1. In 1919 Dunstan enters the University of Toronto as a history student. He decides to study history because, as a soldier, he was being used as a pawn in plans he did not understand by powers he did not recognize. He hopes history will give him a better understanding of the world’s affairs.
Dunstan studies history because he feels it might help him to understand the war better. This fits into a larger trend in this novel: where history (when employed a certain way) is shown to be able to help us understand tragedy, irrationality, and humanity itself.
While Dunstan cuts a rather dull figure as a university student, Percy is exactly the opposite—he has changed his name from “Percy Boyd” to “Boy,” which suits him well. He is a strapping young man with a growing fortune who is well-liked by everyone he meets.
Boy has grown into a “successful” man—the novel will continue to track this kind of success, and will ask the reader whether things like popularity, wealth, and attractiveness (all held in high esteem in western postwar cultures) are as desirable as they seem.
Boy worships the Prince of Wales, believing him to be the ideal man, and endeavors to look and act just like him. Boy thinks he is, like the Prince, fated for great things. He knows he wants to be richer than his father someday, and is making good progress in achieving that goal. Boy’s father, meanwhile, has noticed Boy’s increasing wealth and resents him for it.
Interestingly, Boy’s reverence for royalty is something we have already seen Dunstan reject. Where Dunstan’s meeting with the king convinces him that a royal title is more or less meaningless, just a role that someone had to fill, Boy worships and emulates the Prince, believing him to be the perfect model of successful manhood.
Dunstan says he must admit that he is indebted to Boy for his financial advice. Boy manages his investments and makes Dunstan into a financially very comfortable man. Dunstan notes that he might have been able to help Boy with his spiritual life, but that Boy only sees the world in terms of external things. Boy embodies the Jazz age and the postwar period perfectly—Dunstan says that Boy is always “the quintessence of something someone else has recognized and defined.”
Boy sees the world as it manifests externally—this means he is interested in and talented with things like money, business, popularity, and trends. Already we have the sense that Boy is too external—that his inner life, his spiritual life, will suffer (if it is not suffering already) from his obsession with exterior “success.”
Boy, though he is engaged to Leola, carries on affairs with multiple women, having come out of the war with a diverse and insatiable sexual appetite. He considers himself very fond of Leola, but supposes he is not in love with her. This angers Dunstan—he does not want Leola, but it irritates him that Boy has her. He often yearns for Diana, even though he knows he would be very unhappy if he were married to her.
Boy and Dunstan both struggle psychologically with love and relationships—albeit in very different ways. Boy’s sexual appetite is insatiable, and he seemingly cannot make himself be faithful. Dunstan, conversely, is neurotically lonely—jealous of Boy, and pining for Diana, though he knows he doesn’t really love either of the women he’s fretting about.
2. Once Dunstan earns his Masters in History from university, he gets a job teaching at Colborne College (over which the Headmaster now rules.) Dunstan goes into teaching so that he may live a certain kind of life, that he may be free to travel and explore his passions. He chooses a boys’ school because he has “never wanted to teach girls.”
Dunstan becomes a history teacher—an unglamorous position in some people’s eyes, but a position that will enable Dunstan to lead the life he wants to lead—which makes it in fact a very desirable job. It is also possible he turns to teaching because he is still stuck, emotionally and intellectually, on the problem of his own boyhood, and teaching boys is a way for him to feed that obsession.
He knows that from the school’s point of view, his life has been “odd and dry.” He is a good teacher, serving his students well without ever getting too attached to them. Many suspect that Dunstan—a single man working at a boys’ school, is homosexual, but Dunstan is clear that he doesn’t like boys, he simply sees himself in them. Though teaching was his professional life, he has a larger life outside of it—and it is about this life that he wishes to tell the Headmaster, so that someone will “know the truth” about him and “do him justice.”
Dunstan is again emphasizing what he has already come to know intimately: that people are complicated, and are often more than they seem to be. Though Dunstan is assumed to be a boring, “odd” and perhaps homosexual teacher, he reveals to the headmaster that teaching is just one facet of his life, that he sees himself in the children he teaches, and that despite appearances his life has been complex, rich, and exciting.
Dunstan mentions that he has had a series of casual and rather dispassionate lovers, but that he never emotionally connects with any of them. He says it will be many years before he rediscovers love.
Partially by way of refuting claims that he is homosexual, Dunstan clarifies that he has been sleeping with women, but that none of these relationships are emotionally fulfilling—in fact, Dunstan must learn how to love someone, and it will be many years before he does.
3. Dunstan is Boy’s best man at his wedding. Leola is a radiant bride and Boy a fetching groom, who grows more powerful in life and business by the minute, it seems. Boy and Leola have planned their honeymoon in Europe, where Dunstan is also traveling for the summer. On the ship, Dunstan is horrified to see that Boy and Leola are riding on the same voyage, in first class. Boy comes down to talk to him, rambling about all the fine people up in first class, including a priest from a popular new church in New York who is especially impressive. He also laments that Leola is not as worldly as she ought to be. Dunstan later wonders if this popular new preacher knew the Bible as well as he, Dunstan, did.
