Fifth Business

By Robertson Davies


Welcome to the intriguing world of “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies! 📖✨ Published in 1970, this novel kicks off the celebrated Deptford Trilogy, taking readers on a compelling journey through the life of Dunstan Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher reflecting on his past.

Robertson Davies, a giant of Canadian literature, masterfully weaves together themes of history, magic, and psychology, inviting readers into the complex web of his characters’ lives. “Fifth Business,” a term borrowed from opera, refers to a character who, though not a lead, is nonetheless essential to the unraveling of the plot. This concept perfectly encapsulates the role of our protagonist, Dunstan, whose life story is deeply intertwined with those around him in unexpected and transformative ways.

The genre of “Fifth Business” defies simple classification, blending elements of mystery, historical fiction, and bildungsroman to explore the depths of human consciousness and the intertwined nature of fate and free will. 🎭📚

Davies’s rich narrative invites us on a journey through small-town Canada to the battlefields of World War I, the hallowed halls of academia, and beyond, all while questioning the very nature of sainthood, heroism, and the eternal battle between good and evil. Get ready to dive deep into a story that challenges the boundaries between the extraordinary and the everyday, the mystical and the real.

Plot Summary

“Fifth Business” is a richly woven tapestry of intrigue, personal growth, and the search for identity. Here’s a detailed look at its plot:

Exposition — The novel begins with Dunstan Ramsay reflecting on a pivotal event in his childhood in the small Canadian town of Deptford. A snowball thrown by his childhood friend (and later nemesis) Percy Boyd Staunton misses Dunstan and hits Mrs. Dempster, leading to premature labor and the birth of Paul Dempster.

Rising Action — The incident haunts Dunstan into adulthood, shaping his life’s path. He becomes entwined with the Dempsters, feeling responsible for Paul’s premature birth and Mrs. Dempster’s subsequent madness. Dunstan’s life is marked by his roles as a soldier in World War I, a teacher, and a hagiographer (a biographer of saints), exploring themes of guilt, duty, and the search for meaning.

Climax — The climax occurs with Dunstan’s discovery of the statue of Saint Wilgefortis and his confrontation with the now wealthy and influential Boy Staunton. This meeting forces Dunstan to confront the deep-seated impacts of their shared past, particularly the snowball incident and its ramifications.

Falling Action — Following this confrontation, Dunstan delves deeper into his research on saints, trying to reconcile the events of his past with his present understanding of faith, sanctity, and human resilience.

Resolution — The novel concludes with the mysterious death of Boy Staunton, found with a stone in his mouth — the same stone Dunstan believes was in the snowball thrown at Mrs. Dempster. This event brings the story full circle, suggesting that the past is never truly behind us and that everyone’s lives are interconnected in complex, often unseen ways.

Through Dunstan Ramsay’s narrative, “Fifth Business” explores how seemingly insignificant actions can ripple through time, affecting not just those immediately involved but generations to come. It’s a compelling exploration of guilt, redemption, and the quest for self-understanding amidst the labyrinth of human relationships.

Character Analysis

“Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies presents a vivid gallery of characters, each richly drawn and essential to the unfolding narrative. Here’s a look at the main characters:

  • Dunstan Ramsay — The narrator and protagonist, Dunstan is a man deeply influenced by a childhood incident. His life is a quest for meaning and understanding, marked by his roles as a soldier, teacher, and hagiographer. Dunstan is introspective, guilt-ridden, and dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of sainthood and human interaction.
  • Percy Boyd Staunton — Dunstan’s childhood friend turned lifelong rival, Boy Staunton is ambitious, wealthy, and superficial. His success in business and politics contrasts with his inability to grasp the deeper meanings of life’s events, leading to his tragic end.
  • Mrs. Dempster — The young, beautiful wife of a Deptford minister, Mrs. Dempster’s life changes drastically after being hit by the snowball. Considered mad by many, she becomes a central figure in Dunstan’s life, embodying themes of sainthood, innocence, and sacrifice.
  • Paul Dempster — The son of Mrs. Dempster, born prematurely due to the snowball incident. He runs away to join the circus and later becomes the renowned magician Magnus Eisengrim. Paul’s transformation and success mirror Dunstan’s interest in the extraordinary and the mystical.
  • Liesl — A significant figure in Dunstan’s later life, Liesl is deeply involved in Paul’s magic show. She is unattractive in the conventional sense but possesses a keen intellect and understanding of human nature. Liesl challenges Dunstan to confront his own limitations and embrace the complexity of his identity.

