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|Series||The Deptford Trilogy|
|Followed by||The Manticore|
Fifth Business is a 1970 novel by Canadian playwright, critic, journalist, and professor Robertson Davies. It is the first installment of the Deptford Trilogy and is a story of the life of the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. It is Davies' best-known novel and has been called his finest.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Chapter Summaries
- 3 Themes
- 4 Title
- 5 Principal characters
- 6 References
Ramsay's passion for hagiology and his guilty connection to Mary Dempster provide most of the impetus and background for this novel. He spends much of the book struggling with his image of Mary Dempster as a fool-saint and dealing with issues of guilt that grew from a childhood accident.
The entire story is told in the form of a letter written by Ramsay on his retirement from teaching at Colborne College, addressed to the school headmaster.
Part One - Mrs Dempster
1.The story of Dunstan (then called Dunstable) Ramsay’s life begins in 1908 when Ramsay is ten years old. He and his best friend and worst enemy Percy Boyd Staunton have been sledding and have quarreled, and on the way back to town Percy throws a snowball at Dunstan, who jumps aside, causing it to miss him and strike the passing-by Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of Deptford’s Baptist minister. The shock of the snowball hitting her head causes her to go into labour and deliver a premature baby boy, Paul Dempster.
2. Ramsay steps back from his narrative to tell readers why they are being treated to his life history. The year is now 1969, and he is writing to the headmaster of the boy’s school he had taught at to protest the desultory send-off he was given upon his retirement. Ramsay takes offense to his portrayal in an article in the College Chronicle and the dismissal of his subject of ‘mythic history’, along with the lack of mention of his ten books. He writes to prove to the headmaster that he has in fact led a rich and full life, in his own way, which he describes as being ‘cast by Fate and my own character for the vital though never glorious role of Fifth Business!” (9).
3. Ramsay returns to his description of his childhood and hometown, Deptford, which is in southern Ontario, on the Thames River.
4. The infant Paul Dempster survives his birth, but is premature and weak. Ramsay suffers guilt and horror over his involvement, a feeling that will affect the rest of his life.
5. This section returns to descriptions of Deptford culture, particularly Mary Dempster's interactions with society, as the town believes that she is not fit to be a minister’s wife. Ramsay becomes close friends with Mrs. Dempster, whose mind appears to have been affected by her experience.
6. As he grows older, Ramsay’s association with the ostracised Mary Dempster comes to hurt his popularity at school, though he realises that he enjoys her company, and later that he is in love with her.
7. Ramsay gets a job at the local library, where he reads the encyclopaedia and also explores the world of stage magic and conjuring, eventually leading to a quarrel with his mother. He also begins to be interested in stories of the saints.
8. Ramsay shares his interests with the neglected four-year-old Paul Dempster, who is quick to learn conjuring tricks.
9. Ramsay next describes his feud with the Reverend Amasa Dempster, who believes that his wife is a cross that he must bear through life. Amasa accuses Ramsay of corrupting his son and forbids him to see Mary and Paul any longer.
10. Mary Dempster goes missing and Ramsay, joining the town effort to find her, discovers her copulating with a tramp (later named as Joel Surgeoner). Mrs. Dempster explains that she consented as "he was so civil (...) and he wanted it so badly".
11. Amasa Dempster does not press charges against the tramp, so he is released and warned never to return to the village. The town is abuzz about what the Reverend will say at his sermon next Sunday, and it turns out that he has chosen to resign from the parsonage and live in poverty. The wives of the community privately prohibit their husbands from expressing any public help for the disgraceful Mary Dempster, who ‘had not been raped, as a decent woman would have been’ (43). One night the townspeople paint their faces black and riot outside of the Dempster home, and Dunstable is disgusted that Amasa does not go out to face them. Amasa becomes a shell of a man and Mary is strapped up in a harness and not allowed to leave the house. Dunstable resumes his visits to Mary and Paul by sneaking in through her window while Amasa is out.
