Book Review: Fifth Business

On July 25, 2018, Posted by , In blog, With No Comments

In Fifth Business, Robertson Davies explores fate in a small town, drawing out its strands from the simple act of throwing a snowball. We see how the littlest act in human life can lead to an entire saga. More than anything else, we see the importance of being honest to oneself throughout life, even about the smallest of realities.

Boy Staunton and Dunstan Ramsay are childhood friends and they live in a small town. They never really got along very well. When they are young, they have a snowball fight. As Boy throws a snowball at Dunstan, Dunstan ducks. Because of this, the snowball accidentally hits Mary Dempster, who is pregnant. Now, due to this unfortunate development, Mary goes into early labour. Dunstan picks up the snowball after it hits Mary and he realizes that there is a rock in the centre of it, and he keeps it.

The child that Mary delivers, Paul, ends up being quite a strange boy. Dunstan feels sorry for him and teaches him magic tricks and looks after him. Here we see the theme of guilt and compassion. Dunstan feels somehow responsible for Paul, because he wonders what might have been if he had not ducked. The most important theme here is that Dunstan is aware of the reality and he is honest to himself about what has truly happened.

Dunstan eventually goes to war. Boy, meanwhile, becomes a businessman, and becomes wildly successful. He becomes rich and influential. And yet, there appears to be a complete superficiality around him. He is completely empty as a person, as he worships everything that is outside of himself. He has absolutely no idea who he is, as he moulds a vision of himself through the eyes of others. He is completely captivated with his own external image.

He models himself after the Prince of the Whales. Thus, his life is just an act. He marries the most beautiful girl in town, Leola Cruikshank, and he moves to Toronto. They have a family, and he has a successful business.

And yet, it is not surprising that the marriage is ultimately not very successful. The wife dies of what appears to pneumonia, but it is suicide. She is sick and yet she intentionally leaves the windows open. She does not want to live. Boy, therefore, remarries a woman who is a total pusher of his career. She knows exactly what he should do. She is a very cold-hearted woman.

During all of this, Dunstan searches the lives of the saints. He is searching for the idea of life and of God. He looks after the mother who went into labour. She eventually went crazy and became a madwoman. Yet Dunstan feels responsible for her, and takes care of her. Because he ducked out of the way of the snowball, his sense of responsibility will not let go.

The story proceeds in that Dunstan goes out travelling. He meets Paul Dempster, who conducts his own magic show. The show is held in Toronto, where Dunstan meets Boy. They confront each other about the rock being in the snowball. Dunstan tells Boy about the entire affair, but Boy has no idea what he is talking about. It is clear that Boy has lived in complete denial and self-centredness.

Dunstan goes home. The next day, Boy is found dead at the bottom of Toronto harbour, sitting in his Cadillac, his mouth filled with a large chunk of pink granite. Here we see the theme of the rock in his mouth, and the rock in the snowball. Boy has died.

In the end, the Master of Illusions, during the magic show, is asked who killed Boy Staunton. The head of Friar Bacon, operated by Paul Dempster's associate, replies that five people did. The last person was the one who knew all of Boy's inner secrets, and that is the person of the "fifth business." Thus, we see clearly that Boy had made a surface world, the external world, and he had no idea of the subconscious world, and therefore did not know who he was. And yet, a part of him knew who he was, and it was that part that killed him.

I liked this novel very much because it revealed very much how realities of the spirit are more important than worldly concerns. Dunstan shoves aside social normality to pursue his own interests. Yet Boy longs for the material superficiality of the material world. He lives his life above the line of consciousness, and yet the people that run into him play different sides of the subconscious. Dunstan is the one who symbolized Boy's secrets and carried his guilt for him. This is why he confronts him. Ultimately, Boy cannot reconcile himself to his own past, and he therefore cannot confront his own inner reality.

Boy is the one who has lived an unsuccessful life. He has done so for three reasons. The first reason is that he never got to know himself. The second reason is that he placed all of his value in appearances and the external world, which made him come up empty. Last but not least, he lived an unsuccessful life because he not only failed to find happiness (i.e. in marriage), but also because his life came to an abrupt and sudden violent end. Find more interesting papers at


  • Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996)

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