Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

In his book, Fifth Business, Robertson Davies, explores a multitude of themes through the life of the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. The book is structured in five parts each of which is narrated through the same protagonist. The main act is depicted through the themes of sainthood, morality and guilt resulting from different situations in their life. In particular, the elements of guilt and sainthood are predominant and provide the backbone of the novel. Although the elements and themes portrayed in the story are largely associated with the main character, iother characters serve to depict the same themes albeit bin different situations. Each of the five parts of the novel is like a part to the general whole that serves to depict the different themes as envisioned by the writer. Perhaps the most dominant subject in this novel is the theme of guilty for its increasing role in the development of different characters. The theme of guilt manifests itself differently in characters (Davies, 1977), ultimately proving the acceptance of one’s guilt as critical in character development.

In the book, the author structures the theme of guilt to reflect a trait that stems from traumatic childhood experiences. Although the theme runs through different characters in the novel, Dunstan is the most affected and is a testament to the fact that guilt stems from events in the youth. Indeed, the events of his youth seem to have significantly shaped his entire life thus outlining the important of feeling guilty in developing one’s character. Although Dunstan strives to reconcile his past through the encompassment of his identity with guilt, other characters are eager to deal with their guilt and childhood events in similar fashion. Ultimately, the events unfolding in the film depict a connection between childhood events and the encompassment of guilt in one’s life. Also, the association between guilt and the identity of different characters I well outlined in the plot of the movie giving it a requisite flow in the process.

In the manifestation of the theme of guilt, the author uses one character to portray the evidence of guilt while its absence is portrayed using a different character. Indeed, the place of guilty in normal life is perfectly explored through the different characters in the story including the protagonist who is mostly affected by the guilt. In the beginning of the novel, the author introduces the characters of Dunstan and Percy as having two parallel lives (Davies, 1977). By so doing, the author is adamant of the role of guilt in people regardless of their diverse characters. The relationship between the two characters further serves to show the aspect of competition between different characters and the resultant guilt. The relationship of the two characters during their childhood is particularly significant including their love for Leola and their ties with the military. Their entire lives are reflective of the theme of guilt as their stories depict different situations resulting into guilt. For instance, Dunstan is filled with guilt following the premature death birth of Paul Dempster. On the other hand, Percy is guilty and remorseful for causing Mrs. Dempster to go insane. In this manner, the theme of guilt drives the characters in the story and essentially determines the final conclusion. Despite the differences in character, the author uses their contrast to depict guilt among people of different values and prosperity.

The role of guilt in shaping one’s identity is largely explored in the story through different characters. In part, Dunstan’s guilt changes his way of life and leads him, into completely devoting his life to Mary Dempster. The guilt felt by Dunstan is largely resulting from his religious upbringing which encourages the feelings of remorse (Davies, 1977). Also, the guilt is imparted by Percy when he throws a snowball thus hitting Mrs. Dempster. In the event, the woman becomes extremely mad resulting in the premature birth of Paul. In this sense, therefore, Dunstan is guilty for having caused a chain of troubles to Mrs. Dempster. The religious background he has ponders him into becoming the bearer of all the guilt and becomes responsible for the misery that ensues in Dempster’s life. Following these events, Dunstan commits himself into taking care of Mary’s chores while caring for her son, Paul. The impact of the guilt that Dunstan feels is evident in the shaping of his life to fully committing to help Mary in her life. Through the understanding that his help builds, Dunstan no longer feels a sense of moral obligation and his help stems from a sense of commitment to a person he considers to e his friend.

The character of Dunstan is also used in painting a permanent mark of guilt in one’s life. Accordingly, running away from guilt does not guarantee its permanent avoidance. Consequently, the feelings of guilt commit a person into a different life for a long period of time.  For instance, Dunstan escapes from Deptford using the military thus giving him a chance to temporarily leaving behind the guilt that had followed him for a long time. However, running away from his hometown did not indeed help the character into wiping away his guilt but rather allows him to run away from the commitment arising from the guilt. Even when the character runs away, the feelings of guilt escort him into the new location. The author reports that Dunstan sees the face of Mary during his pain at the time of war. Although the depiction of Mrs. Dempster is achieved through the statue of the Immaculate Conception, Dunstan would not have seen her image were it not for the feelings of guilt (Davies, 1977). The fact that Dunstan visualizes the images of Mary during his time of pain in war is evidence of the permanent feelings of guilt in his life. Essentially, the feelings of guilt had the implication of transforming Dunstan’s life entirely through events that shaped his life. Further, Dunstan continues with his commitment to the life of Mary after returning back to Deptford. In fact, he admits to having visited the woman forty Saturdays every year including on holidays and her birthday.

The repercussions of guilt are also explored in the book through the character of Percy and his relationship with Leola. In fact, Leola is depicted as a loving wife to Percy and one that is fully committed to their marriage. The two people were born in the town of Deptford and grew up together sharing a life in each of the important stages. For instance, Percy and Leola attended similar schools and developed a liking for each other throughout the years. Before the feelings of guilt, their life was perfect and filled with happiness as captured in the story. Immediately after Percy’s return from the war, they got married until the untimely death of Leola. The reason for the death of Leola is identified as pressure from Percy who wanted her to be something that she could not achieve. In the ensuing period, Leola tried very hard to be what Percy wanted but Percy was adamant that Leola was not what he really wanted. The social advancement of Percy was too fast for Leola to keep up with resulting in her suicide. In the end, Percy began to neglect Leola and eventually cheated on her with another woman. As the neglect and cheating grew, so did his guilt for having neglected Leola and her children. Upon the suicide of his wife, Percy’s guilt grew tenfold to appoint where he could not face it. Indeed, Percy did not even attend the funeral of his wife owing to the level of guilt that he harbored in his heart (Davies, 1977). Through these events, the permanent impacts of guilt are significantly explored in the text through the characters of Percy and Leola.

Still, the feelings of guilt and their ability to shape one’s character are explored through the character of Boy who turns out to be a negative person in the novel. Throughout the text, Boy is portrayed as facing the guilt of causing Mary Dempster to go insane. Although the relationship between Boy’s actions and the insanity of Mary stem from way back in his childhood, they are still responsible for her insanity. During his childhood, he threw a snowball at the woman causing her harm in the process. However, the denial by Boy that he threw a snowball at Mary complicates the issue of guilt even when Dunstan was present during the event. The very fact that Boy, with such a reputable character and grace would deny something that he did is very disturbing. In fact, it is this event that changed the mental stability of the woman and also resulted in the premature birth of his boy. Even after the childhood event, Dunny confronts Boy regarding the guilt of having caused harm to the woman (Davies, 1977). Evidently, the confrontation from Dunny results from inner feelings of guilt and the pity that he had on Mary Dempster.

The novel is a narration of the life of Dunstan and his responsibility of carrying the burden of other people. The theme of guilty is particularly explored in the text and evokes mixed feelings among the readers. Dunstan, for one, lives a life that is filled with guilt over things that he did not do. In contrast, and quite ironically, Boy does not feel guilty despite having caused the mental instability of Mary. The two characters thus portray different values in terms of feeling guilt and taking responsibility for mistakes done in life. While Dunstan is guilty for having dodged the snowball that eventually hit the woman, Boy who threw the snowball feels no sense of guilt for his actions. Ultimately, guilt plays a big role in shaping the lives of the different characters in the story including Dunstan, Dempster and Boy. The events following different incidents corrupted the lives of the characters involved to the point where the guilt was dealt with entirely.



Davies, R. (1977). The Deptford trilogy. New York: Penguin Books.

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