Liesl - Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Liesl - Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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Robertson Davies’ colourful novel “Fifth Business” outlines and describes the development of a lost and emotionally void man, Dunstan Ramsay. This is a man who carries the weight of Paul Dempsters premature birth on his shoulders his entire life. It portrays his quest for self knowledge, happiness, and ultimately fulfilling his role as ‘Fifth Business.’ This would not have accomplished without Liesl, an extremely graceful and intelligent woman imprisoned inside a deformed and gargantuan body. Liesl plays a vital role in Dunstan’s development and psychological rebirth, as she helps him rediscover his body, his emotions, and himself.
Dunstan first literally loses a part of himself in the war, when he wakes up six months after falling into a coma to the realization that he has lost his leg. This event played a gigantic role in Dunstan’s loss of self, as it would anybody who loses a limb. He first experiences uneasiness about his injury when he and Diana become lovers, the woman who nursed him back to life after the war, as he compares his “scarred and maimed body with her unblemished beauty” (82). Dunstan has a few sexual encounters after Diana, but they all end with the women leaving quite frustrated and annoyed, as he uses his sense of humour in the bedroom to cover up his feelings of physical inadequacy. “I could not forget my brownish-red nubbin where one leg should have been, and a left side that looked like the crackling of a roast” (117). This feeling of shortcoming is possibly the reason why Dunstan does not give himself completely over to a woman to be loved, or maybe because he does not take women very seriously; not until he meets Liesl, that is. Dunstan initially falls in love with the beautiful Faustina, and is overcome with this boyish and unexplainable obsession for her, until he unexpectedly finds Faustina and Liesl entangled in a passionate and shocking embrace. It was this that began Dunstan’s character development, as he first begins to feel for what he has seen. Liesl confronts him that night, trying to seduce him, and after they fight, and then talk, they make love, as equals. This act reconnects Dunstan with his body, and Liesl becomes the first woman that he ever really experiences intimacy with, as a great cloud lifts from his spirit. “With such a gargoyle! And yet never have I known such deep delight or such an aftermath of healing tenderness!” (231).

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When Dunstan first meets Liesl, he is shocked and disgusted by her utter grotesque appearance and her extraordinarily large hands and feet. But the moment he hears the sound of her voice he realizes that there is something more to her. “Her voice was beautiful and her utterance was an educated speech of some foreign flavour” (208). She uses adulation, and draws confidence out of him, acknowledging that he is the author of A Hundred Saints for the Travellers, Forgotten Saints of the Tyrol, and Celtic Saints of Britain and Europe. From this he realizes that there is more than one kind of magic; she was a “woman of formidable intelligence and intuition” (217) cruelly and unfairly trapped inside an ugly body. Liesl opens up a new world for Dunstan, a world of spontaneity and discovery with which he was unfamiliar with, as his life up until then had been very much structured. She asks him to write the biography of Magnus Eisengrim, which proves to be another step in Dunstan’s character development. “In spite of her marred face her smile was so winning that I could not say no. This looked like an adventure, and, at fifty, adventures do not come every day” (214). As Liesl allows Dunstan to unload his emotional baggage and unlock his dark chest of secrets, he is able to connect some of the events of his life and heal from them. She helps him to realize that men who keep secrets pay a high price for it, as he is “grim-mouthed and buttoned-up and hard-eyed and cruel” (220). She helps him to understand that the reason he has made Mary Dempster his personal saint is because she has received the affection and warmth that he should have spread throughout fifty people. Liesl saves Dunstan from continuing his life as he has been living it the past fifty years, as a “moral monster” (221), so that he can live the rest of his life in a normal humanity.
Without Liesl, Dunstan would not have emerged into his final character, and he would not have known the role that he plays in life’s drama, which is a huge part of his development. After him and Liesl fight, and she comes back to his room, the conversation they have is life altering for Dunstan. She helps him realize that he is as human as anyone else, and that he cannot take responsibility for other people’s troubles, as he did with the premature birth of Paul Dempster. Liesl poses a question to Dunstan that therefore completes her role in the novel, because as she brings forth these truths about his life, she brings him to the last stage in the development of his character:

“Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? You know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business...You must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death that is part of the plot” (231).

Once Dunstan is able to connect the pieces of his past and spiritually heal, life seems to come a lot easier to him. He completes the biography of Magnus Eisengrim, which turns out to be a huge success, and when he is parting with Eisengrim’s entourage, Faustina gives him a kiss, in exchange for an expensive and handsome necklace, which is a large step from where he was before. He also gives Eisengrim a set of expensive studs, in exchange for a monthly sum in order to take care of Mrs. Dempster. To Liesl, however, he gives nothing: “By this time she and [Dunstan] were strong friends and took from each other something that could find no requital in presents” (234).

Works Cited
Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1977.
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