Dunstan Ramsay Essay Outline

fifth business

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There is one human emotion that can paralyse us, lead us to lie both to ourselves and others, to take action that we don't like, and to cripple any rational thought processes. It is self perpetuating if allowed to get out of control. Its side effects are either anger, aggressiveness or fear and reclusiveness. Its symptoms are irrational behaviour, lying, anguish, lack of self-esteem, and in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. It is guilt. In The Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies, guilt is a reoccurring theme throughout the novel and is a major force in one’s life. Davies demonstrates this by having one character feeling guilt while another who does not.

Davies introduces the reader with Dunstable Ramsay and Percy Boyd Staunton. They are depicted as friends yet rivals at the same time. This is shown when Dunstable had a sleigh that was faster than Percy’s. Of course Percy who is the spoiled rich boy becomes jealous, and starts calling Dunstable names. Knowing that Percy hates it when he is being ignored, Dunstable provokes Percy and ends up with him being chased with snowballs. Eventually someone gets hit and it’s not Dunstable, rather it was Mrs. Dempster whom he had ran around of cover. This is where the whole chain of guilt starts right after this incident. Dunstable feels guilty for this because the snowball who was supposed to hit him, ended up hitting Mrs.Dempster who was pregnant at that time.He feels even guiltier when he hears about the premature birth and infancy of Paul Dempster, which gives him a sickening feeling. As well Dunstable was raised in a strict family and has been encouraged to feel guilt even in the smallest of matters. From that day onward Dunstable was a changed individual who became a responsible person to Mrs. Dempster and was a loyal one. Throughout his life he becomes a better person because of the guilt which he accepts and tries to resolve.

When Paul Dempster grows up and learns about his mother’s demise, he himself feels guilty. When he grows older and understands things clearer, he blamed himself for causing his mother’s illness, because he was told that his birth had caused it. His guilt is amplified when the residents in the town keep their distances from him. After his mother was caught with the tramp performing sexual acts and being discovered by the townsfolk, Paul gets taunted and teased by his schoolmates who make rude comments towards his mother.

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Later on in life he remembers about his mother but would repress the idea that she was his. He becomes a great success as his talents as a magician becomes well known. Near the end of the story Paul realized the guilt that he had suffered throughout his life, when he , Dunstable and Boy where in the same room looking at the rock that caused him the pain. Unlike Dunstable he accepts the guilt but represses the idea.

In contrast to Dunastable and Paul who feel guilty about what has happened to Mrs. Dempster, Percy who threw the snowball, feels no guilt at all. Percy throughout the story is seen as a cold blooded character who is ignorant of the pain that he inflicts on others. When he gets married with Leola, he eventually gets discovered that he was seeing another women. He treats her like an object rather than a person, such as the time when Percy was trying to teach her better ways of speech, and manners. He did it for only his social status rather than for her own good. Eventually Leola dies, and yet again being the guy who feels no guilt, doesn’t even bother going to her funeral because he had so called ” more important matters”. Later on in the story, Dunstable confronts Percy and reminds him of his responsibility for the dreadful event of Mrs. Dempster and the snowball. By that time Percy is around 60 and has completely forgotten about this incident. Dunstable reminds him by showing him the stone, which he kept during the years that passed, which results in Percy’s anger. Rather than feeling sorry or guilt, he gets angry and mentions “this is what you do to me for all the financial support”. If he felt any guilt at all he would of said something more apologetic.

Davies demonstrates that guilt, though it is a negative emotion, can end up producing positive results. Dunstable stays loyal and takes personal responsibility for Mrs. Dempster. In Percy Boyd Staunton’s case, repressed guilt eventually turns against him (for the possible ending of him being murdered by Paul Dempster).




  • 1

    How does Dunstan relate to his mother? How does she shape the rest of his life?

    Dunstan understood Mrs. Ramsay; he even loved her. And yet he also loathed her, because of her controlling nature. This paradox haunts Dunstan for much of his life.

    Mrs. Ramsey is the archetype of the sensible Scottish mother, practical and efficient. However, she is also extremely conservative in her tastes and expectations. When Dunstan shows a predisposition towards the mythic and the fantastical, her authority controls and smothers him. Because of this tumultuous relationship, Dunstan has trouble not only with other women in his life, but also with societal expectations. He swears he is above the resentments towards his mother, and yet has trouble manifesting that remove into action with either women or his lifestyle, which remains mostly conventional. Ultimately, he himself embodies a similar paradox to that which he feels for Mrs. Ramsay, repudiating his mother's conservatism and yet somewhat conforming to it in spite of himself (at least until he meets Liesl).

  • 2

    Why is Dunstan so upset with the article published by Colbourne?

    The article in the College Chronicle is the primary catalyst for Dunstan's memoir. Ultimately, what truly upsets him is its implication that his life and career were entirely conventional. In condescending terms, it sums him up as reliable, like a piece of heavy furniture in the College’s library. His offense indicates his well-formed belief that every individual has the potential for a type of greatness, provided he embraces his place in the mystical order. Dunstan has indeed embraced and explored his position in this order, generating a number of meaningful and singular experiences in the meanwhile. From the battlefields of WWI to holding the secrets of one of the country’s most powerful men, Dunstan has experienced a full life. And yet what lies behind the resentment is an even greater idea: things are only conventional if we choose to see them that way.

  • 3

    Describe elements of myth and magic realism that Davies utilizes in Fifth Business.

