Psychology is one of the novel's main themes, especially in terms of its mystical component. Robertson Davies had a keen interest in psychology, and was an avid student of Carl Jung. As a result, Davies weaves many Jungian concepts and archetypes into Fifth Business, all of which help to understand the work.
Dunstan reflects the introverted confidant archetype. He is essentially what Liesl calls "Fifth Business," a man of quiet support to others but living only half a life himself. In contrast, Davies gives us the extroverted Boy Staunton. Boy is brash and sensual, living a life of excess but with a one-dimensional understanding of his own motivations. Mrs. Dempster represents the archetype of the ‘sacred feminine,' representing both the sacred and the profane (sexual). This explains why Dunstan struggles with her presence throughout his life. These are only three examples.
Ultimately, Dunstan tries to understand himself through other people, and their own archetypal personalities.
Much of Fifth Business is concerned with mythic transformation; all of the major characters undergo a significant change. Dr. Joseph Campbell refers to this phenomenon as the “heroic transformation of consciousness” (Campbell 38).
Percy is transformed from a spoiled boy into an industrial God-king; Paul Dempster is transformed into Magnus Eisengrim; and Dunstan is transformed from “Fifth Business” into a man who embraces the shadows of his soul. Frequently, Davies uses name changes to reflect these transformations. (Dunstable becomes Dunstan, Percy becomes Boy, and Paul becomes Magnus.)
And yet the novel also suggests that these transformations offer new potentials in our character while still reflecting the people we were. Each of the major characters reinvents himself, but remains tied to the same childhood fears and resentments that they work so hard to transcend.
It does not take long for the reader to discover this book touches the borders of magic realism. However, one really unique aspect is that the magic is tied in with Catholicism, since Dunstan bases his worldview largely around the belief that Mrs. Dempster is a saint, rather than simply a hapless victim of a wayward snowball. Perhaps to assuage his guilt, he sees her as a heroic woman capable of great power, and thereby develops a life-long obsession with hagiography.
And yet the idea of sainthood eventually transcends its Catholic roots to have much more individual basis. Padre Blazon explains the idea of the "fool saint" as follows:
"You believe in them, and your belief has coloured your life with beauty and goodness; too much scientizing will not help you. It seems far more important to me that her life was lived heroically; she endured a hard fate, did the best she could, and kept it up until at last her madness was too powerful for her" (179).
In other words, sainthood reflects less the decision of the Church and more the individual's need for heroes. What matters about Mrs. Dempster is what she went through and how it affects Dunstan. One part of Dunstan's arc is learning to embrace his desires as valuable even without outside justification, since we each of us need our own saints.
Dunstan harbors a lot of guilt throughout his life. He feels guilty for the premature birth of Paul Dempster, he feels guilty for his role in Leola's early demise, and he most of all feels guilty about his responsibility for Mary Dempster's condition. Much of his life and personality as "Fifth Business" is a reflection of his guilt, his deep-seeded belief that he is not worthy of attention. To a certain extent, his entire arc is about learning to live with those feelings.
Dunstan is not the only character whose relationship to guilt is important. Percy is largely defined by his absence of guilt once he transforms into Boy; he does not even recall the incident with Mrs. Dempster at the end of the novel. Even Paul Dempster expresses his guilt at the end; though he claims not to care about his mother, his actions after learning about the rock in the snowball suggest otherwise. Ultimately, the novel suggests that we are defined not only by decisions we made in the past, but also by the way we later deal with our feelings about those decisions.
Morality is one of the novel's most extensive themes, especially in terms of Christianity. Dunstan is raised with such a strict sense of morality that he spends his life working to create his own, unique system.
This theme is important from the time of Dunstan's childhood. Deptford is a small town with five churches. Each congregation keeps to itself, consequently fracturing the town along sectarian lines. And yet they come together when the opportunity for judgment and sanctimony presents itself, most notably in the case of Mrs. Dempster. The way that these ostensibly religious people turn on a helpless woman disgusts Dunstan, who later works to develop his own sense of atheist morality as a result.
In fact, his sense of morality is largely shaped by the very qualities in Mrs. Dempster that repel the others in Deptford. Her public displays of affection - both nurturing and carnal - and her simple goodness become benchmarks of true morality for him. Ultimately, he spends his life seeking a complicated, mythic sense of morality, in spite of the suffocating, one-dimensional religious morality of Deptford.
Small Town Life
It is telling that Fifth Business is the first in Davies's Deptford Trilogy, since it reveals how important Deptford is to defining both Dunstan and the other main characters. Deptford, which is not terribly different from other 20th century Ontario small towns, seems like a quaint hamlet but also contains an ironic viciousness in its sanctimonious small-mindedness. Overall, Davies criticizes through Dunstan the sinister quality of a rigid morality system that imposes vice-like conformity upon its citizens. Any deviation from the 'normal' means exclusion and ostracization. In the world of the novel, characters are unable to truly escape these qualities that were seared into their childhood. Dunstan, Boy and Paul all carry memories of Deptford, and are defined by the way they either exorcise or unintentionally echo its patterns in their own lives.
Many of the figures in Fifth Business live lives of isolation. For some, that isolation is self-imposed. Out of an unconscious fear, Dunstan becomes complacent in his role as “Fifth Business” to Boy Staunton and anybody else who uses him as a confidant. Percy (Boy) Staunton grows complacent in his own one-dimensional view of the world, losing his soul in exchange for money and power. Paul Dempster ignores the feelings he has for his mother, which causes them to explode in a violent way at the end. And yet other characters are physically isolated. Mrs. Dempster is the best example, as a woman whom the world forgets. Overall, the novel suggests that we tend to isolate ourselves from one another, leaving us feeling separated rather than aware of the strong mythical connections that exist between all of us as humans.
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...