Some Ideas on the Narration of The Fifth Business

The Deptford Trilogy Note: While I read and enjoyed all three novels in The Deptford Trilogy, I’ve chosen to review the first novel, The Fifth Business.

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies

The reserved and yet quietly insightful first person male narrator features prominently in 20th Century literature. The best example to students of American literature might be The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway. On the surface, Nick appears as merely an intrigued voyeur setting out to tell us of a summer spent carousing with his fascinating and rich next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby. In reality, however, the brilliance of The Great Gatsby has little to do with Mr. Gatsby or its depiction of events that typified the ‘jazz age;’ rather, the brilliance of the book lies in Carraway’s seeming seduction by Gatsby, his discovery of his joint fascination and disgust with the glamorous life of the upper-class. The brilliance of the book lies in the way Carraway gives supposedly removed narration of Gatsby’s extraordinary life style and lavish parties while quietly revealing his opinions to us throughout, and ultimately violating his own rules of life and of storytelling. A European example with similar technique is Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The narrator, Hans Castorp, repeatedly tells us that he intends to tell us about the life of his cousin and other patients at a Tuberculosis sanitarium until deep into the book when years have passed, his cousin is dead and the patients seemed to have faded away, Castorp has somehow, beneath our eyes, shifted the focus to himself, and the book to autobiography.

The Fifth Business, by Robertson Davis, offers another variation on this classic Western Male narrator. This book was recommended to me by Barbara Heaton, an artist from Chicago.

The title, The Fifth Business, is a term used to refer to a dramatic or operatic character who “being neither Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, [is:] but essential to bring[ing:] about the Recognition or the denouement.” In the first scene, a young man throws a snowball at our young narrator’s head. This snowball’s impact triggers an entire trilogy surrounding the little town of Deptford, Canada. The title refers to our narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, who is actually solely responsible for “bring[ing:] about the recognition” and the story itself. By ducking from the speeding snowball at the last instant and letting it hit a pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the narrator initiates the story. In so doing, he sets himself up as the ‘fifth business.’ The image sketched in the book’s first pages – an image representative of the structure of the narrative itself – depicts our narrator standing literally directly between the villain throwing the snowball and the victim who is eventually hit (It’s a fascinating idea in itself that a potential villain actually throws the snowball at the narrator). The pregnant Mrs. Dempster, knocked to the ground by the snowball, goes immediately into early labor with her son. Her son and Percy’s son are the other two main characters and the narrators of books two and three in the trilogy.

The story of The Fifth Business is ostensibly ‘about’ the city of Deptford moving through the twentieth century’s wars, famines, industries and educational reforms, all of which are revealed through the events sparked by the ‘snowball incident.’ The narrator appears to be mostly removed from the action but we do encounter his stoic Scot-Presbyterian parents and we see him looking after the now crazy Mrs. Dempster and her premature child (to appease his personal feelings of guilt for ducking the snowball, he assists the Dempsters daily). It is in this way that the narrator resembles the detached and voyeuristic Nick Carraway, as he becomes as fascinated with his surroundings as a small child. He ruminates over why the townspeople treat the crazy Mrs. Dempster with so little respect, and analyzes the workings of the various Protestant churches in Deptford. We hear about the thrower of the snowball, Percy Boy Staunton, only in references to his own family’s actions regarding Mrs. Dempster’s business deals and religion. The narrator imbues Percy with a significance beyond all of other Deptford’s characters with repeated suggestions of Percy’s fame to come. The few small passages directly about the Staunton family – about Percy in school and his father’s business – are always paired with passages about Percy’s eventual importance. For example, the narrator tells us that, unlike in elementary school, Percy’s intelligence in the future would never be questioned, and that “his own business successes would far out number his father’s.” These references to Percy feel out of place to the reader because up to this point they far outnumber the actual appearances of Percy Boy Staunton in the story itself. Mrs. Dempster and Percy Boy Staunton become the main characters of the story for different reasons; Mrs. Dempster because of her prominence in the story itself as Young Dunstan spends every day attending to her and her son, and Percy Boy Staunton because the narrator continues to discuss him despite his absence from the story itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that our narrator, Dunstan, isn’t important in these early chapters. His character is strongest in his role as narrator and guide through Deptord, and he appears at no point to be our hero or lead. This tone briefly changes, however, when we arrive at 1916, and Dunstan narrates his experience, one shared by millions of other young men, in the trenches of France fighting Germans. It’s a fascinating war story that the narrator downplays despite the fact he is awarded the Victory Cross for bravery and loses his leg to shrapnel. This whole part of the book, though intriguing and suspenseful, seems out of place, as though the book had taken a strange turn towards the narrator himself and away from our two main characters. After all, in drama, no one wants to know why the fifth business has a wooden leg – he just has one.

But after the war, the story returns to Mrs. Dempster and her son and Percy Staunton and his family and their different paths and how those paths that crossed once with the throwing of a snowball by an eleven-year-old boy intersect once again forty years later. The reader falls into the terse rhythms of quick and descriptive prose as our narrator moves us in and out of the lives of the Dempsters and Stauntons. He describes his own fascination with saints and describes how he came to write his books that are part travelogue, part saint biographies. But by this point in the story we’re less interested in the narrator and his books as we’ve become attached to the lives of the main characters of the story. As a result, the narrator’s personal digressions feel less and less important, and a tad misplaced. In comparison to the events and lives of the main characters of the story, his books and studies have come to seem trivial, almost comical.

