Mrs. Dempster, he is suggesting that God might have sacrificed the woman's sanity so that Dunstan could move forward with his own life. The ultimate sentiment here is that humans cannot hope to comprehend the complexities of fate and the universe, labelling situations as good or bad and then mapping them out like some sort of cosmic flow-chart. Instead, God works in subtleties, gradations that defy the narrow labels that human morality often place upon His work. Thus, it is useless for Dunstan to berate himself for events out of his control, rather than letting himself grow and enjoy life. Were God "cruel," He might have arranged for Dunstan to deny himself as penance for the snowball incident; however, a more subtle God might have meant for Mrs. Dempster to be part of a much more exciting mythic journey that Dunstan has yet to take. Padre Blazon's words suggest the life that Dunstan eventually embraces once he accepts the gradations of light and darkness within himself.
"Thomas Aquinas was monstrously fat; St. Jerome had a terrible temper. This gives comfort to fat men and cross men. Mankind cannot endure perfection; it stifles him. He demands that even the saints should cast a shadow. If they, these holy ones who have lived so greatly but who still carry their shadows with them, can approach God, well then, there is hope for the worst of us."
Padre Blazon had the gift of putting even the saints into perspective for Dunstan. Whereas Dunstan has created an image of perfection in Mrs. Dempster, one which he endeavors to be worthy of and then berates himself for failure, Blazon reminds us that these beatified figures were only people. They had their own flaws, complexities, and demons, just like any one of us. The sentiment is important to the novel because it challenges Dunstan's view of life, insisting that he let himself enjoy life and his own desires, rather than suppressing them. Instead of judging himself and others for these "shadows," Dunstan should celebrate those shadows for making life more interesting and enjoyable. Ultimately, he learns this lesson and practices it by joining the carnival.
"He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone."
The Brazen Head (for which Liesl provides the voice) has the last important words to this story, in this response to David's question about who killed his father. This cryptic response both answers everything and answers nothing - which makes it a perfect fit for the approach of Fifth Business. Boy’s death ultimately lies in a paradox of fate. For the first time, Dunstan sees his part in Boy’s death clearly. It was not only his decision to reveal the secret of the snowball, but seemingly an "inevitable" part of his entire life. Had his entire life been orchestrated to lead to this end? The answer is left to us. On one hand, Boy's death results from a confluence of decisions and character traits that have defined Dunstan since he was a boy. On the other hand, he has no actual control over what others (in that case, Paul) will do. Ultimately, these three men - Paul, Dunstan, and Percy - are so interlinked by life's mystical threads that they are responsible for one another whether they accept it or not.
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...
Dunstan and Percy are, what you would call today, frenemies. Dunstan has always despised and hated Percy Boyd Staunton. Still Dunstan and Percy are shaped by each other. They share a complex almost intimate past and neither man wants to...