Fifth Business

Fifth Business Summary and Analysis of Part 6: "The Soirée of Illusions"


Chapter 1

Dunstan writes Magnus Eisengrim’s autobiography under a pen name. The book mixes the magical, the fantastical, and the sexual into a highly mythic narrative that proves to be a best-seller. Magnus Eisengrim is catapulted into stardom.

Before Dunstan leaves the carnival, he convinces Paul to help with Mrs. Dempster's upkeep. Using this extra money, Dunstan moves her to a private facility, where he is more easily able to visit her. Still oblivious to the past, she is happy there, and able to even help chronic patients feel better.

Unfortunately, Dunstan makes the grave error of telling her one day that he has located Paul. In Mrs. Dempster’s mind, Paul remains a ten year old boy, and the memories come flooding back like a crashing wave. Despite Dunstan’s attempts to explain the truth to her, Mrs. Dempster constructs a delusion wherein Dunstan has kidnapped her young child. In the midst of a violent meltdown, she tries to scratch his eyes out. Both he and the doctors agree he should not visit anymore, though he stays in touch with the hospital to learn that her mental and physical heath regresses from this point onwards.

Chapter 2

Meanwhile, Boy Staunton capitalizes on his war fame to pursue political power. To help with this transformation, he finds a new bride, Denyse Hornick. She is the antithesis of Leola, a politically powerful and shrewd feminist. And also unlike Leola, she knows how to control Boy when she needs to.

They throw a wedding worthy of royalty but Boy’s children, David and Caroline, do not approve of her and hence do not attend.

Chapter 3

Denyse is not impressed with Dunstan; she finds his fascination with the patriarchal Catholic Church offensive to women. Ultimately, Denyse has her eye set on getting Boy appointed to the position of Lieutenant-Governor, which he would love because of its connection to royalty. Though Boy is an ultra-rich industrialist braggart, she believes she can endear him to the public.

As Dunstan and Boy reach their sixties, they both seem to revert to their childhood roles: Dunstan enjoys antagonizing Boy with clever quips, while Boy throws metaphorical snowballs at Dunstan.

Chapter 4

Mrs. Dempster dies of a heart attack a year after Boy’s wedding. Dunstan had become the bane of her existence, the architect of all the sorrow in her life. He visits her soon before she dies, and she actually recognizes him for the first time, but is confused that he is not still a boy.

When she dies, Dunstan is the only one who attends her cremation.

Chapter 5

The next summer, Dunstan visits Europe. Two important things happen on the trip.

First, he reunites with Padre Blazon, who is close to death in Vienna. Despite his state, Blazon remains a fiery companion, flirting with his nurses and convincing Dunstan to bring him chocolate as contraband. They talk of many things, including Mrs. Dempster - whom Blazon admires for having affected Dunstan so greatly - and Liesl - whom Dunstan describes as the devil. Blazon is amused by the description, and suggests Dunstan be more willing to let the devil in now and again.

In Salzburg, Dunstan finally finds the figure that he had seen on the battlefield so many decades before. He still recognizes his saint's face in the figure's.

Chapter 6

To the headmaster, Dunstan recalls Boy Staunton's death, which he implies was well-publicized at the time. After Boy's Cadillac plunged into Toronto Harbor, the police pulled Boy from the car, where he was sitting in the driver's seat, his hands firmly clutching the steering wheel. In his mouth, they found a granite rock the size of an egg lodged inside Boy’s mouth.

Denyse makes certain that the funeral is a grand affair. She asks Dunstan to write a memoir about Boy, but he subtly refuses. He is disgusted by the idea. He mentions to the headmaster that his heart attack later that year proved a blessing, since it helped him avoid the task.

Chapter 7

Dunstan finally reveals the truth about Boy’s demise, asking the headmaster to keep the information in the strictest confidence.

At the time of Boy's death, Magnus Eisengrim, now a world renowned magician, is beginning a two week show in Toronto. Dunstan spends a lot of time with the carnival, and eventually convinces Eisengrim to perform a hypnotism show at Colborne College. After the show, Dunstan introduces Eiesengrim to Boy, who had attended as a member of the school's board. Of course, Boy has no recollection that Eisengrim is actually Paul Dempster, the boy he used to torment. They all retire to Dunstan's room, where they drink and talk.

The conversation begins cordially enough, but soon degenerates into a stand-off between Boy and Dunstan. Eisengrim finally admits he is indeed Paul Dempster from Deptford, Ontario. Paul reminds Boy how he used to call his mother a “whore,” taunting her from outside their house. Boy dismisses Paul’s claims, stating that he remembers neither these incidents nor Paul and his mother. Boy adds that he has no use for irrelevant details of his past.

For the first time to anyone, Dunstan tells the story about Boy’s snowball, which set off the tragic chain of events. Boy remains unmoved; he cannot remember the incident, and insists that it was only boys being boys. However, Dunstan is not content to play “Fifth Business” in this situation. Instead, he brings out the granite stone, now used as a paperweight, which Percy Staunton had put into the snowball that Dunstan dodged. (He has not previously told the reader about the stone.) Dunstan demands that Boy acknowledge a shred of his former self, and Boy counters by accusing Dunstan of ingratitude for the financial advice that Dunstan has so freely taken from him. In the midst of it, Dunstan confronts Boy over his treatment of Leola and his petty obsession with being 'better than everyone else.