Character Analysis Summary

Dunstan RamsayIntrospective, dedicated, guilt-riddenTo understand the meaning of his life, explore sainthoodMoves from guilt and duty to deeper self-understanding
Percy Boyd StauntonAmbitious, superficial, competitiveTo achieve wealth and statusFails to develop deeper insights, leading to his downfall
Mrs. DempsterInnocent, sacrificial, misunderstoodLives a life of simplicity and sacrificeBecomes a figure of saintliness and enduring mystery
Paul DempsterResourceful, secretive, talentedTo escape his past and become successfulTransforms from a troubled youth into a master magician
LieslIntelligent, unconventional, insightfulTo challenge others to recognize their potentialActs as a catalyst for Dunstan’s final transformation

These characters, with their unique traits and evolving dynamics, contribute to the novel’s rich exploration of themes such as identity, guilt, and the pursuit of meaning within the tapestry of human connections.

Themes and Symbols

“Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies delves deep into a multitude of themes and symbols, each adding layers of meaning to the narrative and enriching the reader’s understanding of the story. Here’s a breakdown:


  • The Complexity of Human Nature — The novel explores the multifaceted aspects of its characters, challenging the notion of simple good versus evil. Characters like Dunstan, Boy Staunton, and Mrs. Dempster embody the complex interplay of virtues and vices.
  • The Search for Identity — Dunstan’s journey is fundamentally one of self-discovery, from his early experiences in Deptford to his exploration of sainthood and his role as “Fifth Business.” The theme highlights the ongoing, often difficult, quest for personal understanding and meaning.
  • Guilt and Redemption — Central to the novel is the idea of guilt, whether it be Dunstan’s perceived responsibility for Mrs. Dempster’s fate or Boy Staunton’s denial of his past actions. The characters’ various paths toward or away from redemption underscore this theme.
  • The Role of the Extraordinary in the Ordinary — Davies suggests that the magical and mystical are woven into the fabric of everyday life. This theme is exemplified by the lives of the saints Dunstan studies, as well as in Paul Dempster’s transformation into Magnus Eisengrim.
  • Fate and Free Will — The interplay between destiny and choice runs through the narrative, questioning to what extent the characters’ lives are predestined or shaped by their own decisions.


  • The Snowball — The snowball thrown at the beginning of the novel symbolizes the unpredictable and often uncontrollable forces that set the course of one’s life. It also represents the inception of guilt and the interconnectedness of fate.
  • Saints and Hagiography — Saints in the novel symbolize the intersection of the divine and the human, illustrating how extraordinary qualities can manifest in seemingly ordinary individuals. Dunstan’s fascination with saints reflects his search for meaning and redemption.
  • The Stone in the Mouth — Found in Boy Staunton’s mouth at his death, the stone echoes the snowball incident, symbolizing the unresolved past and the inevitable confrontation with one’s actions and guilt.
  • Deptford — The small town of Deptford stands as a microcosm of the world, symbolizing the idea that great stories and profound truths can emerge from the most unassuming origins.

Through these themes and symbols, “Fifth Business” offers a rich exploration of the human condition, inviting readers to reflect on the complexity of their own lives and the invisible threads that connect us all.

Style and Tone

Robertson Davies’s writing in “Fifth Business” is marked by a distinctive style and tone that contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the book, as well as to the depth of its characters and themes. Here’s a closer look:

  • Narrative Voice: Davies employs a first-person narrative, giving readers direct access to Dunstan Ramsay’s thoughts, feelings, and biases. This intimate perspective creates a deep connection with Dunstan, allowing for a nuanced exploration of his life and the themes of the novel.
  • Wit and Irony: The author’s style is laced with wit and irony, particularly in Dunstan’s observations of people and society. This not only adds humor but also serves to critique various aspects of culture, religion, and academia.
  • Rich Descriptions: Davies’s use of detailed and vivid descriptions brings the settings and characters of “Fifth Business” to life. Whether describing the battlefields of World War I, the small town of Deptford, or the aura surrounding a saint, the imagery is both evocative and immersive.
  • Symbolism: The novel is rich in symbols (e.g., the snowball, the stone, saints), which Davies uses to weave deeper layers of meaning into the narrative. These symbols invite readers to look beyond the surface and consider the broader implications of the characters’ actions and experiences.
  • Complex Characterization: Davies’s style allows for complex and multifaceted characters. Through Dunstan’s detailed recounting of his relationships and encounters, the characters emerge as deeply flawed yet profoundly human, each contributing to the novel’s exploration of identity and morality.
  • Intellectual Engagement: The tone of “Fifth Business” is intellectually engaging, reflecting Dunstan’s scholarly interests and his quest for understanding. Davies incorporates elements of history, mythology, and theology, challenging readers to think critically about the novel’s themes.
  • Atmospheric Tension: There is a pervasive sense of mystery and tension throughout the novel, created through Davies’s skillful pacing and foreshadowing. The tone shifts seamlessly from the mundane to the mystical, reflecting the novel’s themes of the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Together, these elements of style and tone make “Fifth Business” a compelling and thought-provoking read, showcasing Robertson Davies’s mastery as a storyteller and his ability to engage readers on multiple levels.

