Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstan Ramsay, soon after he has retired from his career as a teacher. The early part of the novel is set in his home village of Deptford, in rural Canada.
Dunstan (or Dunstable, as he was known as a child) begins by marking his first involvement with Mrs. Mary Dempster, which begins on December 27, 1908, when Dunstan is ten years old. On that day, Dunstan and his lifelong nemesis/friend Percy Boyd Stanton, son of Deptford's richest man, are sledding. Percy had received an expensive new Christmas sled, but fails to defeat Dunstan in their race. Angry and jealous, Percy follows Dunstan home, taunting him as they walk. When Dunstan ignores his taunts, Percy begins throwing snowballs, which Dunstan easily dodges.
Soon, he sees Mr. Dempster, a young priest, and his new, pregnant wife Mrs. Dempster on one of their evening walks. Because it was not considered 'proper' for a pregnant woman to be seen in broad daylight, they usually walk in the evening. Percy throws another snowball, which Dunstan dodges by jumping in front of the Dempsters.
Unfortunately, the snowball hits Mrs. Dempster in the head, knocking her to the ground. As she screams hysterically, Mr. Dempster tends to her in the street, and then leads her home.
The fallout of the incident is terrible. Mrs. Dempster goes into premature labor. Dunstan's mother, Mrs. Ramsay, offers her services - though she is not a professional midwife, she has a talent for it, and wants to help Mrs. Dempster even if she does not approve of the pastor's wife. That night, Paul Dempster is born. Though he is undersized - premature babies had the odds stacked against them in the early 1900’s - both child and mother survive.
In the present, the elder Dunstan interjects, to explain why and to whom he is telling the story. The entire narrative is a letter to the current headmaster of his school, to complain about a school newspaper article detailing his retirement. Entitled "FAREWELL TO THE CORK," the article implied that Dunstan had never had much of a life outside of the school, and was only a reliable but boring fixture there (13).
He takes great offense to the implication that his life has lacked in meaning and that he possesses little personal wisdom to pass along to his students. Finally, he is offended by the article's suggestion that he has a "bee in his bonnet about myth," when in fact myth is the prevailing interest of his life in one way or another (14). Thus, he has written this letter to set the record straight, to explain that his life has been full of adventure and remarkable occurrences.
Continuing his story, Dunstan describes what village life was like in Deptford, Ontario. His home village had a population of only five hundred, and yet churches of every mainstream Christian denomination. Its commercial section consisted of a canning factory, a sawmill, a few shops, and various public services.
Percy's father, Mr. Staunton, was the village dentist, but made his money mostly through real estate.
Though not quite wealthy, the Ramsay family was well respected - Mr. Ramsay owned the town newspaper, while Mrs. Ramsay was respected because of the help she provided the local doctor, Dr. McCausland. Dunstan concisely describes his family as coming from good Scottish stock, having respectable moral qualities for Deptford.
The narrative returns to Paul Dempster, who manages to stay alive despite his physical handicaps. After Paul survives for six months, Mrs. Ramsay describes him as a fighter.
Each night, when his mother returns, Dunstan guiltily eavesdrops via the stovepipe as she tells Mr. Ramsay about the baby's progress and the Dempster household. Apparently, Mr. Dempster regularly prays that Mrs. Dempster die if Paul does, so she can accompany him to heaven.
During this period, Dunstan becomes buried in his own guilt, wondering whether he had inadvertently used the Dempsters as a shield. He also keeps the identity of the snowball thrower a secret, especially because Percy refuses to take responsibility. When Dunstan confronts him about it, Percy subtly threatens him. Without any confidante, Dunstan continues to carry his guilt alone.
Over time, Mrs. Dempster begins to feel better, though she is still considered much too warm, happy, and placid to be a proper preacher’s wife. After Paul’s birth, she takes to breastfeeding in plain sight. This causes a minor scandal in town, and the locals decide she must be “simple” in the head (25). She is considered incapable of simple tasks like housework or cooking. While Mr. Dempster is commended for his concern over her, his concern moves from romantic and doting, to penitent. He prays over her frequently, dour where she is bright.