12. Over the next year Dunstable is ostracised at school but finds comfort and company in books. A schoolmate, Leola Cruikshank, is understood to be Percy Boyd Staunton’s girl. But Percy is discovered one day in a barn engaging in the sexual act with another girl. Percy’s father pays off her family and Percy is sent away to Colbourne College, the same college that Dunstan would one day come to teach at, while Percy was Chairman of its Board of Governors.
13. In the autumn of 1914 war breaks out, but Dunstable is more concerned with his older brother Willie’s illness. Willie had suffered internal injuries in an accident while working at their father’s paper. Dunstable has to stay at his brother’s side while the rest of the town is at the Fall Fair, and during this sitting Willie apparently dies. Dunstable panics and instead of getting a doctor he brings Mary Dempster to the scene; she prays by Willie’s bed and restores him to life. Dunstable is convinced that he has seen a miracle, but the doctor dismisses the possibility that Willie was ever dead, and Mrs. Ramsay is upset that the whore Mary Dempster is in her home.
14. Dunstable’s friend Percy come to view him as a ‘credulous ass who thought that a dangerous lunatic could raise the dead’ (56). Even the new Presbyterian minister pulls Dunstable aside to warn him against associating with women of loose virtue, and assures him that the age of miracles is past. Mrs. Ramsay will not drop the subject at home, and eventually forces her son to make a choice between her and ‘that woman’, and so Dunstable lies his way into the army. His parents will not shame him by informing the army about his true age, and so Dunstable can wait out the rest of his Deptford days in a romantic fling with Leola, who assures Dunstable that she really loves him more than Percy. Dunstable also promises Mary Dempster that he will not be afraid no matter what happens.
Part Two – I Am Born Again
1. Ramsay is reluctant to speak about his involvement in the Great War because he admits that as an infantryman he had little idea what was going on and simply did as he was told.
2. He spends some two or three years at the front before November 5, 1917 when he is injured during the Third Battle at Ypres, but not before he manages to clear a German machine gun nest by shooting three enemy soldiers in the backs of their heads. Ramsay becomes disoriented and his left leg is torn apart by shrapnel. He crawls through the mud and confusion into the remains of a building as a flare drops before him. The flare illuminates a statue of the Virgin and Child and Ramsay sees Mrs. Dempster’s face in that statue as he wonders at her miraculousness and loses consciousness.
3. Ramsay is unconscious for six months while he is being cared for at an English army hospital. He describes his unconsciousness as a blissful paradise, but his return to reality is also rather pleasant, as he is being lovingly cared for by a devoted nurse named Diana Marfleet. Ramsay had been presumed dead as his tags were lost in the battle, and he is shocked to learn that he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, and less affected to learn that his parents died in the influenza pandemic of early 1918 after receiving the news that he and his brother were dead.
4 – 6. Ramsay is awarded his V.C. by his king, George V. Diana entices Ramsay back into life and helps him adjust to his new prosthetic leg while also initiating him into sexual existence. She intends to marry him, but when Ramsay refuses, she confers upon him his new name, Dunstan, after the saint who fought off the temptations of the Devil. Ramsay says that he will not marry her because he doesn’t want another mother-figure in his life after just having been liberated from his biological one, and also he is still receiving letters from Leola of uncertain intent.
7. Dunstan is treated to a hero’s welcome when he returns to Deptford, and a parade is thrown in his and the other war-veterans’ honour. Dunstan is surprised to find out that Percy Boyd Staunton is a major with a D.S.O., and very surprised when Percy announces that he and Leola are to be married. Dunstan decides to take this with good humour and continue his friendship with the pair.
8. Dunstan takes charge of his now emptied household and then acquaints himself with the developments of Deptford over the last four years. Percy's father retired from his medical practice when the flu epidemic struck and became a very rich man. Ramsay also learns that Amasa Dempster was felled by the flu, that Paul ran away with the circus, and that Mary went insane and was taken away by a relative. The section ends with Dunstan leaving Deptford, though he muses that he 'never wholly left it in the spirit' (100).
