Fifth Business

Fifth Business Summary and Analysis of Part 4: "Gyges and King Candaules"


Chapter 1

While the Depression is hard on most people, Boy Staunton thrives, since his business of sugar and sugar substitutes provides people with cheap snacks. In fact, Boy considers his vitamin enriched bread to be a form of public service for thousands of hungry families.

Meanwhile, Leola continues to fail as Boy's trophy wife. Her poor sense of fashion and lack of poise defeat any sprit she may have left in her, and she simply quits trying to be the wife Boy expects. As a result, his relentless emotional abuse intensifies, wearing her down.

Dunstan remains close to Boy, but a guarded sense of mistrust persists between the two. Though Dunstan seldom interferes on Leola’s behalf - he worries Boy would interpret it as a lingering affection for her - he does work to be her quiet ally. One day, Boy gives Dunstan a role of film to develop; it contains several nude shots of Leola. Confused, Dunstan worries this is a sick joke, or a subtle message that Boy wants Dunstan to take her off his hands. When the situation grows weirder - Boy tries to examine the photos with Leola in the room - Dunstan tells him the story of Gyges and King Candaules, a myth in which King Candaules asks his friend Gyges to examine the queen naked. Gyges and the queen then either murder or depose the king, based on the version of the story. Boy is not amused by the story, though nine months later, Leola gives birth to a baby boy named David. Dunstan later speculates that the conception happened that night, as an expression of Boy's unease with the possibility of being cuckolded.

Chapter 2

Dunstan continues to visit his saint and her aunt, despite the fact that Mrs. Dempster only recognizes him as a new friend, having no memory of Deptford. Over time, Bertha Shanklin introduces Dunstan to her lawyer, Orpheus Wettenhall. He is an affable fellow with few pretenses, and enjoys hunting.

When Bertha dies, Orpheus informs Dunstan that she has bequeathed five thousand dollars a year to him, provided he agree to act as Mrs. Dempster’s guardian. Dunstan agrees to these terms, but soon learns from the police that Orph has killed himself, after having lost the fortunes of several clients in the stock market crash of 1929. Thus, Dunstan has no additional financial means with which to care for Mrs. Dempster. Unwilling to bankrupt himself, he reluctantly places his saint in a public hospital for the insane. Though hardly a terrible place, he feels guilty about its limitations and plainness.

Chapter 3

Besides teaching, listening to Boy’s troubles, and visiting Mrs. Dempster, Dunstan continues to extend his study of saints. By now, he is an established scholar and author. (His book A Hundred Saints for Travelers is mentioned several times throughout the novel, as a well-selling compendium for saints and icons, all of which tourists can find throughout Europe.)

Dunstan learns about a group of Jesuits known as Bollandists. They specialize in hagiography: the study of saints. Through correspondence, they invite Dunstan to write articles for the Analecta Bollandiana, their exclusive publication on matters of sainthood. Their ultimate goal is to learn about and exhaustively record information on all the world's saints.

Especially because he has doubts about his life - he is alone and childless in a job that Boy tells him is a dead end - he decides to visit the Jesuit Bollandists on his next trip to Europe. Not being Catholic, he worries they will reject him, but instead finds them to be educated and like-minded kindred spirits. However, their formality is overwhelming, with the exception of an eccentric elderly priest named Padre Ignacio Blazon.

Dunstan and Padre Blazon take to dining out and having deep discussions. While on a trip together to Vienna, Dunstan shares his theory about Mary Dempster. Though Blazon acknowledges that she might have performed the requisite three miracles, he doubts the Church would ever consider canonizing her. However, he questions why Dunstan cares what the Church thinks. For him, a miracle can be judged subjectively, and still be legitimate.

Padre Blazon also discusses how everybody needs a teacher - he himself wants someone to teach him how to be old. Blazon speculates that Dunstan needs to discover what Mary Dempster has to teach him. Blazon also suggests that perhaps Mary Dempster delivered Dunstan from the snowball just as she delivered him to safety on the battlefield. Overall, Blazon says that Mrs. Dempster is very much a part of Dunstan’s personal mythology, a part he needs to understand before the mystery drives him mad.

Chapter 4

Back in Canada, Dunstan continues to listen to Boy’s personal secrets, and considers Boy’s sexual escapades to be worthy of the Kama Sutra sculptures in India. Despite his disapproval, Dunstan keeps the infidelities a secret.