Deeming Mr. Dempster hopelessly incompetent, Mrs. Ramsay charges Duncan to look after Mrs. Dempster, to ensure she not do anything foolish to Paul. Thus, Dunstan becomes Mary Dempster’s nursemaid, responsible for a variety of tasks mean to help her and the baby with everyday life.
Because of his new affiliation with the Dempsters, Dunstan is frequently mocked at school. Percy is particularly mean, but Dunstan is witty enough to hold his own in verbal combat. He also collects little secrets about other people to use as ammunition when they mock him - most notably, he learns that Mrs. Staunton calls Percy Pidgy Boy-Boy.
He relates one incident in which he was cruelly glib with Milo, the son of the local barber and something of a clown himself. Because of this jab, Dunstan gains a bit of renown for his wit, though he senses that people continue to mock him behind his back because of his attachment to Mrs. Dempster.
Meanwhile, Dunstan grows progressively more enthralled with Mrs. Dempster. He finds her logic simple yet sincere, and her energy and spirit to be free, a stark contrast to the social shackles of Deptford society. He even admits to the reader that he was in love with her, though it was a love tinged with guilt and other strange emotions.
All in all, Dunstan lives a lonely life, keeping a multitude of secrets in firm confidence. (This becomes a major theme of his personality.) While his brother Willie learns the printing business from Mr. Ramsay, Dunstan is clumsy with his hands and so is pushed towards other pursuits. While working an after-school job in the Deptford library, Dunstan finds two books of magic, and is enthralled by them.
When Dustan steals an egg from his mother to perform a trick, Mrs. Ramsay finds out. She tries to beat him over it, and a vicious physical battle ensues, one which Dunstan remembers for the rest of his life.
Dunstan continues to practice card tricks, though he is more careful now not to get caught. His only regular companion is Paul Dempster, who is shunned because of his family's peculiarity. Using the magic books as guides, he teaches Paul these card tricks, though he himself is clumsy. Paul is far more capable at performing the tricks, despite his youth.
Another book Dunstan finds is A Child's Book of Saints, which tells the stories of the Catholic saints. Obsessed with the stories - and finding them more akin to the myths of the Arabian Nights than to the strict Protestantism of his upbringing - he reads them to Paul, whom he describes as "an odd-looking little mortal, with an unusually big head for his frail body" (40). They are both outcasts.
Unfortunately, Dunstan's influence on Paul offends Mr. Dempster. When Amasa learns that Paul is studying magic and learning about saints, the man forces Dunstan to pray in church, in a way that shames the boy. He insists Dunstan stop teaching Paul the "black arts" of Catholicism (42). Finally, he banishes Dunstan from his home, and Dunstan feels uncharitable resentment towards the pastor.
He continues to see Mrs. Dempster bizarrely rambling around town, bringing ruined plants to people as gifts. She is too simple-minded to realize that people do not want her gifts; only Mrs. Ramsay feigns thankfulness for the woman's strange presents. However, Dunstan continues to avoid her, still angry and ashamed over having been banished by Mr. Dempster.
One evening, when Dunstan has grown into adolescence, several respected Deptford men arrive at Dunstan's house; Mrs. Dempster has gone missing, and they are out searching for her. Any woman's disappearance after dark suggests a grave transgression, but Dunstan is particularly concerned because it is the helpless Mrs. Dempster.
Both Dunstan and Mr. Ramsay join the search party, and are amongst the group which finds Mrs. Dempster, in the large gravel pit on the edge of town, having sex in the bushes with a hobo. (This is Joel Surgeoner, though Dunstan does not meet him under this name until much later.) When Mr. Dempster confronts her about it, she replies that she agreed to sleep with the man because "he was very civil...and he wanted it so badly" (48). This phrase becomes the source of gossip amongst Deptford for many years.
