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Fifth business search for self identity

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 of their horrid

past. The three main characters of the novel, all of whom to some extent try to

escape their small town background, change their identity to become people of

consequence. All in some way take on a new identity. Imbedded 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


Firstly, Paul Dempster grows up as an outcast in Deptford, his mother's

'simpleness' leading the tight social world of the town to cast out his whole

family and force's Paul to leave the town and create a new image for himself.

Paul runs away to the circus in his early teens because of the mental abuse he

took from the town because of his mothers incident with the tramp. Dunstable

comment's, "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) illustrates how the town treated

Paul because of his mother's actions. Paul leaves 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) explains why Paul left Deptford.

However, while Boy merely tries to ignore his Deptford past, Paul tries to

create a completely new one and 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 in turn force Paul to

leave Deptford and to create a new identity for himself.

Secondly, Dunstable Ramsey is haunted by the guilt of Mary Dempster over

his entire life and he must create a new identity for himself. After a rock has

hit Mary in the head (in a snowball thrown by Boy Staunton meant for Ramsay),

and her preacher husband is crying over her, young Ramsay's only thought is that

he is "Watching a 'scene', and my parents had always warned against scenes as

very serious breaches of propriety." (Davies' 39) The actions of Mary bewilder

Dunstan because Mary 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

and he never forgets his Deptford past and in fact he 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 which force's Percy to allow

the incident to suppress his memory and leave Deptford to create a new identity

for himself. He moves to Toronto and inherits the family sugar business and

drops a letter from his middle name, becoming "Boy" Staunton, and begins to

build a new ruling-class identity for his renamed self. "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 as well as Boy, and she falls by the wayside, eventually committing

suicide. Although, Boy is the antagonist character 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 which 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 life, but the spirit of the little town in Southern Ontario remains with

them forever.


Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Canada: Penguin Books, 1977.

Source: Essay UK -

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