Part Three – My Fool-Saint
1. Ramsay goes to the University of Toronto and earns an MA in History. Percy flowers brilliantly and drops his first name to become known as Boy Staunton, and he takes to modelling himself on the pinnacle of aristocratic panache: Edward, Prince of Wales. He studies law and plays the stock market, and is well on his way to outstripping even his father’s immense accumulations of wealth. He takes care of his struggling and frugal friend Dunstan by providing him with investment information. They meet every two weeks so that Boy can prattle on about Leola and all the other girls he is enjoying. Dunstan is jealous, but that doesn’t stop him from taking Boy’s investment tips.
2. After college, Dunstan takes a job as a schoolmaster that he will keep until the retirement party of the second chapter of this book.
3. Boy and Leola are married and travel to Europe, and Dunstan visits the continent for his own amusements.
4. Dunstan returns to the battlefields of Europe to search for his Madonna statue. He takes up the challenge of learning the histories of all the Catholic Saints, and becomes something of an expert in the field of hagiology.
5. As Dunstan develops into an eccentric teacher, Boy tries to educate Leola into a higher social standing without much success. When the Prince of Wales visits Canada in 1927, Boy is selected as an aide for the Prince, and the event is possibly the greatest moment in Boy’s life. A year later Boy’s son is born and named Edward David Staunton.
6. Ramsay’s school hears a guest lecture from a man named Joel Surgeoner from the Lifeline Mission to help the needy. Dunstan recognizes the man as the tramp he saw in the pit with Mary Dempster years earlier, and follows the man to talk to him. Dunstan’s mind is opened up to the possibility of illusions and parables being more real than truths, and that Mary redeemed this tramp and made him into an honest God-fearing man. Joel mentions that he considers Mary Dempster a saint, and Dunstan takes this as being all too real, and considers her redemption of Joel to be the first of three miracles she performed (the others being the resurrection of Willie, and appearing to Dunstan at Passchendaele).
7. Dunstan returns to Deptford one last time to gather information on the whereabouts of the insane Mary Dempster. He also stops off at the Catholic priest’s house to inquire about whether or not Mary’s three miracles qualify her to be a saint. Ramsay is introduced to the concept of the 'Fool-Saint', a person full of holiness and good will who nonetheless brings madness.
8. Dunstan finds Mary in Toronto. She is being cared for by her aunt, Bertha Shanklin. The two women are not used to the company of men and Mary is not up to being reminded of the traumas in her past. Bertha allows Dunstan to come back and get to know Mary as a new friend, not the boy from long ago.
9. In 1929 Boy protects Dunstan from experiencing the Great Depression by having him invest in Boy’s own company, the Alpha Corporation, which is a sugar-refining business. At the time Dunstan is more preoccupied testing his hypotheses about the Portuguese Saint Wilgefortis. He travels to a small village in Tyrolean Austria to investigate a shrine, and finds that a travelling circus, Le grand Cirque de St Vite, is in town. By an astonishing coincidence, the young magician who jumps up on stage turns out to be an older and sleazier Paul Dempster, who has obviously made a living in the trade Dunstan first schooled him in some fifteen years earlier. Paul is going by the name Faustus Legrand, and is not pleased to be reminded of his former life in Canada. Dunstan returns to his investigations of Uncumber and later discovers that Paul stole his wallet.
Part Four – Gyges and King Candaules
1. Boy’s dealings make him rich off the Depression. Dunstan is only too thrilled to hear about Boy’s successes and how Leola is getting old. It seems that Leola is unable to keep pace with Boy’s rapid rise through the social ranks. Dunstan doesn’t want to intervene as their marriage dissolves into enmity and claims that he feels nothing for Leola now except pity. Dunstan also reveals the strange circumstances of the night of David’s conception, which Dunstan was an integral part of, a story that raises questions that David will investigate during The Manticore. Dunstan compares the situation between him and Boy to the story of Gyges and King Candaules, as a warning, but Boy is not the type to concern himself with archetypal patterns shaping human lives.