After this incident, Mrs. Dempster’s life becomes even more isolated. Mr. Dempster refuses to press charges on the hobo, and he resigns his position at the church. They move to a smaller house and he takes a new job as a bookkeeper. Worst of all, no longer willing to trust his wife, he ties her to a rope inside the home whenever he is gone.
Dunstan is no longer allowed to visit the forlorn Mrs. Dempster - even his mother has given up on her - but he frequently sneaks over there anyway. Although disheveled and lonely, Mrs. Dempster possesses a singular calmness. She is neither resentful nor judgmental about her plight. Dunstan finds her demeanor saintly and "wholly religious" (53).
During this time period, Dunstan loses himself in books, proving a distraction from his worries over Mrs. Dempster. Meanwhile, Percy begins dating the beautiful Leola Cruikshank, on whom Dunstan has long had a crush.
One day, Percy is caught fooling around with Mabel Heighington, a girl known for her loose morals. Mrs. Heighington is besides herself with anger until Mr. Staunton reimburses her for Mabel's chastity. Though Leola eventually forgives Percy, he is nevertheless sent by his family to Colborne College for Boys, the boarding school where Dunstan will later teach.
Some time later, Dunstan’s older brother Willie becomes ill of an unspecified sickness. One day, he stops breathing. Nobody is home but Dunstan, who for some reason runs not to the Dr. McCausland but to Mrs. Dempster. She accompanies him to Willie, and then prays over his body. He returns to life, which Dunstan considers an actual miracle.
Unfortunately, nobody else sees it that way. Dr. McCausland assumes Willie had not actually died, and mocks Dunstan for having thought the boy could have been resurrected.
Much of the town finds Dunstan even stranger for being a "credulous ass who thought that a dangerous lunatic could raise the dead" (62).
Mrs. Ramsay more forcefully forbids Dunstan to see Mrs. Dempster. This prohibition causes a final row between mother and son, after which Dunstan decides to enlist in the Canadian army to fight in the Great War (WW1). Although two years underage, he is accepted.
Before leaving Deptford, Dunstan enters a brief and rather innocent romantic relationship with Leola, who promises to wait for him to return from the war.
Fifth Business is so intriguing in large part because it synthesizes a romanticized coming-of-age story with a more mythical undercurrent. From the very beginning, one senses a gravity to the work that is belied by the otherwise realistic descriptions of what Dunstan calls "village life" (16). This unique approach is all centered around Dunstan, who as a narrator is possessed not only of intelligence and sensitivity, but also of self-awareness.
The basic premise of the narration - that Dunstan is offended to have been written off as ordinary in the school newspaper article - underlines a central message of the novel: even the 'ordinary' possesses a strong undercurrent of mystery and magic. What is important is the willingness to look for and notice this undercurrent.
It is interesting that the fateful snowball incident of Dunstan’s childhood provides the nucleus of his entire life. In effect, what could have been just another moment in Deptford life possesses an amazing centrality because of the way Dunstan views his life. The plot progresses from this event, in such a way that the moment gains more layers of meaning and relevance as the story continues.
In fact, this part of the book is structurally unique from the rest of the Deptford trilogy. The snowball incident is introduced even before our protagonist, suggesting that the individual is not necessarily the center of the universe. Instead, this moment becomes the impetus, since it is more powerful than the people involved in it. This idea - of forces and patterns beyond our superficial sight - is more fully developed as the novel continues.
In Part 1, these type of patterns are most notable through the contrast with Deptford. Since Davies considered this book the first of his Deptford Trilogy, he clearly saw the town as central to the thematic content. Deptford is a town reminiscent of a Puritan Salem Massachusetts. Pregnant women are discouraged from being seen in public, Mrs. Dempster is considered too kind to be a minister’s wife, and the town has no less than five churches for a town of five hundred people. It is a place defined by social stricture, by firm expectations about behavior, and by a strong pretense of punishment and sin.