Literary Devices used in Fifth Business

Robertson Davies’s “Fifth Business” is rich with literary devices that enhance its narrative depth, character development, and thematic complexity. Here are the top 10 devices used in the book:

  1. Symbolism — Davies uses symbols, like the snowball and the stone, to add layers of meaning to the story, representing themes such as guilt and the impact of seemingly minor events on life’s trajectory.
  2. Foreshadowing — Early events in the novel, such as the snowball incident, set the stage for future developments, hinting at the interconnectedness of the characters’ fates and the unfolding of major themes.
  3. Irony — The novel employs irony, especially in character outcomes and the revelation of truths, to underscore the unpredictability of life and the hidden depths of individuals.
  4. Allusion — Davies frequently references historical, mythological, and biblical figures and stories, enriching the narrative with a sense of universality and connecting individual experiences to broader human themes.
  5. Metaphor — Metaphors are used to draw deeper connections between characters and themes, such as comparing Dunstan’s role in life to that of “Fifth Business” in opera, indicating his essential yet understated influence.
  6. Simile — Similes vividly describe experiences and emotions, making the abstract more tangible, as seen in Dunstan’s reflections on his own life and the events that shape it.
  7. Personification — Inanimate objects and abstract concepts are often given life-like qualities, such as when Davies describes the past or fate as active forces in the characters’ lives, enhancing the novel’s mystical atmosphere.
  8. Imagery — Rich and detailed imagery immerses the reader in the settings and emotions of the novel, from the stark battlefields of World War I to the mystical aura surrounding saints, amplifying the narrative’s impact.
  9. Motif — Recurring motifs, such as masks and disguise, explore themes of identity and the hidden selves, reflecting the characters’ complex natures and the facades they present to the world.
  10. Juxtaposition — Davies places contrasting elements side by side, such as the sacred and the profane, to highlight differences and explore the coexistence of opposing forces within life and human nature.

These literary devices work in concert to weave a complex, engaging narrative that invites readers to delve beyond the surface and contemplate the profound questions of life, identity, and destiny that “Fifth Business” raises.

Literary Device Examples

For each of the top 10 literary devices used in “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies, here’s a breakdown with examples and explanations:


The snowballSymbolizes the beginning of the chain of events that define the characters’ lives, particularly Dunstan’s guilt and sense of responsibility.
The stone in the mouthRepresents unresolved guilt and the return of repressed truths, linking back to the novel’s opening incident.
SaintsSymbolize the potential for extraordinary grace and virtue in ordinary lives, reflecting Dunstan’s search for meaning.


Dunstan’s interest in saintsForeshadows his lifelong quest for understanding and the role of the miraculous in the mundane.
The description of Boy Staunton’s ambitionHints at his eventual downfall and the tragic consequences of his actions.
Early references to secrets and hidden truthsSuggest the revelation of significant secrets that will impact all characters.


Boy Staunton’s success but ultimate unhappinessIllustrates the irony of achieving worldly success while failing to find true fulfillment or understand deeper truths.
Dunstan’s role as ‘Fifth Business’Ironically, he is the most pivotal character, driving the narrative despite considering himself peripheral.


References to historical events and figuresEnhances the narrative’s depth, situating the characters’ personal dramas within a broader cultural and historical context.
Biblical allusions, particularly around themes of sin and redemptionDeepen the novel’s exploration of guilt, responsibility, and forgiveness.


Dunstan’s life as a tapestrySuggests the complexity and interconnectedness of individual destiny and the impact of seemingly minor events.


Life’s mysteries as puzzlesIllustrates the enigmatic nature of existence and the human urge to find meaning in chaos.


Fate “weaving” destiniesImbues fate with agency, suggesting an unseen force guiding the characters’ lives.


The vivid depiction of warEvokes the horror and chaos of WWI, reflecting on its profound effect on Dunstan and his worldview.


Masks and illusionsRecur throughout the novel, symbolizing the various facades people present and the elusive nature of truth.


The sacred vs. the profaneHighlights the coexistence of and tension between higher ideals and base desires in human life.

These examples illustrate how Robertson Davies employs a range of literary devices to enrich the narrative of “Fifth Business,” weaving a complex story that explores deep themes of identity, morality, and the search for meaning.