2. Dunstan reminds us that he visited Mary Dempster every fortnight for four years, until her Aunt died and Mary was left to his care. He places her in a public hospital for the insane, in Toronto, where he can keep an eye on her, and he can see that she is not happy to be there.
3. Dunstan achieves a specialised, limited reputation in the realm of hagiography when the Bollandists agree to publish an article of his. Dunstan travels to Europe again to meet with them, and though he knows he can never be a part of their world, he is satisfied to have achieved recognition in his chosen field of study. He makes a friend of the oldest Jesuit in the bunch, Padre Blazon, who is happy to talk at length in exchange for food and liquor. The Padre reveals the earthly lives of the saints, the side that history has repressed because of the human need for examples of excellence and things they cannot explain. Blazon also offers some advice on Dunstan’s fool-saint, advancing the possibility that she saved Dunny from that snowball when he was a child for a reason, and that Dunstan should figure out what role she is playing in his personal mythology. Blazon also warns Ramsay to forgive himself for Mrs. Dempster's condition, and for his own humanity, or he will one day drive himself insane.
4. Dunstan's weekly visits to Mary Dempster are becoming a chore to him. He compiles his first book, A Hundred Saints for Travellers, which is intended for simple identification of saints in art, while his next book explores why people need saints. Dunstan becomes an eccentric friend for Boy to promote at his various social functions. In this chapter Dunstan also covers the early years of David and Caroline Staunton, along with Boy’s rampant philandering. But in 1936 things take a tragic turn in the Staunton household when Boy’s hero finally ascends to the throne, only to abdicate it by the end of the year. That Christmas proves to be the undoing of the Stauntons, and by the time Dunstan arrives for dinner, Boy has stormed off, Leola is crying, and the children are traumatised for life. Leola tries to seduce Dunstan and remind him of when they were together. When Dunstan decides to leave, she screams, "You don’t love me!" Dunstan flees the scene, only to be called back by one of the Staunton servants, and when Dunstan returns, Leola is wrapped up in her bed after having slit her wrists. She had intended to kill herself but had done a poor job of it. She also left a note confessing her love for Dunstan. Dunstan is sure the nurse has read this note, and possibly told the children, but he has the unfortunate duty of helping Leola return to life, as Boy has disappeared on a drinking binge and does not return for many weeks.
Part Five - Liesl
1. Leola dies of pneumonia. Dunstan suspects that she may have purposely brought on her own death. Dunstan handles her funeral arrangements, as Boy is consumed in his work as the head of the Alpha Corporation for the duration of World War II. Dunstan is also named temporary Headmaster of Colborne College. At the conclusion of the war Boy has the unenviable task of informing Dunstan that he will not be continuing as Headmaster, due to his perceived peculiar interests and lifestyle, although Boy admits that those same traits make Dunstan an asset as a professor at the university. Dunstan angrily protests, feeling he was shabbily used, but eventually agrees to return to his former role as Dean of History. To save face, Dunstan asks that the Board announce that the vocation change was Ramsay's idea, and asks for a six-month leave of absence before he returns to work. Boy agrees on behalf of the Board, and Dunstan leaves on his sabbatical.
2. While traveling in Mexico City, Dunstan attends a magic show. To his surprise, the show is artistically done, evoking feelings of mystery and wonder. The magician, Magnus Eisengrim, turns out to be none other than Paul Dempster.
3. Dunstan meets Paul’s entourage's autocrat, Liesl, who physically is extremely ugly, but possesses great intelligence and charm. She convinces him to ghost-write a fictional autobiography of Eisengrim.
