Dunstan Ramsay as Fifth Business In Roberston Davies’ novel, Fifth Business, as Dunstan Ramsay narrates his life story, the reader becomes aware of the pivotal role he plays in the lives of the other characters, the role of ‘Fifth Business. ’ As Liesl explains the purpose of Fifth Business in classic European opera, it is almost uncanny how accurately it describes his life. It leaves no question that Dunstan Ramsay is the baritone, he is Fifth Business. Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. You don’t know what that is?
Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna — always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor. So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex.
And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! (217-218) Throughout most of the novel, Dunstan fulfills his role unknowingly.
Over the course of his life he has been the outcast, never fully socially accepted, but the confidant of many and always bearing the burdens and guilt of others. However after this encounter with Liesl, he embraces the role and consciously fulfills his duty as Fifth Business. His actions lead the plot directly to the climax and conclusion of the novel. Time and again we see that Dunstan Ramsay’s life satisfies the parameters of the role and definition of Fifth Business, on the stage, in the drama of real life, and n a higher mythical way that Robertson Davies keeps alluding to in his novel, Fifth Business. Using Liesl’s explanation of the metaphor of the opera and the roles played by the different characters, the novel could be described as the life-drama of Boy Staunton. On a superficial level, the soprano, the “prima donna” would be Boy Staunton. The role of the tenor to his ‘soprano’ would be Leola his first wife. The contralto, “a rival to the soprano,or a sorceress or something” is Mary Dempster, and the basso, “the villain”, would be represented by Magnus Eisengrim.
Dunstan Ramsay is the baritone, the Fifth Business, the confidant of the main characters, is the keeper of the secrets and is the one who ultimately cares for the “hermitess”. He appears to be sentenced to a lonely, unglamorous life, with no close attachments, no apparent recognition or infamy, simply a supporter of the lives/roles of the “golden voices. ” (218). But far more importantly, “you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! ” Without the life and decisions of Dunstan Ramsay, the lives of every other character would have turned out differently.
From the very first pages, Dunstan Ramsay is responsible for the sequences of events that constitute the life-drama of Davies’ novel: “If I had not been so clever, so sly, so spiteful in hopping in front of the Dempsters just as Percy Boyd Staunton threw the snowball at me from behind, Mrs. Dempster would not have been struck. ”(16). How the consequences of this event unfold constitutes the central plot of the novel. Dunstan Ramsay doesn’t just “manage the plot”, he is responsible for it.
In order to make the argument that Dunstan Ramsay plays the role of Fifth Business, one must show how his eccentric and isolated life, which on the surface appears to influence no one but himself, actually plays an integral role in the lives of the other main characters in the book. Simple, seemingly meaningless decisions and actions ‘snowball’ and compound into pivotal events that lead to the eventual outcome and conclusion of the novel. The moment he goads Percy into throwing the snowball, he begins the chain of events that leads to Boy’s ultimate death. He unintentionally ontributes to Leola’s discovery of Boy’s infidelity when he upsets Boy with a comment regarding Edward’s abdication. When he subsequently turns down her advances, this leads to her emotional breakdown and attempted suicide: Dearest Dunny, This is the end. Boy does not love me and you don’t either so it is best for me to go. Think of me sometimes. I always loved you. (180) His interactions with the Staunton family irreversibly alter their lives and highlight his role as Fifth Business to Boy and Leola. The moment Ramsay steps in front of the Dempsters, the life of Mary Dempster is inexorably changed.
Her mental status never returns to normal and the simple-minded decisions she makes result in her rejection by the townspeople, the dissolution of her marriage, and her emotional absence as a mother. Ramsay’s deep guilt and his confused worship of Mary Dempster lead to him supporting her financially and becoming her legal guardian once she becomes destitute. His misguided attempt at informing her about her long lost son, results in her final mental breakdown and eventual death: So she spent some of her time in fits of rage against me as the evil genius of her life, but much more in a state of grief and desolation.
