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Fifth Business (Deptford Trilogy) Paperback – January 1, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 97 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A marvelously enigmatic novel, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force. -- The New York Times

One of the splendid literary enterprises of this decade. -- Peter Prescott, Newsweek

From the Publisher

Fifth Business Reading Group Guide:

"We move through a throng of Sleeping Princesses, Belles Dames sans merci, Cinderellas, Wicked Witches, Powerful Wizards, Frog Princes, Lucky Third Sons, Ogres, Dwarves, Sagacious Animal Helpers and Servers, yes and Heroes and Heroines, in a world that is nothing less than an enchanted landscape."
—Robertson Davies

Myth, magic, and miracles, freaks, saints, and devils--such is the world of wonders unleashed by a simple snowball thrown in the village of Deptford in 1908.

Fifth Business is Davies's masterwork, the book that cemented his reputation as one of the great storytellers of our time. When the book appeared in 1970, he had already published the three books of his Salterton Trilogy, which won him recognition in his native Canada as an incisive cultural critic and an endlessly entertaining novelist. He had struck a note near Mark Twain in his portrayal of small-town culture, satirizing the residents' pious absurdities without seeming cruel, dramatizing their dreams and good intentions without becoming sentimental.

With Fifth Business, he plumbed new artistic and spiritual depths. The opening scene, which he envisioned taking place at his boyhood home in Thamesville, Ontario, haunted Davies from the first time it appeared to him in about 1960 until he began to draft the novel ten years later: "It was simply a scene that kept occurring in my mind, which was of two boys on a village street on a winter night--I knew from the look of the atmosphere that it must be just around Christmas-time--and one boy threw a snowball at the other boy. Well, that was all there was to it, but it came so often and was so insistent that I had to ask myself, Why is that boy doing that and what is behind this and what is going on?"

Many elements of the novel that emerged from this vision were drawn from Davies's early childhood. Like Dunstable Ramsay's father, Davies's father was the one-man publisher of a village newspaper, and Davies grew up in the newspaper business. "In a newspaper family," he said, "you learn not only all the news that's fit to print, but all the news that is not fit to print, and you acquire an insight into human nature and the essence of a community which is very hard to acquire . . . in any other way."

Like his protagonist in Fifth Business, Davies was raised in the Presbyterian Church. Although he eventually rejected its particular doctrines, he retained a strongly religious temperament. His spiritual explorations ultimately found resonance in the works of Carl Gustav Jung. "Orthodox Christianity has always had for me the difficulty that it really won't come . . . to grips with the problem of evil," Davies said. "What looks good can be pushed to the point that it becomes evil, and . . . evil very frequently bears what can only be regarded as good fruit." Jung had portrayed God as a psychological reality that embraced polarities of good and evil, light and shadow; the devil is an inextricable part of him. One had to confront this shadow face-to-face in order to live a moral life. "The devil is the unexamined side of life," Davies said, "and the great evils spring from acting without knowledge of your subconscious intentions."

Davies was also drawn to Jung's deities because they had womanly as well as manly faces, faces that are reflected in his portrayal of Mary Dempster. Here were the feminine elements he found woefully lacking in Christianity, with its focus on God the Father and the Son. In Jung's landscape of the psyche, Davies found a theoretical grounding for the diverse representations of human quest and conflict he had come to appreciate. Beyond the Judeo-Christian literary tradition was a rich world of folk tales, myths, ghost stories, and legends that were sacred in their own way, striking deep spiritual chords in our unconscious. From this same sensibility sprang Davies's lifelong interest in saints, which he, like Ramsay, appreciated not as narrowly defined religious figures, but as archetypes of universal characters and tales.

The remarkable events that unfold in this "enchanted landscape" owe much to Davies's lifelong love of the theater. From boyhood he was drawn to the traveling circus, the magic show, and the movie palace. Over the course of his career he worked for the Old Vic Repertory Company in London, wrote a dozen plays, and was one of the founders of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. His passion for theater was so intense that his novels have sometimes been criticized for their theatricality: How does Ramsay just happen to meet Paul Dempster repeatedly in his travels, and how does Surgeoner "randomly" pick Ramsay from the crowd at Colborne College? But such theatrical events--call them coincidence or fate--lie at the heart of Davies's worldview. "I'm not in any way a devotee of realism," said Davies, "and the theatre is never realistic, even when it's pretending to be intensely so." The meaningful stories in our lives are dramatic rather than naturalistic, remarkable rather than random.

This appreciation of the theater of the inner life could come only with age. Davies was in his fifties when he explored these demons of youth in Fifth Business, and the result is a captivating narrative stance. While working on the manuscript, he wrote, "It is autobiographical, but not as young men would do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield--a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much rearranged--a spiritual autobiography in fact, and not a sweating account of the first time I backed a girl into a corner." Davies's protagonist frequently distances himself from immediate events, adding the tincture of age and humor to vividly recalled experience.

