Fifth Business

Fifth Business Summary and Analysis of Part 5: "Liesl"


Chapter 1

When World War II hits, Boy Staunton is catapulted into the position of an international industrialist. Many Canadian and Allied troops are easily fed thanks to his cheaply produced vitamin-induced foods. Though it makes him a fortune, many consider his business ethic to be a patriotic activity.

Meanwhile, Boy becomes increasingly estranged from his wife and children. David Staunton, now twelve years old, boards at Colborne School, where Dunstan does not mind watching over him. He is well aware of how troubled the boy is by his mother's condition, and by his father's role in causing it.

Two years later, in 1942, tragedy strikes when Leola Staunton dies. Though the official cause is pneumonia, Dunstan finds it odd that Leola had deliberately opened her windows on a frigid winter’s afternoon. When Dunstan informs David of his mother’s death, he merely replies that she is better off. Boy is in England at the time, and hence unable (or unwilling) to attend the funeral. Instead, he entrusts Dunstan with all the details. Milo the barber attends, remarking on how sad Dunstan must feel at the loss of his first love. Dunstan, however, feels nothing for her.

During the war, Dunstan serves as interim Headmaster of Colborne school. When the war ends, Boy - who is head of the school's board - returns with news that Dunstan will not be hired for the position. Though he pretends to support Dunstan, Boy clearly agrees with the Board's concern: not only is Dunstan unmarried, but his hobby of chasing dead saints around the world is considered "queer" (196).

Though he did not like the job, Dunstan is offended. He agrees with the decision, however, provided that the Board claim he turned the job down, and grant him six months of paid leave. Boy readily agrees to these terms, and Dunstan makes plans to visit the shrines of Mexico.

Chapter 2

In Mexico City, Dunstan finds the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Watching visitors pay homage to the shrine, he muses about the modern world and its embrace of money over the mythic.

One day, he stumbles onto a magic show advertisement, and decides to see the show. It overwhelms him, not because the tricks are so impressive but instead because the presentation features elements of both artistic consideration and sensuality. He is particularly impressed by the closing illusion, entitled The Vision of Dr Faustus. In it, the magician grapples with the dichotomy between good and evil. But perhaps most impressive to Dunstan is that the magician - who goes by the name of Magnus Eisengrim - is clearly Paul Dempster.

After the show, he sends word of his presence backstage, and is greeting by a remarkably ugly woman; she looks like a man. She turns out to be Liesl, the bearded man-woman and Eisengrim’s business partner. Though Paul allows Dunstan backstage, he is dismissive of his old friend. Nevertheless, Liesl asks Dunstan to join them for lunch the next day. Before Dunstan leaves, Magnus thanks him for having 'loaned' his wallet so many years before. When Dunstan returns to his hotel, he finds his old wallet in his pocket, containing the amount of money Paul had stolen in Europe, plus interest.

Chapter 3

At lunch the next day, Dunstan learns that Liesl is more than just an ugly face. He recognizes in her both a keen intellect and a shrewd business savvy. She turns out to be a student of hagiography, and has read all of Dunstan’s books on saints. During the lunch, she makes him a proposal: they will pay him to write a false, mythical autobiography for Magnus Eisengrim, using as much artistic license as he likes.

Chapter 4

Unable to resist this adventure despite being fifty years old, Dunstan decides to join Eisengrim’s carnival of magic. During this period, Dunstan undergoes an existential rebirth. Liesl becomes his therapist, guiding him to explore the darker recesses of his soul, the parts of himself that Dunstan previously ran from.

He also takes a firm hand in helping the company develop Paul's magic show, including the Brazen Head, a floating head which answers audience questions. Meanwhile, Dunstan falls into a juvenile affection for the young showgirl Faustina, who he is assumes is sleeping with Paul. Dunstan is even more disappointed to accidentally find Faustina and Liesl making love one day.

Chapter 5

That very night, Liesl confronts Dunstan in his room, accusing him of hiding from his desires. She aggressively comes on to him, which leads to a sexually charged brawl that leaves both of them bloody. She flees the room, but soon returns for her clothing.