It wore her out. (233) Mary Dempster’s injury also precipitates the premature birth of Paul Dempster, and as a result is responsible for his sickly physical stature. Mary Dempster’s shunning by the town results in his isolation as well. Ramsay’s guilt about Paul leads to the time he spends with him reading about mythical saints and eventually teaching him simple card and coin tricks. That introduction begins Paul’s involvement in the world of magic, which eventually leads to his evolution into Magnus Eisengrim. Further, Ramsay’s biography about Eisengrim catapults him into world-wide stardom and his ltimate success. In all of the characters mentioned in Liesl’s operatic metaphor, Dunstan Ramsay somehow plays a decisive role in their lives, fulfilling his duty as Fifth Business. Aside from the metaphor, strong support for the argument that Dunstan Ramsay’s life should be viewed as Fifth Business comes from how fully the character embraces the concept and how it describes his life. When Ramsay writes the first chapter of his memoir, he has done so with all of his life experiences and knowledge behind him. He already believes that his life has fulfilled the role of Fifth Business.
That belief is evident when he alludes to how important, how far-reaching and mysterious these opening events were to be. “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p. m. on 27 December 1908” (3). He was also to be involved in a long term way with another character: “That was how Paul Dempster, whose reputation is doubtless familiar to you (though that was not the name under which he gained it), came to be born early on the morning of 28 December in 1908. ” (6). “I have purposefully begun with the birth of Paul Dempster, because this is the cause of so much to follow. (7). The reader is left wondering how the actions of a young boy can have such permanent effects and to an apparently important person in the future. This is also the introduction of Robertson Davies’ ideas about higher mythical forces that coexist and intertwine with our real lives. Patricia Monk summarizes it as: “As himself, Dunstan Ramsay is an ordinary individual human being in the actual world; but as Fifth Business, he has mythic importance and function, for one of the powers or Forms of the mythic world is speaking through him. (Monk 35). Dunstan Ramsay’s life story is meant to help the reader grasp these concepts, by being an example of Fifth Business at several levels. Prior to Liesl’s introduction of the metaphor, Ramsay was acting-out his role unknowingly. Once he grasps the concept and sees his life from a different perspective, he embraces the role of Fifth Business and begins to fulfill it consciously. He first recognizes his role in his relationship with Boy Staunton, “that I as Fifth Business was his logical confidant. ” (227).
The climax of the novel is precipitated by Dunstan Ramsay acting as Fifth Business when he intentionally divulges the secret of how Boy’s and Magnus’ lives were intertwined. Dunstan Ramsay was going to say nothing, but the mythical force which he now recognizes as Fifth Business compels him to speak out: “Dunstan Ramsay counselled against revelation, but Fifth Business would not hear. ” (253). Although Fifth Business is speaking through him, it is separate from Dunstan Ramsay. “Fifth Business insisted in being heard again. (254). Once Boy is reminded of his actions and Magnus informed of the circumstances of his premature birth, Dunstan Ramsay has once again fulfilled his duty as Fifth Business and moves the plot along to its conclusion. It was Robertson Davies’ publisher who insisted that he include an explanation of what Fifth Business was referring to in the prologue to the novel. The more specific definition that he chose was ascribed to Thomas Overskou, a Danish historian of drama: Fifth Business … Definition
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 the Fifth Business. -Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads (prologue) The fact that it does not just repeat Liesl’s interpretation, but introduces a more general definition, allows the reader to already see how Dunstan Ramsay’s life has far-reaching effects before he himself realizes it.
In 1979 it was discovered that Davies himself had made up the definition, not Overskou. This would suggest that Davies’ view of the role of Fifth Business stresses the importance of the two main concepts, “the Recognition” and the “denouement”. Davies uses Dunstan Ramsay to achieve both: the Recognition- the realization and acceptance of the mythical world of which Fifth Business was part of, and the denouement- which would not have occurred without Ramsay precipitating the climax in the study. Again Dunstan Ramsay’s life is Fifth Business in a dramatic sense and as a representation of Davies mythical forces.
Robertson Davies presents a concept that there is a spiritual/mythical world that coexists with the reality of everyday life. These mythical forces come into play when the most mundane of lives can have far-reaching consequences in the most unpredictable ways. When an inconsequential act leads to a change in course of someone else’s life, Davies feels that these forces have surfaced (Monk 34-35). The retelling of the life of Dunstan Ramsay using the metaphor of Fifth Business is Davies’ way of illustrating the concept. His life fulfills all the aspects of both definitions of Fifth Business.
Without his life, the plot would not have materialized, progressed, or climaxed. His awakening to the role that his life plays on different levels should be accompanied by the reader’s recognition of the same concept. He is not one of the golden voices, not a hero nor villain, but a pivotal character in someone else’s life drama. Dunstan Ramsay’s life is meant to represent Fifth Business on a much larger stage, the opera that is life: “This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free, but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. ” (Robertson Davies- The Cunning Man).