Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

     In Robertson Davies' novel Fifth Business, the author uses the events
that occurred in Deptford as a Canadian Allusion to reveal character identity.
Three characters in the novel from Deptford: Boy Staunton, Dunstan Ramsey and
Paul Dempster, leave Deptford to embark on a new identity to rid of their horrid
past. The three main characters of the novel, all of whom to some extent try to
escape their small town background, change their identity to become people of
consequence. All in some way take on a new identity. Imbedded in this
transformation is the assumption that one's original self, especially one's
small town origins, must be discarded before one can become significant in the

Firstly, Paul Dempster grows up as an outcast in Deptford, his mother's
'simpleness' leading the tight social world of the town to cast out his whole
family and force's Paul to leave the town and create a new image for himself.
Paul runs away to the circus in his early teens because of the mental abuse he
took from the town because of his mothers incident with the tramp. Dunstable
comment's, "Paul was not a village favorite, and the dislike so many people felt
for his mother - dislike for the queer and persistently unfortunate - they
attached to the unoffending son," (Davies' 40) illustrates how the town treated
Paul because of his mother's actions. Paul leaves his past because of the
actions displaced by his mother and the guilt he feels because his "birth was
what robbed her of her sanity," (Davies' 260) explains why Paul left Deptford.
However, while Boy merely tries to ignore his Deptford past, Paul tries to
create a completely new one and Paul asks Dunstan to write an autobiography that
"in general terms that he was to be a child of the Baltic vastness, reared
perhaps by gnomelike Lapps after the death of his explorer parents, who were
probably Russians of high birth." (Davies' 231). The scenery of this
autobiography seems significantly Canadian, but Paul does not want his book to
represent his past life in Deptford. Therefore, Paul Dempster is a troubled
child because of his mother's actions in Deptford which in turn force Paul to
leave Deptford and to create a new identity for himself.

Secondly, Dunstable Ramsey is haunted by the guilt of Mary Dempster over
his entire life and he must create a new identity for himself. After a rock has
hit Mary in the head (in a snowball thrown by Boy Staunton meant for Ramsay),
and her preacher husband is crying over her, young Ramsay's only thought is that

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he is "Watching a 'scene', and my parents had always warned against scenes as
very serious breaches of propriety." (Davies' 39) The actions of Mary bewilder
Dunstan because Mary committed a serious crime in Deptford. Later in life
Dunstan falls in love with his nurse named Diana who renames him after Saint
Dunstan, who is "Mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and an
absolute wizard at withstanding temptation." (Davies' 93) His new name does not
replace his old identity, but rather makes him double-named and double-
identified. Therefore, Dunstan changes his name to set forth on a new identity
and he never forgets his Deptford past and in fact he becomes obsessed with it,
particularly with Mary Dempster, mainly through guilt about his role in Mary
getting hit by Boy's snowball.

     Thirdly, Percy Boyd Staunton is at the center of the snowball incident
which is the prime mover in the action of the novel which force's Percy to allow
the incident to suppress his memory and leave Deptford to create a new identity
for himself. He moves to Toronto and inherits the family sugar business and
drops a letter from his middle name, becoming "Boy" Staunton, and begins to
build a new ruling-class identity for his renamed self. "As Ramsay explains,
"he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized
and defined," (Davies' 147) his new identity allows Boy to start a new life and
leave Deptford in the past. Also, Boy brings with him into his new life his
Deptford wife Leola, whom he tries to change into "the perfect wife for a rising
young entrepreneur in sugar." (Davies' 151) She cannot lose her small-town
background as well as Boy, and she falls by the wayside, eventually committing
suicide. Although, Boy is the antagonist character of the novel, his new
identity embraces him as one of the most powerful men in Canada, but he will
always hold the guilt from the snowball incident which occurred in Deptford.

     To conclude, the actions that occurred in Deptford change the whole
basis of the novel. Thus while Boy and Magnus have taken on new identities and
tried to displace their old ones, Dunstan takes on a new identity that
complements the old. All three leading characters leave Deptford to change
their life, but the spirit of the little town in Southern Ontario remains with
them forever.


Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Canada: Penguin Books, 1977.
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