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Fifth Business is a fictional memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, a small town boy from Deptford, Canada whom we get to see evolve into an intellectual man looking for meaning in life. Dunstan has an innate ability to read people upon first or second meeting, but never seems to get a true read on himself. He is relatively successful financially, and is proclaimed a war hero after receiving the most prestigious English award; the Victoria Cross. He was raised well, and has an intelligence that exceeds his small-town upbringing. All these things seem like they would lead Dunstan to a happy, satisfying life. However, at the beginning of the story Dunstan goes through a major life-changing event. His best friend and biggest rival Percy hits a pregnant woman with a snowball intended for Dunstan. This sends Dunstan into a life full of guilt, eventually leading him to a life without any significant other or true friendships.
Near the end of the story Dunstan is characterized as “fifth business” by a magic show manager named Liesl. Fifth business is an opera term for a specific character, usually a baritone. This character has no female opposite, is considered the odd man out, and knows the secrets of the lead characters. (214) Fifth business is a perfect characterization of Dunstan and perfectly sums up his life to this point. Liesl goes onto say, “This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you” (Davies, 213). Dunstan and Liesl continue to talk throughout the whole night and eventually go onto have seemingly meaningless sex. I say seemingly because it was meaningless in the context of Liesl and Dunstan as partners, but it meant a very large contradiction in Dunstan’s character. Although this is near the end of the story, it is the beginning of Dunstan’s appreciation for life. Dunstan had lived a very empty life up unto this point, which is why a random sexual escapade is the peak of his character arc.
The most important woman in Dunstan’s life up until he meets Liesl is Mrs. Dempster. This is the pregnant woman hit with the snowball, and she plays a very subtle, yet significant role in the story. Although not responsible, Mrs. Dempster is the reason that Dunstan lives a life full of guilt. She gave birth to her son prematurely leading her to become simple minded.
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The first female relationship that should be examined is the one with his mother. Dunstan respects his mother and sees her as a hard working, determined woman. Despite this he has no love for her. His mother becomes the caretaker of Mrs. Dempter’s child, Paul. Dunstan described this time as the most joyous of his mother’s life, and the unhappiest of his own. (10) Dunstan’s mother did this more out of duty and pity rather than having a liking for Mrs. Dempster. This created a division between Dunstan and his mother, because Dunstan thought so highly of Mrs. Dempster. This division only continued to grow following Mrs. Dempster having sex with a bum. Dunstan’s mother thought Mrs. Dempster to be a sinner and woman of free love, and one who couldn’t be saved.
Mrs. Dempster’s shunning from the town of Deptford is a major turning point in Dunstan’s life. He is faced with the decision of joining the town in their disgust, or be seen as an outcast for not sharing their views. Dunstan chooses the latter, and this is a decision that remains with him his whole life. He chose Mrs. Dempster over everyone else in his life and even accepts the nickname of “Nursie” from his schoolmates. He was given this name because he frequently goes to visit Mrs. Dempster to read to her and keep company. Dunstan does this against Mr. Dempster’s will, and thus must try and keep these visits a secret. The visits must be kept a secret from his mother also, enhancing the distance between them [Dunstan and his mother]. Deptford being such a small town, word of Dunstan’s visits easily gets around to his classmates. Dunstan is never bothered by the harassment he receives, and actually finds joy out of returning insults and “getting off a good one.”
Near the end of the story Dunstan says he believes traits from childhood still remain as a person grows older. (228) This is very true in Dunstan’s case, and as he begins his journey to adulthood his idolization for Mrs. Dempster is ever-present. His guilt continues to follow him everywhere he goes, and influences the way he sees himself and others. Dunstan is constantly fulfilling his characterization of fifth business. He never finds a woman he considers to be his equal, and never seems to believe he will. His guilt often gives him a sense of self-hatred, though he never seems to be able to consciously admit to it.
The first woman Dunstan has interest in is the Deptford beauty, Leola Cruikshank. Dunstan never has any true interest in Leola’s personality; in fact he sees her more of a trophy. Dunstan landing Leola would be a huge accomplishment, as well as an insult to all of her attempted suitors. When Dunstan realizes Leola has been involved with his best friend the whole time he is far from heart broken. In fact the only reason he is upset is because he lost the fight for Leola to his best friend. Dunstan attempts to woo a beauty similar to Leola later in the story. Her name is Faustina, and Dunstan fails on his conquest once again. He even goes onto admit the two of them would be unhappy should they be together.
After awaking from a coma Dunstan is introduced to his next potential love interest. Her name is Diana Marfleet and it is her duty to help Dunstan eat and walk again. Over their time spent together Diana falls in love with Dunstan. Dunstan thinks highly of Diana, but goes onto reject her engagement proposal and states that he doesn’t know what it means to be in love with someone. (81) I believe Dunstan rejects Diana for a combination of two reasons. The first is her resemblance to his mother, she is a caretaker and helped Dunstan to be reborn. The second reason is the underlying sense of Dunstan feeling he does not deserve love. His self-hate is still prevalent and he simply cannot accept love from another person.
Dunstan’s final female interest in the story is a woman he had no prior interest in. In fact he found her to be repulsive even after having sex and befriending her. This woman is Liesl, the woman I mentioned earlier who finally challenges Dunstan and calls him out on his martyr ways. She convinces Dunstan to tell her his life story a very uncharacteristic move by Dunstan. Liesl is the first woman who can truly challenge him and I believe this is why he finds her so intriguing. Liesl goes onto say “I wanted to tell you that you are human, like other people … you are a decent chap to everybody, except one special somebody, and that is Dunstan Ramsay. How can you be good to anybody if you are not good to yourself” (212) Dunstan is thus forced to realize he hasn’t truly been living, and chooses to make a sporadic decision. He gives into Liesl’s temptation and sleeps with her. I believe this is one of the first times Dunstan truly feels alive, and goes onto say it was one of the best nights of his life. Her seductions failed until she summed up his life and character flaws with such ease. Dunstan realizing her to be right gives into her submission and finally wakes up from his emotional slumber.
Although we never find out whether or not Dunstan settles down I do believe he broke the chains binding him to the title fifth business. Dunstan Ramsay went through a life full of guilt and self-hatred, never truly living until this was brought to his own attention. It is pretty ironic that it took Dunstan sleeping with an ugly woman to realize he has no love in his life. He created a saint out of Mrs. Dempster, giving no other woman a chance. He made her so important so that no other woman could compete, because he felt he was undeserving of love. Fifth Business is a story about guilt, and that is why it must end shortly after Dunstan is relieved of his. The Dunstan Ramsay we have known throughout the story has been truly reborn, exonerated of his guilt.
Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business.
New York: Penguin, 2001.