The unforgettable tone that arises from this perspective has been characterized as a hybrid of satire and romance. Davies somehow manages to marry these seemingly incompatible viewpoints, delighting in his own former naiveté and the follies of his youth while maintaining a fundamental earnestness about Ramsay's aspirations. It is the voice of a man at mid-life who has taken unusual paths, who is fascinated by the possibilities that lie before him, and who has lost neither his youthful seriousness nor his sense of humor.

Despite his established reputation in Canada, Davies was little known to U.S. readers and reviewers when Fifth Business was published in 1970. The American reception was exuberant, propelling the novel to bestseller lists in both the U.S. and Canada. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt described it in the New York Times as "a marvelously enigmatic novel . . . elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative. One thinks of The Magic Mountain and The French Lieutenant's Woman, although Mr. Davies hardly needs Thomas Mann and John Fowles to prop him up."

Other reviewers praised the remarkable range of erudition he conveys in his works. Saints and card tricks, brandy and psychology, linguistics and bearded ladies are all objects of his insatiable curiosity. Davies is modest about the range of his learning, pointing out that some academics thought Shakespeare must have been a sailor because of the convincing seaman's slang in The Tempest: "It's all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels." A veteran once asked Davies where he had served in France during the Great War, for only a soldier could have captured the mud and panic of the trenches so vividly. Davies had to reply that he was in the cradle at the time. Similarly, his fictional prescription for bringing an ailing cello back to its true voice with a poultice of horse manure was pure fancy. Even the definition of "Fifth Business" that opens the book—cited from a dull, untranslated account of Danish theater and first taken as yet another example of Davies's eccentric knowledge—was revealed to be entirely fictional when the Norwegian edition of the book was published (although the notion it conveys of "Fifth Business" in the theater is quite accurate).

The key is to be convincing, true to the spirit rather than to mere facts. As Davies described the art of writing:

If you're a writer . . . you're a descendent of those medieval storytellers who used to go into the square of a town and spread a little mat on the ground and sit on it and beat on a bowl and say, 'If you give me a copper coin I will tell you a golden tale.' If the storyteller had what it took, he . . . told them a golden tale until it got to the most exciting point and then he passed the bowl again.

His storytelling prowess earned him frequent comparisons to Charles Dickens--a comparison of which he was not overly fond. The authors he admired included Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, Evelyn Waugh, and Daniel Defoe, all very different writers, but all possessing what he called shamanstvo--the enchanter quality, from the word shaman. Like Dickens, Davies had a flair for the dramatic and could sketch a secondary character unforgettably in just a few lines (the portraits of Rev. Leadbeater, Orph Wettenhall, and Boy's stepdaughter Lorene in Fifth Business, for example). But he was more daring in his experiments with form than he is often given credit for, and his novelistic objectives are decidedly modern rather than Victorian.

As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, Davies "has created a rich oeuvre of densely plotted, highly symbolic novels that not only function as superbly funny entertainments but also give the reader, in his character's words, a deeper kind of pleasure— delight, awe, religious intimations, a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life."


1. When Percy Boyd Staunton denies his share of responsibility for the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster and caused her premature labor, Dunstable Ramsay feels the full weight of guilt on his shoulders. Even years later, when he seeks out Mrs. Dempster again, he is highly sensitive to the magistrate's charge: "Guilt . . . somebody bears it to this day!" Why does he feel this guilt so keenly? To what extent is he responsible for Paul's fate? For Staunton's?

2. Many of the characters in Fifth Business change their names. Dunstable Ramsay becomes Dunstan, Percy Boyd Staunton becomes Boy Staunton, Paul Dempster becomes Faustus Legrand and later Magnus Eisengrim. What happens when each of them is "born again"? Which aspects of their characters endure, and which are transformed?

3. Young Dunstable's flight from his mother colors the rest of his life. When he contemplates his relationship with Diana, his first lover, he shuns the motherly quality of her affection: "I had no intention of being anyone's dear laddie, ever again." How and why do the other men in the novel (Boy Staunton, Paul Dempster) flee their mothers? What are they seeking in a woman? How are the ideal and the reality of motherhood and womanhood conveyed in Ramsay's reflections on the virgin Mary?

4. "People marry most happily with their own kind," Davies once wrote. "The trouble lies in the fact that people usually marry at an age where they do not really know what their own kind is." What would have happened if Dunstan had married Leola? What kind of marriage would have better suited Boy?

5. "If you think her a saint, she is a saint to you," says Padre Blazon of Ramsay's fascination with Mary Dempster. What place does she come to occupy in his psychological landscape? Why is he so possessive of her, refusing to ask for Boy's assistance for her care?

6. King Edward VIII of England was forced to abdicate in 1936 after less than a year in office because he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American who was felt to be an unacceptable Queen. Why was this such a bitter blow to Boy? What did Edward represent to him? 7. If Ramsay is truly "Fifth Business," as Liesl describes, who are the hero and heroine, sorceress, and villain of the story? Do they correspond to the "usual cabal" described at the book's conclusion? Who are "the Basso and the Brazen Head" Liesl refers to in her letter? Who was the woman Boy knew and the woman he didn't know?

8. Ganymede was a beautiful Trojan prince who was seized and carried to Olympus by Zeus's eagle to become the cup-bearer of the gods. Ramsay suggests that Boy's corporate proteges were expected to fill that role. What did he want from them, and why did they always disappoint him?