They stay up late. He tends to her wounds, and Liesl tells him the truth about himself, explaining that his is suffering from “revenge of the unlived life" (226). She also explains to Dunstan that he is “Fifth Business," destined to never be the lead in any story, but rather also relegated to a supporting role (227). At the end of the night, they sleep together.


It is in this section that Fifth Business comes closest to Magic Realism. Dunstan has spent his life obsessed with myth, but always with an intellectual detachment. Here, he actually joins a carnival that specializes in evoking those mythic symbols, in an attempt to move people in an archetypal way. His life comes alive, is hardly "unlived" while with the carnival, and thus is he finally beginning to live in the type of place he has always written about.

The carnival show is more immediate than Dunstan's studies on saints because it is theatrical. The symbols are not there to be interpreted, but instead confront the audience directly. Thus, Dunstan explores the notions of good and evil more explicitly than ever before. And when he takes a part in shaping the show, he is giving himself the chance not only to communicate the power of myth, but also to utilize it. He is able to almost touch the power he has otherwise only speculated on.

Similarly, Dunstan sees this dichotomy of good and evil at play in his own life. His relationship with Boy, for example, has always been a careful dance between the forces of good and evil. While Dunstan finds Boy Staunton to represent many of the traits that he loathes, Boy has also provided crucial financial advice and confided deep secrets with him. Boy's self-righteous greed - which Dunstan on one hand rebukes - has also been crucial towards financing Dunstan's trips around the world. Though he has not admitted his own silent complicity before, he has acknowledged it implicitly. Consider his role in Leola's funeral and David's upbringing. He buries Leola (much as he was there right before her suicide attempt) and takes some responsibility for David. This is not his family, and yet he clearly feels connected to them, responsible in some way for what has happened. Much as he exercised his guilt over Mrs. Dempster, he takes a role in facilitating the Staunton's survival. If Boy has evil qualities - and that is arguably true, considering how tragically Leola ends up - then Dunstan has accepted those with little resistance.

He has this epiphany about good and evil in Magnus's show - and indeed, the realization is more about money and power. It is about how the powerful mythic forces interact in all of us. No matter how much he places himself in the background, Dunstan contains in himself an amalgam of powerful archetypes that he could spend his life exploring in lieu of his search for saints. In short, he is far more complicated than he might have thought. All together, this is a version of the lesson Padre Blazon tries to teach in the previous section.

Like some Faustian bargain, Liesl offers Dunstan a glimpse into his grandest imagination and the darkest recesses of his soul in exchange for his presence and his writing skills. Liesl is incredibly introspective but firm with Dunstan. Like Mephistopheles, Liesl guides him through the dark baggage of his soul, the baggage that he previously refused to open. What Dunstan finds is certainly frightening, but is is also liberating. In effect, what she refuses to do is to play his game of intellectual dodges and diversions. Instead, she aims for the truth: we all have desires and must work to realize them.

Perhaps the most intriguing lesson she teaches him is that his insistence on keeping secrets is itself a diversion. Early on, she refuses to keep his secret, suggesting that such hidden truths only weaken a person. The lesson is powerful, since it implies that Dunstan has spent his life hidden away with the secrets of others, rather than truly pursuing his inner potential.

And yet he confides his secrets to her anyway, thereby experiencing a resurrection of his spirit. Indeed, he experiences a sexual re-awakening as well. At the age of fifty, Dunstan becomes unashamedly enamored with Einsengrim’s head showgirl, Faustina. Through violence, sex and therapy, Liesl takes Dunstan to the primal darkness that he has previously run away from, forcing him to admit his animal nature and then to consider what great potential lies within that.

It is not until he fully embraces this part of himself - through a sexually charged brawl with Liesl - that he is able to hear the ultimate truth about himself. Indeed, Dunstan is a part of the world's mythic order, even if he always sat in the background. In fact, this itself is a part of the mythic order - it is the "Fifth Business," the figures in life who play supporting roles. He is a confidant to others but without a life of his own. For once, Dunstan can see himself come into focus.

And yet the lesson has one final implication as well: he can also take control of his life. He does not need to simply accept where circumstances have left him. Like Paul has, he can create his own carnival around himself. Dunstan describes his sexual experience with Liesl as a healing one - it is a consummation less of their relationship than of his new relationship with life. He will make choices, and declare himself to the world.