Dunstan must endure a humiliating interaction with Boy on the boat, who brags to him about all of the cultured, interesting people who are in first class with him and his new bride. Tellingly, Boy admires the preacher not for the validity of his ideas, but for his “newness” and “popularity.” Dunstan, who easily sees through such performances, knows that he is likely better versed in scripture than this priest (though he is not wealthy enough to be riding in first class).
Dunstan and the Stauntons part ways when the ship docks. Dunstan goes back to the battlefields, hoping to get a sense of the landscape where he was wounded, but does not recognize anything. He asks around about the statue of the Madonna, but has no luck locating it.
Dunstan goes to Europe in part to investigate his own personal history, and discovers that the landscape has nothing to tell him. Dunstan will spend much of the novel learning that history (for him) is a kind of internal narrative. External fixtures have little to tell us about our personal histories.
His search for the Madonna leads him to travel around studying many examples of Renaissance art. He develops an enthusiasm for the subject, and tours Europe learning more and more about art and religion. He notes that the Presbyterianism of his childhood insulated him against faith, and that now he is rediscovering his love and enthusiasm for religious studies.
However, Dunstan’s search is not a total wash—he happens to discover (in fact “rediscover”) a love for religious studies, something from which his Presbyterianism paradoxically “insulated” him. The distinction between religion—a set of ordered rituals and defined ways of thought—and faith—belief in the miraculous—is making itself clear.
He learns quickly, and soon becomes interested in the stories of saints, and embarks on a kind of amateur career in hagiology (the study of the lives of saints). These stories again remind him of Arabian Nights, and he says that in saints he has found a happiness that will “endure.”
Though Dunstan cannot find passion in his relationships, he has been able to find it in his study of sainthood. The stories of saints are “true” to Dunstan in the way many other mythologies strike him as “true”—they teach him something real about himself and the world.
5. Back at school, Dunstan’s teaching duties keep him busy. Boy is also beginning a kind of career in education, only he is educating his wife. He has proven himself to be a brilliant businessman, and is trying to make Leola into the kind of wife a wealthy businessman should have—elegant, educated, and refined. The Jazz age has ended, and now Boy thinks it is time to settle down and be “Young Marrieds” together. Within a year their son David is born.
Boy, forever interested in conforming externally to trends and cultural expectations as a way to attain success, wants to make Leola into the sort of worldly women he sees or believes other wealthy men have. Boy has an idea of what his life should look like, and believes he can only be successful if he achieves a very specific kind of appearance.
5. Boy’s father never visits, in part because Boy has converted to Anglicanism, and Dr. Staunton refuses to see him on religious grounds. Similarly, Boy worries about Dunstan and his interest in saints—Dunstan cannot seem to stop talking about them. Boy points out that Saints are okay for Catholics, but that Protestants should be more “evolved” than that. Dunstan responds by talking about saints even more, just to irritate Boy. Boy tells him he should stop teaching and make something of himself, but Dunstan knows he is not ambitious like Boy—he does not want to be in charge of people. He is happy to let fate handle his life.
Boy’s conversion to Anglicanism is—yet again—discussed in terms of external effect. His father won’t see him because of it. We hear nothing of Boy’s internal motivations. What’s more, Boy “worries” about Dunstan’s interest in saints because such an interest doesn’t “fit” with Protestantism. Boy and Dunstan bicker as though they are still children. Boy thinks Dunstan has failed to make something of himself, but Dunstan does not subscribe to Boy’s definition of success, and believes Fate is pushing his life in the direction it should go.
And it does: one day the head of a Mission in Toronto is brought into school to talk to the boys about charity: his name is Joel Surgeoner, and he makes a speech about the redemptive powers of God. During this speech, he calls out Dunstan for appearing skeptical. Dunstan should perhaps feel embarrassed but he does not—for he recognizes Joel as the tramp who slept with Mary many years ago.
Another extraordinary coincidence occurs in Dunstan’s life, once again bringing him back to Mary Dempster. Joel has come a long way—the last time Dunstan saw him he was a lawless tramp having sex with Mary Dempster—now he is a man of God giving lectures about redemption.
Dunstan goes to the Mission that very night. He confronts Joel about his speech and about his accusation levied at Dunstan. Joel admits that it’s simply a trick—it makes he audience think he can see everything, and their faith in him might increase their faith in God, so he does it.
Joel interestingly admits to incorporating a kind of magic trick into his sermons. He believes such tricks have the power to increase our belief and faith in God, and so he has no qualms with using them.
Dunstan eventually tells Joel they have met before, and asks him about that might with Mary. Joel explains he was in a miserable state, and was being asked to perform sexual favors for other tramps in return for food. On a particularly dejected night, he came across Mary Dempster, and tried to have his way with her. She asked him why he was being so rough, and this made him cry. She comforted him and said she wanted to help. He told her he still wanted her and she agreed. The next day when he was run out of town, he felt he had been delivered. He says Mary had been a blessed saint, and that their encounter had been a miracle.
