Fifth Business: Search for Self Identity
In Robertson Davies’ novel, Fifth Business, the author uses the events that occurred in Deptford as a Canadian allusion to reveal character identity. Three characters in the novel from Deptford – Boy Staunton, Dunstan Ramsey, and Paul Dempster – leave Deptford to embark on a new identity to rid themselves of their horrid past. The three main characters of the novel, all of whom try to escape their small town background, change their identity to become people of consequence. All, in some way, take on a new identity. Embedded in this transformation is the assumption that one’s original self, especially one’s small town origins, must be discarded before one can become significant in the world.
Firstly, Paul Dempster grows up as an outcast in Deptford. His mother’s “simpleness” leads the tight social world of the town to cast out his whole family and forces Paul to leave the town and create a new image for himself.
Paul ran away to the circus in his early teens because of the mental abuse he took from the town due to his mother’s incident with the tramp. Dunstable comments, Paul was not a village favorite, and the dislike so many people felt for his mother – dislike for the queer and persistently unfortunate – they attached to the unoffending son,” (Davies 40). This illustrates how the town treated Paul because of his mother’s actions. Paul left his past because of the actions displaced by his mother and the guilt he feels because his “birth was what robbed her of her sanity,” (Davies 260). This explains why Paul left Deptford. However, while Boy merely tries to ignore his Deptford past, Paul tries to create a completely new one. Paul asks Dunstan to write an autobiography that “in general terms that he was to be a child of the Baltic vastness, reared perhaps by gnomelike Lapps after the death of his explorer parents, who were probably Russians of high birth” (Davies 231). The scenery of this autobiography seems significantly Canadian, but Paul does not want his book to represent his past life in Deptford.
Therefore, Paul Dempster is a troubled child because of his mother’s actions in Deptford, which force Paul to leave Deptford and create a new identity for himself. Secondly, Dunstable Ramsey is haunted by the guilt of Mary Dempster throughout his entire life and must create a new identity for himself. After a rock hits Mary in the head (thrown by Boy Staunton, meant for Ramsay), and her preacher husband cries over her, young Ramsay’s only thought is that he is watching a scene,” and his parents had always warned against scenes as serious breaches of propriety (Davies’ 39). The actions of Mary bewilder Dunstan because she committed a serious crime in Deptford. Later in life, Dunstan falls in love with his nurse named Diana, who renames him after Saint Dunstan, who is “mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and an absolute wizard at withstanding temptation.”
(Davies’ 93) His new name does not replace his old identity, but rather makes him double-named and double-identified. Therefore, Dunstan changes his name to set forth on a new identity. He never forgets his Deptford past and becomes obsessed with it, particularly with Mary Dempster, mainly through guilt about his role in Mary getting hit by Boy’s snowball. Thirdly, Percy Boyd Staunton is at the center of the snowball incident, which is the prime mover in the action of the novel. The incident forces Percy to allow it to suppress his memory and leave Deptford to create a new identity for himself. He moves to Toronto, inherits the family sugar business, drops a letter from his middle name, becoming “Boy” Staunton, and begins to build a new ruling-class identity for himself. “As Ramsay explains,” he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized and defined,” (Davies’ 147). His new identity allows Boy to start a new life and leave Deptford in the past.
Also, Boy brings with him into his new life his Deptford wife Leola, whom he tries to change into the perfect wife for a rising young entrepreneur in sugar” (Davies 151). She cannot lose her small-town background like Boy, and eventually falls by the wayside, committing suicide. Although Boy is the antagonist of the novel, his new identity embraces him as one of the most powerful men in Canada, but he will always hold the guilt from the snowball incident that occurred in Deptford. To conclude, the actions that occurred in Deptford change the whole basis of the novel.
Thus, while Boy and Magnus have taken on new identities and tried to displace their old ones, Dunstan takes on a new identity that complements the old. All three leading characters leave Deptford to change their lives, but the spirit of the little town in Southern Ontario remains with them forever.
Bibliography: Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business.
Canada: Penguin Books, 1977.