The contrast between Amasa Dempster and Mary Dempster elucidates the point. Amasa is a stern man who lacks imagination and curiosity. His only warmth comes from his doting affection towards his wife, which is criticized amongst Deptford society and which he later ceases to show. His patronizing cruelty towards Dunstan is nothing compared to that which he uses towards his wife, blaming her explicitly for Paul's premature birth, and later tying her up in his home.
Mrs. Dempster, on the other hand, is so unique not because of a complex personality, but precisely because of her simplicity. In effect, she is the archetype of saintliness that Dunstan spends his life exploring. Her goodness is all the more affecting because it is simple, unqualified, and innate.
And yet Deptford has no vocabulary to understand such a powerful presence. Even her virtues are resented, since people have no way to categorize such natural kindness. Her gift-giving is derided, her positivity is dismissed as idiocy, and she is entirely ostracized after the encounter with the hobo. In the same way that Dunstan gets in trouble for reading about saints and performing magic, Deptford has no use for those parts of life.
Instead, Deptford is obsessed with the superficial, which is clearest in the hobo moment. That moment is central to Dunstan's development, for several reasons. First, he sees something beautiful in it. Notice his description of the scene; it is infused with a sense of tenderness and mercy, not judgment. Further, it is important because Mrs. Dempster has in effect merged the sacred and profane. Having no sexual experience with women (and being much in love with Mrs. Dempster himself), Dunstan is overcome with the sight of the sexual act, and all the more affected because it possesses such a wonderful sense of simple kindness in it. Where her much-quoted response - "he was very civil...and he wanted it so badly" - is mocked by most of Deptford, it for Dunstan reflects a more powerful and brave understanding of human experience. The lonely vagrant needed physical love and Mary Dempster freely gives it to him. That the vagrant later becomes the respectable, philanthropic Joel Surgeoner speaks to the validity of Dunstan's understanding.
The aftermath of that incident is somewhat tragic. First, Deptford becomes a rather cruel place by ostracizing the Dempsters. Mr. Dempster is cast out of the church, and Mrs. Dempster becomes a social pariah. And yet even in her suffering, Mrs. Dempster possesses a saintliness for Dunstan. Her imprisonment by rope is in fact reminiscent of the tortured saintly or angelic archetype.
Again, the contrast with Mr. Dempster is severe. Whereas she suffers her banishment with grace and charity, Amasa is broken. The religion that once flowed through his veins turns to poison. He emotionally flagellates his wife for ruining his life. The suggestion is that the world has its ways - how we respond to those ways is what defines us.
And for Dunstan, what defines Mrs. Dempster is her saintliness. Despite the hypocrisy of small town Ontario, she persists in her power, even bringing Willie back to life. It is no surprise that Dunstan devotes his life to studying the mythic, to trying to understand the greater potential that humans have in this universe. When he is finally forbidden to continue exploring this in Deptford, Dunstan chooses to experience the wider world of warfare.
Finally, what is most fascinating is that the story does work so well as realism alongside this more magical undercurrent. It is easy to understand all of Dunstan's feelings about Mrs. Dempster as an extension of his guilt. Since he blames himself for the snowball incident, he arguably views the world in a way that can redeem him, seeing Mrs. Dempster as something special. He is later explicitly accused of this blindness.
One other theme that grounds the mystical aspects in psychology is Dunstan's obsession with secrets. It is telling that the central incident - the snowball - is shrouded in secrecy. Percy refuses to admit his culpability, and later in life forgets entirely about the moment. Dunstan, on the other hand, learns from this moment to keep his secrets close. As a result, he has a tendency to view moments as arguably larger than they are, to let them consume him rather than telling them to others and hence freeing himself from the tyranny which memory sometimes has over us.
Further, the novel's realism manifests through its variety of specific observations on village life. Part 1 in particular - told from the vantage point of a boy - possesses a lot of innocence. Dunstan learns to live with richer people through Percy, to deal with unrequited love through Leola, and to feel the power of mentorship through the magic he teaches Percy. All of these characters resonate throughout Dunstan's life, and the story is as powerful for its suggestions of myth as it is for the way these characters change as the years pass by.