We are finally told about the nature of Mary Dempster’s first miracle: she redeemed Joel in his darkest moment by treating him gently, by giving him what he asked for. Dunstan is not the only person who considers Mary to be a saint, and this corroboration from Joel likely increases Dunstan’s conviction. Joel’s account also re-frames the incident: recall that as a child, Dunstan considers this act an act of madness. Joel makes it clear that it is an act of miraculous kindness—an act of redemption.
Dunstan goes back to Deptford to ask about Mary’s whereabouts. Milo tells him she’s living with her aunt, Bertha Shanklin, in Weston. Then Dunstan goes to see the Catholic priest, Father Regan, to ask about Mary’s potential sainthood. He tells him he thinks he may have found a saint, but Father Regan thinks this is ludicrous. He tells Dunstan that a fool-saint is someone who seems full of holiness but is too much a fool and his life comes to nothing, because virtue tainted with madness is not virtue at all. Dunstan goes back to Toronto knowing that Father Regan has made good points, but nevertheless decides to go to Weston a couple of weeks later.
Though Father Regan finds it strange that a protestant is concerning himself with Saints, his argument against Mary Dempster’s sainthood is more complicated than others we’ve seen. He suggests that, though Mary may indeed be virtuous, her virtue is “tainted” with madness.. Though Dunstan acknowledges that Father Regan may have a point, he goes to see Mary Dempster anyway—perhaps because of guilt; but perhaps he also remembers that he used to assume everything he didn’t understand was the result of madness—and this drives him to keep investigating his fool-saint.
8. Mary Dempster is now 40 but looks younger than her age. Bertha is a small old woman with gentle manners. Bertha tells him that Mary is in no real condition to have visitors, but Dunstan wins her over with his kind words about Mary and her influence on his life. Bertha tells him that Mary remembers little of her life is Deptford, only that she had been tied up and that Paul had disappeared. She remembers Amasa praying to God about Mary ruining his life—she remembers that Amasa died praying.
Mary Dempster barely recalls her time in Deptford, but what she does recall is telling: the absence of her son, her imprisonment in the house. It seems she has no memory of Dunstan—even though his memories of her have shaped his entire life. She also recalls Amasa’s prayers, which cast her as a burden. It is fitting that Amasa—who lived praying (or who prays instead of living)—died praying as well.
8. The following spring, in 1929, Dunstan gets a call from Boy, who tells him to sell certain stocks immediately. When the market crashes, Dunstan’s small fortune is spared, and he owes this success completely to Boy. But Dunstan can hardly think of money, as he is too preoccupied with his upcoming summer travels through Europe. He is particularly interested in a little-studied bearded female saint called “Uncumber.” He has some ideas about Uncumber’s history, and her existence in various religious accounts.
Dunstan admits in his personal history that Boy saved him from financial ruin. Just like all people, Boy is more complex than he seems. Though he is undoubtedly a selfish, competitive man, he takes responsibility for Dunstan’s finances and watches out for him. Though Dunstan is grateful, he can hardly be bothered to think about money—he is more interested in uncovering new and interesting histories.
Dunstan hunts for traces of Uncumber in remote villages across Europe. In one small town his visit corresponds with the visit of a circus. Dunstan recognizes the man performing card tricks in the circus as Paul Dempster. Dunstan recognizes his dexterous hands immediately. After the show, he approaches Paul, who has grown into a man and speaks several languages fluently. Paul’s stage name is Faustus Legrand. He is not keen to speak with Dunstan, but slowly Dunstan wins him over, as well as the rest of the crew, by buying several rounds of drinks for all of them at a local pub.
Another startling—and perhaps fated—coincidence. Dunstan’s hunt for a little-known saint leads him to a little-known town, and here he finally finds the long-lost Paul Dempster. Paul has made a living out of his talent for magic and illusion. Though Dunstan is thrilled to see Paul, Paul is not so pleased to se Dunstan—perhaps a testament to the pain of his childhood in Deptford—and only submits to conversation because Dunstan makes a show of winning over the rest of the crew.
The bearded lady of the circus takes a special liking to Dunstan after he tells her about the saint Uncumber. She confides in him that the circus master, Le Solitaire, had likely carried on a sexual relationship with Paul when he was a boy, and that now he can’t stand to be apart from him. Dunstan finally asks Paul if he may tell Mary that he is alive and well; Paul says he does not mean to see her, so telling her of his whereabouts will do no good. He explains that he was told over and over that his birth drove his mother mad, and that he does not wish to revisit the sadness of his past. The next morning, when Dunstan rises to continue his search for Uncumber, he notices that his pocketbook has been stolen, and guesses that Paul is the culprit.
A kind of dark shadow is cast over Paul’s success—his life has not been as charmed as perhaps Dunstan has imagined. We then discover that Paul blames his mother for his miserable childhood. Of course, we already know that Dunstan feels he deserves the blame for Paul’s misfortune, and no doubt he feels his guilt resurface in this moment. What’s more, Paul uses his talents to steal from Dunstan—he is a “cheat;” he has learned to use his magical skills dishonestly, just as Amasa feared he would. This is another blow to Dunstan conscience: has he degraded Paul’s character?