But not till our narrator finds himself in the entourage of a magician in South America are we able to reflect back on previous events and thus do we realize his true nature. His travels and lifelong fascination with magic lead him to this absurd summer where he ends up helping a magician (a True magician, not an entertainer or farce) to design a show, ghost write his autobiography, and fall in love with his handler (who used to be a circus freak). He travels for the summer with this magician and crew living a bohemian lifestyle that drastically contrasts with his stuffy academic routine. When the absurdity of this situation is revealed and continues to carry on we come to realize that the narrator is simply trying to re-create himself and to be something greater than just a man from a small Canadian town teaching at a boys school and writing books about saints. We begin to suspect that the story is not about the Dempster’s or Percy Boy Staunton anymore, but that they are simply canvases upon which this fifth business attempts to create a self.

This solipsistic jaunt in South America causes the reader to reevaluate Dunstan Ramsay the man and Dunstan Ramsay the narrator. The narrator never confesses that he is using the story of others to tell his own story, nor would Dunstan Ramsay the man ever admit to it; his story is so focused on the Dempster’s and the Staunton’s that there is little time for true personal evaluation. But is this really so? The reader comes to realize that Dunstan spent days and days with Mrs. Dempster, even when forbidden by his parents and ridiculed by the town, simply because he was fascinated by her insanity and pleased by the fact that her son, Paul, loved to watch him do magic tricks. He never gave us motive, but it slowly seeped into our consciousnesses. He never stopped emphasizing the luck and good circumstance that led to his being called a hero and he never stopped downplaying the importance of meeting the King of England and being given the Victoria Cross – but in this way he never stopped talking about it and it never ceased to be discussed by his characters. Also, he spent many an evening with Percy and his wife (an ex-lover of Dunstan) and ridiculed them to the reader for their absurdity, but he continued to go there for dinner and to remain their friend. In this way we see that the narrator’s descriptions of Mr’s Dempster and Percy and the war were all along providing the narrator with circuitous excuses to discuss himself.

We realize the true deception of the narrator when we recall the very beginning of the book when the narrator actually reveals his purpose for writing. The entire narration itself is constructed as a letter by the retiring Dunstan Ramsay to the former Headmaster of the school where he taught and is written in the form of a complaint about how the article written about his retirement in the school’s newspaper did not adequately capture the magnificence of his true accomplishments. We recall that we were first introduced to Dunstan Ramsay as he was denouncing an article in a school newspaper for its failure to mention the seven books he’s written and how one has been translated into eleven languages. At first, this letter to the headmaster seemed to be just a ploy used by the author himself to explain why his narrator was narrating anything: an authorial technique to bring us into the novel, and seemingly inconsequential compared to the ‘snowball incident.’ But when we realize his true nature later on in the book and we re-read the opening chapter, we understand it less as a ploy and more as an overture to the story of a vain, petty man, anxious to revise his forgettable legacy. We now recognize his self-obsession and solipsism from the very start, and indeed, we find that he explicitly expresses his intention to write the letter merely as a means of talking about himself. He demands that the Headmaster explain how they could not have acknowledged in the announcement of his retirement that he was a war hero and that he won a Victoria Cross. We realize that the whole book can be read as a prolonged letter to the editor of his school newspaper, as a correction to the sparse article announcing his retirement, so to speak. This Fifth Business tries to be the hero from the start, but he so successfully embodies the catalyzing role of Fifth Business that we, the reader, don’t realize until much later in the book his true ambition.

The brilliance of the author, Robertson Davies, is that none of this is apparent to the reader till deep into the book and that by this point Dunstan Ramsay the narrator and Dunstan Ramsay the man, to whom we were introduced early in the book, have disappeared and will never reappear. The Dunstan we come to know late in the book is overwhelmed by his need to create something more of himself, and thus he destroys our previous ideas of him. A seeming narrative ploy to start off the book becomes the key to the true main character’s – the narrator’s – most important character trait. For me, the most the compelling aspect of the story is the narrator’s failure to obey his own rules of narration and storytelling by failing to maintain the detached and catalyzing role of Fifth Business. We witness his failure to remove himself from story he wants to tell as he becomes more and more prominent in the narrative, until finally, he has brought about only the recognition of himself.

Nick Carraway follows a narrative path similar to Dunstan’s in The Great Gatsby, as he too violates the very rules he describes as the very condition of his ability to tell Gatsby’s story. Carraway starts off The Great Gatsby with a quote from his father who always reminded him: ‘‘’Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”’ Then he continues on with what feels like a removed and nonjudgmental narration by the next-door neighbor of a fascinating man and his extravagant parties. This tone is neither questioned nor rebuked until much later in the story when we see Gatsby obsessed and nearly insane over his love for Daisy, and Nick judging him subtly, but quite harshly. Not till we revisit the first line do we realize that only Nick’s father’s dictum prevents him from judging Gatsby from the very beginning. When we reflect upon the tight, controlled, and succinct style of The Great Gatsby we wonder if earlier drafts of the book Nick was writing weren’t much longer, full of thoughts and feelings and judgments from our narrator that were eventually removed as a result of the same courtesy the narrator claimed to practice at his father’s advice. Maybe the inclusion of his father’s advice was a reminder to the narrator himself and not the reader to suspend judgment, a sort of interdiction to govern the text’s choices of what to show and what to conceal, and one the text itself ultimately violates.

This is not to diminish Robertson Davies or The Fifth Business by comparing it to what is widely considered ‘the most perfect novel’ in the English language and arguably the greatest book to come out of the North American Continent. It is to place The Fifth Business right alongside it – connected not just by devious narrators and mythical businessmen but also by the ability of both authors to manage the grand and universal themes that operate across all aspects of our lives. One of these themes is surely our struggle with whether we are a Gatsby or merely a Fifth Business, and whether we don’t always become one by trying to be the other.


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