Davies discusses several themes in the novel, perhaps the most important being the difference between materialism and spirituality. Davies asserts religion is not necessarily integral to the idea—demonstrated by the corrupt Reverend Leadbeater who reduces the Bible to mere economic terms.
Davies, then an avid student of Carl Jung's ideas, deploys them in Fifth Business. Characters are clear examples of Jungian archetypes and events demonstrate Jung's idea of synchronicity. The stone thrown at Ramsay when he was a child reappears decades later in a scandalous suicide or murder. Ramsay's character is a classic introverted personality, contrasted throughout the book with the extroverted sensuality of Boy Staunton. Ramsay dedicates his life to genuine religious feeling as he saw it in his 'fool-saint' Mary Dempster, whose son grows up to be the very archetype of the Magician.
Robertson Davies' interest in psychology has a massive influence on the actions in the book. The prominence of matriarchs in Dunstan's life can be linked to Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex (Dunstan loves Diana and Mrs. Dempster, despite their motherly positions in his life). Carl Jung's concept of individualisation plays a role when Liesl discusses Dunstan's yet-unlived life and the idea that he must have balance in his life. Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development can also be seen in the choices Boy makes compared to the choices Dunstan makes (e.g. Boy chooses intimacy while Dunstan chooses isolation).
A genuinely learned man, Davies wrote a prose that both poked fun at pretentious scholarship and enjoyed joking allusions, as in the names of Ramsay's girl friends, Agnes Day, Gloria Mundy and Libby Doe. He explained these later as "Agnes, the Sufferer — a type well known to all men; Gloria, the Good Time Girl, and Libby, the energetic go-getter". Agnes Day is a play on the Latin religious phrase agnus Dei, "lamb of God". Libby Doe is a play on the word "libido", borrowed from Latin by Freud to mean the inner impulse-driven part of the psyche. Gloria Mundy is a play on the Latin religious phrase Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, or "Thus passes the glory of the world."
Religion and morality
There is sectarianism in Deptford dividing the frontier townsfolk between five Christian churches that do not associate with each other under normal circumstances. It takes emergency situations for them to lend aid to each other, but this is conditional aid based on the assumption that certain moral codes will be preserved regardless of faith. For instance, Mary Dempster is a daft-headed girl who habitually flouts the norms of the society, and so she finds herself ostracised and ridiculed by it, evidenced by the fact that no one comes to her aid when her son runs away. However, she is the only member of Deptford society that Dunstan views as truly ‘religious’ in her attitude because she lives according to a light that arises from within (which he contrasts with her husband’s ‘deeply religious’ attitude, which ‘meant that he imposed religion as he understood it on everything he knew or encountered’ (46)).
As a boy, Dunstable is raised as a Presbyterian, but he also takes an avid interest in Catholic saints. He grows up to develop a more spiritual mode of life that is not reliant on external structures. For Dunstan Ramsay, religion and morality are immediate certainties in life, and the events of the novel show how moral lapses have a way of ‘snowballing’ and coming back to haunt one.
Myth and history
Davies and Dunstan are at pains to illustrate just how fluid the concept of historical fact really is, and that it is not so distinct from the suppositions of mythic thinking. Dunstan questions the extent that he can provide an accurate account of the events of his childhood or his participation in World War I campaigns, because what he recalls is surely distinct from the ‘consensually accepted reality’.
One aspect of this blurred distinction between myth and history is Ramsay’s lifelong preoccupation with the lives of the Saints. The fantastic nature of their stories were always grounded in actual events, but their miracles were given attention and focus based on the psychosocial attitudes and needs of the day, so that what the public wanted had a large measure of influence over what became the accepted canon.
The novel and Davies's life
Ramsay's life (wounded war veteran, lifelong bachelor schoolmaster) was very different from Davies' (never in the army, married with a family, a newspaper editor and author) yet some readers thought Fifth Business semi-autobiographic. Davies projects his life experiences (childhood in a small Ontario town, family connections with the social and financial elite) into many of his works and he thought of it as "autobiographical, but not as young men do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield, a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much re-arranged." Davies allows us to peer through a window into his childhood in Thamesville, Ontario and through his young life into higher education and beyond through the character of Ramsay and throughout the Deptford trilogy. In Fifth Business, Davies provides us with an autobiography which is "not a sweating account of the first time he backed a girl into a corner", but an account of his spirit, his memories, and his deeper life experiences. Or, as Diane Cole wrote in the New York Times soon after Davies's death, "Davies used his personal myths and archetypes to probe the possibilities of human good and evil, but always with a wickedly humorous wink."
The character of Percy Boyd Staunton is also an important reference to Davies's real life. Some of the elements of Boyd's life-story are drawn from Robertson Davies's friend Vincent Massey. Both men became rich from their father's agricultural businesses. Both men were enlisted in World War I, went into politics to hold cabinet positions, and strengthened Canada's ties with the mother country during her time of need. While Vincent Massey becomes the first Canada-born Governor General, Boyd is likewise appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. And the most convincing parallel is that Boyd becomes the Chair of the Board of Governors that runs the school at which Ramsay teaches, much as Robertson Davies spent his career at the University of Toronto as the Master of Massey College. But the character is also fictionalised to a large extent. For instance, Vincent Massey went into office without taking an ill-suited wife and managed to overcome the difficulties of the abdicating and dying kings in England. Davies has stated that aspects of the character are more reflective of his father. The initial snowball incident that shapes Boyd's life is more neutral and Davies claimed it was developed out of an inspirational dream.