Nevertheless, Leola eventually finds out about Boy’s philandering from a note in his coat pocket. She confronts him, and he coldly assures her that her “situation is quite secure,” but that a life of children is not the type of thing he can be "tied down to" (214). He then storms out of the house.

Later that night, Dunstan finds her in her room. She attempts to seduce him, but he rejects her, as gently as possible. She is crying as he leaves. He soon learns from the children's nurse that she has attempted suicide, and addressed her suicide note to him. Frightened of the implication, he rushes to the scene, and destroys the note before anyone sees it.

Leola survives, but gives up on her life, falling even further into a depression. Boy, unfazed by the incident, carries on as usual.


As Dunstan struggles to understand Mrs. Dempster's place in his life, he finds a mentor figure in Padre Ignacio Blazon, who turns out to be the father figure he never had. Unlike Dunstan's own father, Padre Blazon does not feel emasculated by women. He is an intellectual who understands that man's search for meaning lies beyond his duties as a husband or even as a father. In this way, he is able to relate to Dunstan's search for transcendence, for the mythical underpinning that exceeds everyday life. In the same way that Dunstan suffers a relatively thankless job and seemingly banal lifestyle so that he can focus on what he considers greater pursuits, Padre Blazon's life as a Jesuit speaks to his own physical sacrifices in the pursuit of greater meaning. More than ever before, the reader can see that Dunstan in many ways lives like a priest or monk: celibate, secretive, and obsessed with the vestiges of Catholicism.

However, Padre Blazon also boasts a rebellious streak which Dunstan cannot quite muster in himself. He is certainly amused and impressed by it, as Blazon's mark of singular personality. The priest dresses differently than the other Jesuit brothers, freely criticizes Catholic doctrine, and is willing to confront unpleasant questions. These are the qualities that keep Dunstan back, that keep him 'Fifth Business.' Not until Liesl will he confront another figure so forceful. However, while Liesl explicitly challenges Dunstan to push himself to this level of activity, the Padre does so only implicitly, by presenting Dunstan with a model that he does not naturally imitate.

However, the Padre's theories are as equally important as his personality is. Most crucial is the men's shared belief that life is guided by a type of fate. Blazon is the first figure to acknowledge that Mary Dempster does have a forceful, mythic presence in Dunstan's life. And yet he qualifies the theory - Mrs. Dempster is subjectively important. Dunstan is obsessed with objective recognition - canonization by the Church - while Padre Blazon insists his attention has been diverted. He should be looking not for validation by the world, but rather for understanding within himself.

Though the motif of "Fifth Business" has not yet been introduced, it is crucial towards understanding the priest's theory. The "Fifth Business" is always the supporting role, the foil. He is never the lead. Dunstan continues to play a supporting role in the world, in the process ignoring his own self-exploration. The implication is that we can find transcendence equally well by exploring our own souls as we can by looking to find the greater workings of fate. The search for meaning is life's greatest pursuit, but can be conducted within one’s mind.

Especially in terms of this theory, Padre Blazon is a definite foil to Boy. While the priest is content with exploring his own soul, Boy (like Dunstan) is obsessed with external validation. He needs to be recognized as an important social figure, and needs his value confirmed through affairs. Whereas Padre Blazon is humble - he admits when he does not have the answer, and despite his wisdom is always in search of a teacher - Boy is an unceasing flurry of ego.

The title of the chapter makes sense in terms of this contrast. Basically, the myth explains how King Candaules destroyed himself through his desire for external validation. He could not simply appreciate his wife's beauty on his own, so forced Gyges to confirm it. As a result, he was destroyed. In this section, ironically, Boy's prideful cruelty is only punished on Leola, who survives her suicide but entirely loses herself. However, Boy will eventually pay the price for his desire to be loved, first losing himself in his second marriage and then losing his life.

Of course, the novel does not simply make Boy into a villain. Instead, he reflects another aspect of Dunstan's personality. Dunstan might yearn for Padre Blazon's insight and self-assurance, but continues to struggle with the same guilt and desires that he learned in Deptford. In this way, he is much more like Boy and Paul than like he is like either the blessed priest or his glorious fool-saint.