4. Dunstan temporarily joins Paul’s entourage, creating for him the illusion of the Brazen Head, a kind of fortune-telling act. He tells much of his life story to Liesl, often shocking himself with how indiscreet he is being. He asks Liesl not to reveal to anyone what he has told her, and Liesl refuses. Meanwhile, Dunstan becomes inescapably attracted to Einsengrim's head showgirl, Faustina. He often peeks at her while she is undressing, and finds excuses to talk to her. He is further shown to be acting in a way counter to his personality when he smacks another showgirl on the bottom and winks at her when she protests. One night after the show, Dunstan, hoping to catch a glimpse of Faustina, finds her naked and passionately kissing Liesl; the experience deflates him and sends him into deep depression.
5. Liesl shows up at Dunstan's room that night, berating him for his inability to handle his attraction to Faustina. She then attempts to rape him. He fights furiously, and despite her muscular body he bloodies her nose before she escapes through the door. After releasing his pent-up aggression, Dunstan feels more relieved than he has in years. Liesl returns a few minutes later and explains that releasing him from his anger was her intent all along. She suggests that Dunstan is suffering from the "revenge of the unlived life": the guilt he feels over events in his life have prevented him from truly living it: he still agonizes over Mary Dempster's condition, and he's never realized just how good he was to accept Leola as a friend when she rejected him in favour of Boy, and even to accept Boy who insisted on mocking him for losing out in their love triangle. Liesl suggests that Dunstan has “never led a real life,” and that his role in life is that of “Fifth Business.” Dunstan and Liesl have sex, and despite her unattractive appearance, he calls it the most healing experience of his life.
Part Six - The Soirée of Illusions
1. Returning to Canada, Dunstan tells Mrs. Dempster that he has found Paul. This news makes her distressed and agitated, and she has to be moved to the locked area of the hospital.
2. Boy goes into politics, with limited success. He gets married again, to a practical, ambitious businesswoman, Denyse Hornick.
3. Boy and Dunstan are nearing their sixties; Dunstan senses that long-concealed parts of their personalities, such as Boy's inability to deal with events that do not unfold according to his desires, and his own propensity to unleash a sharp-tongued comment in the middle of a conversation, are re-emerging.
4. In 1959, Mrs. Dempster dies after Dunstan transferred her to a private hospital more to her liking using the funds from Eisengrim's biography as well as monthly payments from him; Dunstan takes care of her cremation and funeral.
5. On a visit to Europe, Dunstan meets with the aged Blazon, who approves of the self-discoveries that Dunstan has made since meeting Paul and Liesl. Dunstan finally rediscovers the sculpture of the Madonna he had seen during the First World War in an exhibition room in Salzburg.
6. Dunstan explains that Paul had brought his show to Toronto. After the performance, Paul, Dunstan and Boy meet in Dunstan’s room for a short chat. Old secrets and grudges now come out: about money, Leola, and Paul’s real identity. Dunstan tells Paul what really happened to his mother, years ago in Deptford: the snowball that Boy threw had a rock inside it. Dunstan shows them the rock, and a box containing Mary Dempster's ashes. Dunstan admits his own guilt, and urges Boy to confront his own inner self, but Boy refuses to admit any fault. After Boy and Paul leave, Dunstan realises that his rock is missing.
7. In 1968, Boy is found dead in his car under mysterious circumstances, which might be murder or suicide. Inside his mouth there is a small egg-shaped rock. Some suspect that the rock may be the one that struck Mrs. Dempster in Chapter 1, stolen from Dunstan (Dunstable) and placed there by Paul Dempster (Magnus Eisengrim). A possible explanation for the rock in Boy's mouth is that it symbolizes him hopelessly trying to swallow his guilt which he had ignored for so long that he had forgotten it.
8. During the Brazen Head segment of Paul’s show, someone in the audience (revealed to be David Staunton in The Manticore), cries out, “Who killed Boy Staunton?” At this moment, Dunstan, who is in the audience, suffers a heart attack. The answer (given by Liesl from backstage) is that he was killed “by himself, by the woman he knew, by the woman he did not know, by the man who granted his wish, and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and the keeper of the stone.”
Dunstan ends his story with the words, “And that, Headmaster, is all I have to tell you.”