9. "I seem to have emerged as a moralist; my novels are a moralist's novels," Davies said of his work. Certainly they are not moralistic in a conventional religious sense. In what sense are they moralistic? Ramsay tells Boy, "You created a God in your own image, and when you found out he was no good you abolished him. It's a quite common form of psychological suicide." What kind of God has Ramsay set up for himself? What light is shed on his moral character by his discussions of the devil? His talk with Surgeoner about fictional testimonials?

10. Fifth Business has sometimes been read as an allegory of Canada's struggle for recognition and identity. Who do you think plays the part of the U. S. in this interpretation? What devils might Canada have to address to develop fully as a nation?


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Product Details

  • Series: Deptford Trilogy
  • Paperback: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (January 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141186151
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141186153
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #118,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Matthew Krichman on July 18, 2002
Format: Paperback
Fifth Business, the first installment of the Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, is without doubt the best novel that I had never heard of. Davies prose and narrative voice rival Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in elegance, humor, and style. And his characters and plot development, so rich, absorbing, and at once triumphant and tragic, put this fine novel in the same class as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The term 'Fifth Business', as Davies describes, refers to the role in an opera, usually played by a man, which has no opposite of the other sex. While only a supporting character, he is essential to the plot, for he often knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when all seems lost, or may even be the cause of someone's death. In this novel, Dunstan Ramsay plays this role, and he is in maginificent form. Though he narrates the novel, and is intimately entwined in the lives of all its characters, he somehow manages to remain slightly in the background as a passive observer of others. It is through his eyes that we witness the rise of Boy Staunton, his childhood friend from the small Canadian town of Deptford. While Dunny goes off to the war where he is seriously wounded, and later becomes a boarding school master and expert on the history of saints, Boy makes his fortune in the sugar business and eventually pursues a career in politics. Dunny, whose soft-spoken charm, honesty, and self-reflection become clear through his narration, serves as an admirable foil to Boy, whose drive and ambition are unrestrained by a sense of morality, duty, or altruism.
But the novel is far more complex than a simple study of two contrasting characters. Davies' cast is rich and diverse, and their lives intertwine fluidly, though often in surprising ways.
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I had never heard of Robertson Davies until I discovered "Fifth Business", the first instalment of the "Deptford Trilogy", from a recommended book list and what a great reading experience it turned out to be. Davies writes in a style highly reminiscent of the great late 19th and early 20th century writers. Strongly narrative, the novel is richly multilayered in its exploration of ideas and themes. At its most basic level, it is the story of the sensitive but oddly passive Dunstan Ramsey, the novel's protaganist, whose life is contrasted with his pragmatic and successful friend, Boy Staunton and his women (including Leola, his wife who turns out not to be made of the same stuff as Boy). Whilst Dunstan seems content to live life as a school master, observing rather than participating, Boy makes waves and becomes a hugely successful figure in business and politics. But more fascinating is the early traces of "magical realism" used by Davies in the Mary Dempster (the "fool-saint") episode, which manifests the nature of Dunstan's conscience (contrasting with the lack thereof in Boy) as well as his belief in the power of magic and imagination. In the development of this secondary plot line, Davies employs a technique that hints at "magical realism" but wields his craft with such confidence and aplomb that the effect can only be described as dazzling. Dunstan's feeling of responsibility towards Mary and her son Paul is brought to a beautiful conclusion when he learns much later after Paul runs away from home and assumes the identity of a magician that it was he (Dunstan) who had taught him (Paul) the rudiments of magic through the card game.Read more ›
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No one has yet written the Great Canadian Novel, but in Fifth Business, World of Wonders and the Manticore, Robertson Davies may have given us something like the Great Interlinked Canadian Trilogy.

Fifth Business is the novel with which to start. The book's central figure is schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay, who grew up in Deptford, Ontario, in the sugar-beet growing district of Southwestern Ontario. Although a small village, Deptford also produced Percy Boyd Staunton and Paul Dempster, who will be the other main characters in this novel.

The rest of the book is a fascinating weave of Canadian social and political history from the 1910s thru the 1960s as Dunstan, Paul and Percy Boyd (now the raffish "Boy") Staunton are pushed together by the whims of fate. Boy and Paul become world famous in very different ways. Not bad for two kids from the sticks and Dunstan, the humble schoolteacher, has reason to envy them. Or does he? A "fifth business" is theater talk for a leavener, a kind of enzyme agent that, while not significant in itself, makes other things happen.

As the amazon-dot-com reviewer from Singapore so brilliantly pointed out, the novel contains elements of magical realism. Don't confuse Fifth Business with your basic American sprawling bestseller. This is heady yet subtle stuff. Not for nothing is Fifth Business required reading in Grade 13 of the Ontario public school system. (Yes, Grade THIRTEEN--no wonder Canadian kids are so smart.)

I would recommend you buy the paperback Fifth Business/World of Wonders/Manticore trilogy. It only costs a little more than buying Fifth Business by itself, and more than likely you'll want to read the other books once you've finished Fifth Business.
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