    Many of Dunstan’s experiences border the realms of magic realism. In terms of realism, his story is grounded in everyday experience, from his childhood in a seemingly recognizable village up through his time traveling with a circus. And yet all of these experiences possess a mythical element, largely because Dunstan is willing to see them that way. Mrs. Dempster is not just an influence on his life, but actually a saint. Liesl is not just a mentor, but actually a Mephistopheles-like bearded lady. And Boy's death is not just a confluence of circumstances, but in fact Dunstan's redefinition of his place in the mystical order. These are only some examples of how Dunstan's life remains grounded and yet indicative of a more mythical order.

  • 4

    Why were Boy and Dunstan so eager to leave Deptford behind?

    Both Boy and Dunstan work to leave Deptford firmly discarded in their past. While they have very different reasons, there is some significant overlap to their relationships with their home village. For Boy, Deptford reflects everything that is small, mediocre, and limiting. He wants to be larger than ordinary life, which is summed up by Deptford. Dunstan is similarly turned off by these qualities, though his resentments have a more moralistic and mythical basis. He is particularly unhappy with Deptford's sanctimony, clearest in its treatment of Mrs. Dempster. Likewise, he sees Deptford as a grounded place entirely contrasted with the mystical quest he wishes to conduct. Ironically, both men work hard to escape Deptford because of who they are, and yet Deptford is an essential part of who they are. Thus, they can never truly leave it behind.

  • 5

    By the time she dies, what has Mrs. Dempster come to mean to Dunstan?

    Dunstan spends years trying to determine exactly what Mrs. Dempster means to his life. Is she his personal saint? A manifestation of childhood guilt? Or perhaps simply a mentally deranged woman who fascinates him? While each reader can determine this answer for himself, Mrs. Dempster ultimately proves a manifestation of Dunstan's complicated relationship with his past. As much as he wants to reinvent himself, he is forever drawn to reexamine his past in order to understand himself and his place in the universe's mythical order. Mrs. Dempster is a perfect externalization of this journey.

  • 6

    What role does Liesl play in Dunstan’s life?

    More than anyone else in Dunstan's life, Liesl serves the role of a personal mentor, instrumental in revealing Dunstan's darker side to him. Like a Jungian Mephistopheles, Liesl helps Dunstan complete his identity. By forcing him to admit his violent and sexual urges, and then to celebrate them, she leads Dunstan to eschew his self-assigned role as "Fifth Business" and take the lead in the situation with Boy and Paul at the novel's end. Hideous yet beautiful, Liesl is a symbol of Dunstan's inner paradox, his dark side that he works to transcend but is hampered by because he refuses to acknowledge it.

  • 7

    Discuss Boy and Dunstan's attitudes towards women.

    Both Boy and Dunstan have disjointed relationships with women, although in different ways. Boy uses his women for sex and validation. His cruelty towards Leola reveals how little he expects of his lovers, and his marriage to Denyse is purely for selfish reasons. While Dunstan is nowhere near as cruel as Boy, he does similarly sees women merely as a means to look for himself. He treats Diana well, but discards her once she has served her purpose. Ultimately, both characters keep women at arm's length, never really investing their complete selves into a relationship, and hence neither has a lasting relationship with a woman. Of course, the exception to this comes with Liesl, who leads Dunstan to an even more complicated place than he knew before. And yet it is no mistake that Liesl is marked by her masculine as well as feminine qualities.

  • 8

    Is Dunstan ultimately a dynamic character?

    While a question of this sort seems inherently subjective, there are objective ways to approach it. Dunstan is certainly a decent guy, a likable and reliable protagonist. And yet his position as "Fifth Business" makes him largely an observer throughout the novel. Truly, most of the interesting things happen because he has fascinating interests and friends, not because he takes decisive action.

    And yet he does change considerably, if subtly, by novel's end. As he ceases to remain "Fifth Business," he tears apart the tapestry - between all the men who came from Deptford - in the novel's final section. Unlike in many novels, we do not get much of a sense of how this change manifests in Dunstan, outside of the knowledge that he leaves to join Magnus's carnival in Europe. And yet the change is significant and thematically profound. In this way, he is entirely dynamic.

  • 9

    What role does Padre Blazon play in Dunstan’s life?

    If Dunstan’s life is a mythic journey, then the Padre is Dunstan’s archetypal mentor figure, gently leading Dunstan to conclusions about both his life and Mary Dempster. These conclusions transcend the understanding of the Catholic Church or any other religious denomination, while also acknowledging the value such religion has for lost souls. Ultimately, Blazon represents one of Dunstan's paradoxes: he wants the comfort of a mystical order, but is too skeptical to conform to any established creed. Blazon, while a Jesuit, echoes these sentiments and through his life models the freedom that one can have in embracing such a paradox, rather than trying to transcend it as Dunstan does.

  • 10

    Explain the title's significance.

    Liesl first quote the term "Fifth Business" to Dunstan, though the reader knows the phrase from the inscription of the novel's first page. A dramatic type that was meant in certain periods of theatre to serve as the confidant character, with little direct influence on the plot, the "Fifth Business" is destined to remain in the background. In many ways, Dunstan's role as "Fifth Business" is what endears him to us. As an everyman protagonist who is simply in position to report on extraordinary events, we get to experience his singular life as he does. And yet Dunstan ultimately transcends this role, suggesting that the title is supposed to be somewhat ironic. This irony helps establish one of the story's ultimate points: we ought to embrace our identities so that we can then work to transcend and grow past them.

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