Davies discusses several themes in the novel, perhaps the most important being the difference between materialism and spirituality. Davies asserts religion is not necessarily integral to the idea—demonstrated by the corrupt Reverend Leadbeater who reduces the Bible to mere economic terms.
Davies, then an avid student of Carl Jung's ideas, deploys them in Fifth Business. Characters are clear examples of Jungian archetypes and events demonstrate Jung's idea of synchronicity. The stone thrown at Ramsay when he was a child reappears decades later in a scandalous suicide or murder. Ramsay's character is a classic introverted personality, contrasted throughout the book with the extroverted sensuality of Boy Staunton. Ramsay dedicates his life to genuine religious feeling as he saw it in his 'fool-saint' Mary Dempster, whose son grows up to be the very archetype of the Magician.
Robertson Davies' interest in psychology has a massive influence on the actions in the book. The prominence of matriarchs in Dunstan's life can be linked to Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex (Dunstan loves Diana and Mrs. Dempster, despite their motherly positions in his life). Carl Jung's concept of individualisation plays a role when Liesl discusses Dunstan's yet-unlived life and the idea that he must have balance in his life. Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development can also be seen in the choices Boy makes compared to the choices Dunstan makes (e.g. Boy chooses intimacy while Dunstan chooses isolation).
A genuinely learned man, Davies wrote a prose that both poked fun at pretentious scholarship and enjoyed joking allusions, as in the names of Ramsay's girl friends, Agnes Day, Gloria Mundy and Libby Doe. He explained these later as "Agnes, the Sufferer — a type well known to all men; Gloria, the Good Time Girl, and Libby, the energetic go-getter". Agnes Day is a play on the Latin religious phrase agnus Dei, "lamb of God". Libby Doe is a play on the word "libido", borrowed from Latin by Freud to mean the inner impulse-driven part of the psyche. Gloria Mundy is a play on the Latin religious phrase Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, or "Thus passes the glory of the world."
Religion and morality
There is sectarianism in Deptford dividing the frontier townsfolk between five Christian churches that do not associate with each other under normal circumstances. It takes emergency situations for them to lend aid to each other, but this is conditional aid based on the assumption that certain moral codes will be preserved regardless of faith. For instance, Mary Dempster is a daft-headed girl who habitually flouts the norms of the society, and so she finds herself ostracised and ridiculed by it, evidenced by the fact that no one comes to her aid when her son runs away. However, she is the only member of Deptford society that Dunstan views as truly ‘religious’ in her attitude because she lives according to a light that arises from within (which he contrasts with her husband’s ‘deeply religious’ attitude, which ‘meant that he imposed religion as he understood it on everything he knew or encountered’ (46)).
As a boy, Dunstable is raised as a Presbyterian, but he also takes an avid interest in Catholic saints. He grows up to develop a more spiritual mode of life that is not reliant on external structures. For Dunstan Ramsay, religion and morality are immediate certainties in life, and the events of the novel show how moral lapses have a way of ‘snowballing’ and coming back to haunt one.
Myth and history
Davies and Dunstan are at pains to illustrate just how fluid the concept of historical fact really is, and that it is not so distinct from the suppositions of mythic thinking. Dunstan questions the extent that he can provide an accurate account of the events of his childhood or his participation in World War I campaigns, because what he recalls is surely distinct from the ‘consensually accepted reality’.
One aspect of this blurred distinction between myth and history is Ramsay’s lifelong preoccupation with the lives of the Saints. The fantastic nature of their stories were always grounded in actual events, but their miracles were given attention and focus based on the psychosocial attitudes and needs of the day, so that what the public wanted had a large measure of influence over what became the accepted canon.
