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Fifth Business Study Guide & Plot Summary

This Study Guide consists of approximately 114 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Fifth Business.
This section contains 1,700 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our Fifth Business Study Guide

Fifth Business Summary & Study Guide Description

Fifth Business Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Related Titles and a Free Quiz on Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.

Plot Summary

Fifth Business is a memoir-style novel, written by a fictional narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. Ramsay has recently retired after forty-plus years of teaching history at the Colborne College for Boys. Now he finds himself indignant at the condescending way in which he has been portrayed in the school's newspaper; an article about his retirement implies that he is a doddering old man who has never had anything relevant to teach his pupils. Dunstan takes exception to this attitude, and sets out to convince his former boss, the school's Headmaster, of the value that Dunstan has brought to Colborne College.

Dunstan begins his memoir with an account of his childhood in the darkly disturbing village of Deptford. The central events of his life begin with a childish snowball fight. His snowball-throwing friend and enemy, Percy Boyd Staunton, chases Dunstan, then named Dunstable, home. Dunstan ducks a snowball by dodging behind a young couple, out for an evening stroll. The couple, the Reverend and Mrs. Amasa Dempster, is expecting their first child. When Mrs. Dempster is hit by Percy's snowball, she crumples to the ground. Her life will never be the same again. Her baby is born quite prematurely, that very night, and Dunstable's mother, the local midwife, assists with the birth. Dunstable, plagued with guilt by his role in the event, tells no one that it was Percy who threw the snowball. His mother, Mrs. Ramsay, takes a liking to the sickly infant, and labels him a "fighter," for young Paul Dempster seems determined to survive. Meanwhile Mary Dempster has sustained permanent brain damage from the accident, and is deemed simple by the villagers.

The villagers had never liked Mrs. Dempster. Because of her kind nature and generous spirit, she is considered unfit to be a minister's wife. After Paul's birth, her decision to breast-feed in her living room, even when her husband is present, convinces the villagers that she is out of her mind. Only Mrs. Ramsay remains kind to poor, simple Mrs. Dempster. One day, when Dunstable is a teenager, Mrs. Dempster turns up missing. The entire village goes out to look for her, and it is Dunstable who finds her in the gravel pits, in a compromising position with a vagrant. When her stunned husband asks her why she has done such a thing, Mrs. Dempster responds that the vagrant had been so polite, and had seemed to want it so much. This answer becomes famous in village lore, and the local boys take to calling her a whore, or "hoor" as it is said in the village.

From that day forward, Mrs. Dempster is kept prisoner inside her home, tied up with a rope so that she cannot escape. The villagers all turn against her, calling her a dangerous lunatic. Even Dunstable's mother, Mrs. Ramsay, turns her back on Mary Dempster, and forbids Dunstable from visiting the Dempster home. The Reverend Amasa Dempster takes to praying loudly for Mary's death, and begging God to help him forgive her for ruining his life. Young Paul cannot stand growing up in such an environment, and has a particularly hard time dealing with Percy Boyd's taunts. Percy, more than anyone, enjoys calling Mrs. Dempster a hoor.

Meanwhile, Dunstable Ramsay has grown up, and is developing a mind of his own. His guilt over the snowball incident still plagues him, and he secretly visits Mary and her son Paul whenever he can. He develops complex feelings of love for Mary Dempster; whenever he is in her presence, he feels uplifted spiritually. Her loving nature seems saintly to him, especially when compared to the cruel nature of the rest of the village. Thus, on the day his brother Willie dies, Dunstable instinctively runs to get Mrs. Dempster, instead of the village doctor. Mrs. Dempster prays over Willie, and brings him back to life. Naturally, when the doctor arrives, he insists that no such thing has happened. Everyone believes that Dunstable is a foolish young boy, and that clearly Willie had never died. No one believes Mrs. Dempster's prayers brought Willie back from the dead, and the village's opinion of her does not improve. Dunstable refuses to accept his mother's poor view of Mrs. Dempster, even when Mrs. Ramsay issues him an ultimatum: Her, or me. Dunstable chooses a third option, and enlists in the Great War.

Dunstable leaves Deptford, never really to return. Before he goes, he wins the heart of Leola Cruikshank, the prettiest girl in town, and Percy Boyd Staunton's fiancy. During the fighting, Dunstable is nearly killed one night. As he lies dying, he looks up and discovers that he is in a ruined church. One statue remains in the ruins, a Madonna and Child. Amazingly, the statue bears the exact likeness of Mary Dempster's face. When Dunstable wakes up in the hospital a few days later, he credits his survival as Mrs. Dempster's second miracle. Dunstable falls in love with the pretty nurse, Diana, who tends him in the hospital. Diana renames him Dunstan, after the saint, because she thinks they have a lot in common. Both Dunstan Ramsay and St. Dunstan share a love for learning, and the disciplined ability to resist temptation. Dunstan resists temptation by not marrying the lovely Diana. Although he loves her and will remember her to the end of his days, Dunstan is afraid that she, like his mother, will smother him with her love.