To resolve the discussion, Eisengrim asks Boy for a ride home, as a minor repayment for his years of torment. It is not until the next day, after Boy’s death, that Dunstan notices his rock paperweight missing.

Chapter 8

After Boy’s funeral, Dunstan attends Eisengrim's magic show. When the Brazen Head illusion begins, a distraught David Staunton asks who killed Boy Staunton. The head's cryptic answer references women Boy did and did not know. The head then adds that Boy was also killed, “by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone“ (266). He knows then that Paul killed Boy.

At this revelation, Dunstan suffers a heart attack. He eventually recovers, and receives a letter from Liesl inviting him to join the carnival in Switzerland.

Dunstan tells the Headmaster that his tale is done. The postscript to the letter reads, "Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, 1970" (266).


It is in this section that Davies and Dunstan finally reveal all secrets. Until now, the reader has been led to believe that poor fragile Mrs. Dempster was the victim of a careless snowball thrown without any real malice. Some readers could be forgiven for wondering whether this snowball could actually have affected the woman to the extent Dunstan claims it did. In actuality, though, the snow covered an egg-sized rock that violently struck Mrs. Dempster. Percy Staunton had meant to hurt Dunstan that night so many years before, and through that malice irrevocably changed many lives.

The reader finally begins to understand the complexities of Dunstan’s psyche. First is the level of guilt he has harbored. What has connected him to Mrs. Dempster is not just a simple twist of fate; it is the suggestion that he had somehow inspired a violent attack that accidentally struck another. The fact that he keeps the paperweight is also interesting. It is clearly a reminder - but a reminder of what? Is it his guilt over stepping aside and using Mrs. Dempster as a shield? Is it that Boy really meant to harm him? Is it that he has been “Fifth Business” to Boy all these years without ever really standing up to him?

We never get definitive answers to these questions but one thing is clear: the paperweight explains Dunstan’s passive aggressive relationship with Boy, the underlying tension between both men. Whereas Boy has simply forgotten his past, Dunstan can never leave it behind. This is a fundamental difference between them, and one that speaks to two different relationships with life. Both Boy and Paul have created a mythology around themselves, largely as a buffer to their respective pasts. Paul has become Magnus Eisengrim, the conjurer of illusions and fantasy, and Percy has become Boy, the larger-than-life industrialist.

And yet Dunstan has become his own mythology. Instead of ignoring his past in preference for a new mythology, he consciously pursues his own unanswered questions. Certainly, he externalizes those fascinations, but in ways that are easily linked to the past. His obsession with saints is a barely-disguised attempt to understand the power Mrs. Dempster has over him. His obsession with life's mythic underpinnings reflects his belief that the tragedies of his youth must have some meaning, some import in the world. In effect, he has always been doing what Padre Blazon challenges him to do: exploring himself. The only thing that has changed through his narrative is that he has become more aware of it.

Secondly, this secret of the rock ties into Dunstan's obsession with keeping secrets. He is so accustomed to keeping confidence that he has not told the headmaster (and reader) the truth until this point. It is in his nature to keep the secrets of others because he does the same for himself. Even in what is ostensibly a 'tell-all,' it takes the entire story before the tells the truth of the first moment. Clearly, his journey towards self-appreciation - the place Liesl wishes him to discover - is not complete. However, he knows that he must undertake the journey, and this in itself constitutes a major change.

And to prove that he has changed, Dunstan concludes his role as Fifth Business by providing finality to the narratives of the leading men he had otherwise supported. He tells them his deepest secret, leaving them to use the information either to reconcile their pain or to simply dismiss. With the unveiling of the stone, Dunstan ceases to merely be a passive observer, the mere holder of confidences. He sheds his identity as Fifth Business to become the hero of his own story. And indeed, he changes the story considerably through his decision.

Becoming his own hero also means taking responsibility for his own actions. In the final scene with the Brazen Head, Dunstan comprehends that he was as much a part of Percy’s death as Paul was. Liesl had connected Dunstan with his dark side, the other half of his personality that would make him whole again. In effect, she taught him to accept the devil, much as Padre Blazon encourages him to do in this section. The fact that she is the voice of the Brazen Head only underscores her importance in reminding him that he has the devil inside him.

The heart attack is not only a recognition that he let the devil in through his interference, but also a chance to be born again. He has already been reborn - from Dunstable to Dunstan - but here becomes even more full, a human who can reach his full potential by accepting his contradictions. He then consciously accepts this new identity by accepting Liesl’s invitation to join the carnival in Switzerland.

At the end of the novel, Dunstan has admitted no explicit culpability in anything. He did not intentionally hurt Mrs. Dempster, nor did he intentionally aid in Boy's death. And yet he is complicit in these acts and so many more, because the world's mythic underpinnings operate by involving us through both our angelic and demonic sides. The reader thus understands the complexities of Dunstan’s psyche. He recognizes both his dark and light shadows, that Jungian dichotomy in its eternal dance. We, like the headmaster, need not doubt that Dunstan Ramsey had an interesting life; on the contrary, we should celebrate it for reflecting the complexity of feeling of which we are all capable.