The novel and Davies's life
Ramsay's life (wounded war veteran, lifelong bachelor schoolmaster) was very different from Davies' (never in the army, married with a family, a newspaper editor and author) yet some readers thought Fifth Business semi-autobiographic. Davies projects his life experiences (childhood in a small Ontario town, family connections with the social and financial elite) into many of his works and he thought of it as "autobiographical, but not as young men do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield, a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much re-arranged." Davies allows us to peer through a window into his childhood in Thamesville, Ontario and through his young life into higher education and beyond through the character of Ramsay and throughout the Deptford trilogy. In Fifth Business, Davies provides us with an autobiography which is "not a sweating account of the first time he backed a girl into a corner", but an account of his spirit, his memories, and his deeper life experiences. Or, as Diane Cole wrote in the New York Times soon after Davies's death, "Davies used his personal myths and archetypes to probe the possibilities of human good and evil, but always with a wickedly humorous wink."
The character of Percy Boyd Staunton is also an important reference to Davies's real life. Some of the elements of Boyd's life-story are drawn from Robertson Davies's friend Vincent Massey. Both men became rich from their father's agricultural businesses. Both men were enlisted in World War I, went into politics to hold cabinet positions, and strengthened Canada's ties with the mother country during her time of need. While Vincent Massey becomes the first Canada-born Governor General, Boyd is likewise appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. And the most convincing parallel is that Boyd becomes the Chair of the Board of Governors that runs the school at which Ramsay teaches, much as Robertson Davies spent his career at the University of Toronto as the Master of Massey College. But the character is also fictionalised to a large extent. For instance, Vincent Massey went into office without taking an ill-suited wife and managed to overcome the difficulties of the abdicating and dying kings in England. Davies has stated that aspects of the character are more reflective of his father. The initial snowball incident that shapes Boyd's life is more neutral and Davies claimed it was developed out of an inspirational dream.
Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.— purportedly Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads
Davies was pressured by his publisher to provide some clear idea of what exactly "Fifth Business" was, and so Davies affixed this opening quotation, which was taken at face value. Only in 1979, when the book's Norwegian translator failed to find the citation, did Davies admit it was his invention.
- Dunstan (Dunstable) Ramsay — The main focus and narrator of the novel. Ramsay has been deeply offended by his retirement notice in the College Chronicle and sets out to prove that, despite his reticence over the years, he has in fact led an interesting life. Born at the turn of the twentieth century, he is maimed in World War I, is awarded a Victoria Cross, and devotes his life to the study of saints and myths, spending time with Bollandist scholars.
- 'Boy' (Percy Boyd) Staunton — Ramsay's "lifelong friend and enemy" who threw a snowball (containing a rock) at him which instead hit Mary Dempster, thereby precipitating the premature birth of Paul Dempster and her subsequent slide into madness. Staunton changes his name from Percy to Boy. Through his immense business skills he becomes a billionaire in the sugar-processing business in Canada. He has almost no insight into himself but is a charming man with an immense need for sexual gratification.
- Mary Dempster — Ten years older than Ramsay, she plays a pivotal role in his life where she assumes saint-like qualities despite being held in an insane asylum.
- Paul Dempster — Son of Mary Dempster. Ten years younger than Dunstan Ramsay, he outshines Ramsay at hand magic and later disappears with a travelling circus. He transforms himself into the magician Magnus Eisengrim and is the subject of World of Wonders.
- Diana Marfleet - The nurse who takes care of Dunstan (Dunstable) after he is injured and put in a coma during WWI. She nurses him back to health and is his first sexual partner. Diana introduces him to musicals in England. He rejects her proposal of marriage on the grounds that he doesn't want another matriarch in his life (he views her taking care of him as a nurse to be a motherly role).
- Leola Staunton (née Cruikshank) — Ravishing wife of Boy Staunton and first love of Dunstan Ramsay. A sometimes weak, sometimes strong woman who cannot live up to her ambitious husband's expectations.
- Liselotte (Liesl) Vitzlipützli — Daughter of a millionaire Swiss watchmaker who assists Magnus Eisengrim in his travelling magic show. She is bisexual, and the victim of an early adolescent affliction (never specified but possibly acromegaly) which leaves her unusually tall and with large features. She is Ramsay's confessor, lover and critic and completes him as a man.