Dunstan returns to Deptford to find that a flu epidemic has killed many of its citizens. Both his parents are dead, as is Amasa Dempster. Paul Dempster has run away with the circus, leaving his widowed mother, Mary, all alone. Dunstan learns from the magistrate that Mary's aunt, Bertha Shanklin, has taken her niece to live with her in Weston, which is near Toronto. Unable to suppress his relief at his parents' deaths, Dunstan sells the family home and enters college in Toronto. His childhood friend, Percy, is also attending school in Toronto, and has won back the hand of the fair Leola. Percy has renamed himself Boy Staunton, and indeed looks the picture of glamorous youth. Boy loves to gloat that Leola had picked him over Dunstan, not realizing that Dunstan never really loved Leola and is not sorry to have lost her to Boy. The two young men settle into their adult lives. Dunstan completes his degree and begins teaching at Colborne College for Boys. Boy takes his father's money and doubles it, quickly becoming a business impresario in the manufacture of refined sugar and sugar-related products. Meanwhile, Dunstan looks for Mary Dempster in Weston, and begins making regular visits to her and her aunt Bertha.

Dunstan becomes a close friend of Boy, Leola, and their growing family, and embarks on his role as Boy's lifelong confidant. Boy helps Dunstan out with solid financial advice, and Dunstan discovers his love of travel and history. He spends a great deal of time researching the saints, and makes an annual trip to Europe for this purpose. With all this, Dunstan still finds time to visit Mrs. Dempster. When her maiden aunt Bertha dies, leaving him responsible for Mary's care, but with no money to accomplish this, Dunstan is forced to put Mary into a public hospital for the insane, where he visits her every two weeks, for many years. Dunstan begins to believe that Mary is herself a saint when he learns of her third miracle. Dunstan meets Joel Surgeoner, a reformed vagrant who runs a homeless shelter. Surgeoner is the same vagrant with whom Mary Dempster was found in a compromising position. Surgeoner confides to Dunstan that Mary's kindness had miraculously turned his life around. Thus, as Dunstan continues to research his beloved saints, he also researches the possibility that Mary Dempster may have what it takes to be one of them. In time, Dunstan writes ten books about the lives of the saints, and becomes well-respected by Catholic scholars.

However, Dunstan's favorite book is the autobiography he authors of Paul Dempster. Dunstan discovers Paul, by pure serendipity, on one of his trips to research saints. Now named Magnus Eisengrim, Paul has his own magic show. Dunstan is amazed to see his boyhood friend pulling off such feats on stage, for Dunstan himself had been Paul's first magic teacher back in Deptford. Dunstan joins Eisengrim's company, where he meets a remarkably ugly but intelligent woman named Liesl. Liesl is Eisengrim's business partner, and it is she who proposes Dunstan write a fictional autobiography of Eisengrim. She has read his works on the saints, and asks him to write an equally exciting story about Eisengrim. Through Liesl, Dunstan discovers his creative imagination, and at long last shakes off the moral tyranny of his upbringing.

When Dunstan returns to his regular life at Colborne, he discovers that Boy Staunton is up to his old tricks. Boy's morals have been unacceptable to Dunstan for some time, but Dunstan has continued to keep Boy's secrets over the years - even as Boy cheats on his wife and bullies his children. Dunstan has always considered it a point of honor to keep Boy's confidences, but now that he's met Liesl, Dunstan is willing to change his definition of honor, but first he visits Mary Dempster and tells her that he has finally found her son Paul. This news is incredibly upsetting to Mary, who believes, in her mind that Paul is still a ten-year-old boy. She blames Dunstan for ruining her life, and until her dying day, refuses to see him again. Thus Dunstan learns the powerful effect that telling a secret can have on one's psyche. When Eisengrim's show visits Toronto, Dunstan decides to use that power to teach Boy a lesson. In the presence of Paul Dempster, Dunstan at last reveals the secret he has kept all these years. His granite paperweight is actually the stone from inside the snowball which Percy threw as a boy, the very snowball which led to the downfall of the Dempster family. Boy's body is found the next day, although no killer is ever named. Yet Dunstan knows it was Paul who killed Percy, and he knows and accepts that he himself engineered the death by the timely revelation of the snowball secret.

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This section contains 1,700 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our Fifth Business Study Guide
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Fifth Business from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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