Robertson Davies’s novel, the Fifth Business, is full of symbolism, magic, saints, miracles and myths. Its characters are rich and colourful. Just like in classic theatre plays, there are five main characters in the book, two female ones and three male characters: the Hero, the Villain and the so called “fifth business”, who helps the story move along. The book’s main character, Dunstable Ramsey, plays a similar role in people’s lives around him. It is interesting how the author develops the characters during the book.
There is an important symbol that is connected to the changes in this development. All the three male characters have their names changed at one point, which then signals important changes in their lives, almost as if by changing their names they become new persons. This idea is also connected to the religious aspect of the book, because when somebody becomes a monk they change their names as a symbol to the fact that now their lives are about to change forever.
If we look at the two female characters first, Mrs Dempster and Leola Cruikshank, we realize that their characters do not change. Mrs Dempster gets hit by a snowball with a stone packed into it right at the eginning of the book and becomes “simple”, as the people in Deptford say. She remains like that all through the book. Although this simpleness makes her very mysterious, the secret of that stays hidden to the end. Leola is also a simple, uncomplicated person. When she marries Boy Staunton, he actually tries very hard to change her but she cannot change, no matter how hard she tries.
Actually that is what causes her to try to commit suicide at one point, and there is a hint in the book saying that her eventual death is not completely accidental, that she wanted to die exactly because she could never change or get used to the position her arried life put her into. The three male main characters on the other hand undergo great changes. Mrs Dempster’s son, Paul, who is born prematurely because of that snowball, changes not only his name but his whole identity, so that besides Dunstan Ramsey nobody even knows who he really is. Actually he changes his name twice: first he becomes Faustus Legrand.
At that time he is a sort of a criminal character who uses his great talent for thieving. The second time, when he becomes Magnus Eisengrim, he becomes a respectable artist and his major act, the Brazen Head, often causes changes in other people’s ives by revealing their hidden secrets as part of the show. The one who threw that snowball at the beginning of the book is Percy Boyd Staunton. The secret of the snowball remains a secret, just like the nickname by which his mom used to call him at home: Boy Pidgy- pidgy. But when he leaves Deptford, he decides to use the name Boy, almost hinting to the secrets from his childhood.
The changes that happen to him are not very pretty. He becomes greedy, snobbish, psychologically cruel to his wife and children, not caring about the effect his actions have on the people around him or the consumers that his businesses exploit. Yet, he pushes the memory of the Dempster family completely out of his mind, so that he cannot even remember who Paul is when he reveals his true identity to him at the end of the book. Only the fact that Boy keeps helping Dunstan Ramsey gives the impression that deep down he does remember and wants to reward the keeper of his secret.
Ramsey is the narrator in the book and so his life story and the changes that happen in his life are presented in great detail. He starts out as Dunstable Ramsey, and his name change happens at a time when everything else changes around him. The curious thing is that none of it s his doing, everything happens to him. He loses a leg, gets badly burned on his body and is in coma for more that half a year. When he wakes up, it is almost as if he was born a new person. Every member of his family is dead, so there is no reason for him to go back to his home town, he could go anywhere, do anything he wants to.
His nurse and girlfriend baptises him one day, changing Dunstable into Dunstan, after Saint Dunstan, one of the famous English saints. Although he was interested in saints from childhood, from the time when he was reading stories about them to little Paul in Deptford, now he decides o do serious research about them, mainly because just before he was hit by a burning flare on the front, he saw a statue of Holy Mary that looked like Mary Dempster, and apparently this vision kept him alive during the months that he was in a coma.
Now he wants to figure out if there are truly miracles done by saints as religious people claim, and to find out if whatever happened to him was really a miracle, just like he would like to believe that his brother Willie was really dead and Mrs Dempster brought him back to life. Dunstan becomes a very educated person, he learns several anguages, even ancient Greek and Latin. He publishes articles and books. But he never stops caring for his old friends, particularly Mrs Dempster, his special saint.
He is not really aware of his role in their lives until he meets Liesl Vitzliputzli, Magnus Eisengrim’s assistant. She is the one who points it out to him that whatever he is doing is like the role of the “fifth business” in the theatre. And his life changes again: “I was aware that I was recapturing the best of my childhood, my imagination has never known such glorious freedom”. This new freedom makes it possible that when he three of them, Paul, Boy and Dunstan, get together at the end of the book, he can decide not to be the keeper of the secret any more.
As we have seen, there are parallels between the characters of the book and the lives of the saints that Dunstan was so fascinated with. By changing their names, the characters started a process of changing their lives around completely, just as those monks who changed their identities together with their names when they dedicated their lives to the Church. And Dunstan Ramsey did get to “tweak the nose of the devil” in the end, just like Saint Dunstan did.