Fifth Business – FAQs

Q: What is the significance of the title “Fifth Business”?
A: The title refers to a theater term for a character who is neither hero nor villain, yet is essential to the plot’s resolution. It symbolizes Dunstan Ramsay’s role in the novel and in the lives of other characters, where he acts as a catalyst for change without being the focal point.

Q: Who is the author of “Fifth Business”?
A: Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor, is the author of “Fifth Business.” He is one of Canada’s most distinguished authors of the twentieth century.

Q: Can “Fifth Business” be read as a standalone novel?
A: Yes, “Fifth Business” can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel. However, it is the first book in Davies’s Deptford Trilogy, and reading all three books provides a deeper understanding and appreciation of the characters and themes.

Q: What themes are explored in “Fifth Business”?
A: The novel explores themes such as the complexity of human nature, the search for identity, guilt and redemption, the extraordinary in the ordinary, and fate versus free will.

Q: Who are the main characters in “Fifth Business”?
A: The main characters include Dunstan Ramsay, the narrator and protagonist; Percy Boyd “Boy” Staunton, a wealthy and influential man; Mrs. Dempster, a woman who becomes central to Dunstan’s life after a childhood incident; Paul Dempster, her son; and Liesl, a woman who plays a significant role in Dunstan’s later life.

Q: How does “Fifth Business” relate to the other books in the Deptford Trilogy?
A: “Fifth Business” sets the stage for the trilogy, introducing key characters and themes that are further developed in the subsequent novels, “The Manticore” and “World of Wonders.” Each book explores different perspectives and aspects of the events and relationships introduced in “Fifth Business.”

Q: What literary devices does Robertson Davies use in “Fifth Business”?
A: Davies employs a variety of literary devices, including symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, allusion, metaphor, simile, personification, imagery, motif, and juxtaposition to enrich the narrative and deepen the thematic exploration.

Q: How does “Fifth Business” address the concept of guilt?
A: The novel delves into the concept of guilt through Dunstan’s lifelong feelings of responsibility for the accident that affected Mrs. Dempster and her family, exploring how guilt can shape one’s life choices and personal development.


What triggers Dunstan Ramsay’s lifelong interest in saints and his sense of guilt?A conversation with his mother.A book he read as a child.Being involved in an accident that hurt Mrs. Dempster.Winning a scholarship.
Who is ‘Fifth Business’ in the story?Boy Staunton.Dunstan Ramsay.Mrs. Dempster.Paul Dempster.
What is the outcome of the snowball incident?Dunstan becomes famous.Boy Staunton leaves town.Mrs. Dempster gives birth prematurely.Paul Dempster runs away from home.
Which character becomes a renowned magician?Dunstan Ramsay.Mrs. Dempster.Boy Staunton.Paul Dempster.
What symbolizes unresolved guilt and the return of repressed truths in the novel?A book.A stone.A letter.A photograph.
What is the main theme of ‘Fifth Business’?The importance of education.The complexity of human nature.The impact of technology on society.The benefits of travel.
How does Dunstan Ramsay view his role in life, as suggested by the title ‘Fifth Business’?As a leader.As an outsider.As someone essential yet not the protagonist.As a victim.
Which literary device is frequently used by Robertson Davies to hint at future events in the novel?Metaphor.Foreshadowing.Hyperbole.Onomatopoeia.

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension and recall of key plot points, characters, themes, and literary devices in “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies.


Spot the Literary Devices in the Paragraph

Read the following paragraph from “Fifth Business” and identify the literary devices used:

“In the world of Deptford, fate seemed to move like a mysterious wind, touching us lightly here, pushing us there, always invisible and often incomprehensible, yet undeniably present and powerful. As I looked back over the years, I could see how this unseen force had guided my steps, from the snowy night that changed Mrs. Dempster’s life forever to the discovery that would lead me to explore the lives of saints. It was as if each event was a bead on the string of my existence, tied together by an invisible hand.”


  1. Personification: Fate is described as moving “like a mysterious wind,” giving it human-like qualities of movement and intention, suggesting an active presence in the characters’ lives.
  2. Simile: Comparing fate’s movement to “a mysterious wind” uses a simile to illustrate the unseen yet powerful influence of fate.
  3. Imagery: The description of fate touching and pushing, and the reference to a “snowy night” evoke vivid images that enhance the reader’s understanding and feelings about the narrative’s setting and events.
  4. Metaphor: The metaphor of life events as “beads on the string of my existence” suggests that individual experiences are interconnected, contributing to the entirety of one’s life.
  5. Symbolism: The “invisible hand” symbolizes the unseen forces or destiny that guide and shape our lives, implying a greater order or design at work.

This exercise demonstrates the richness of Robertson Davies’s use of literary devices in “Fifth Business,” adding depth and texture to the storytelling.