Fifth Business

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Themes and Colors
Religion, Faith, and Morality Theme Icon
Guilt and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Meaning of Success Theme Icon
History and Mythology Theme Icon
Love, Family, and Psychology Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fifth Business, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt and Sacrifice Theme Icon

The internal conflict driving the story is one based in guilt: Dunstan feels responsible for Mrs. Dempster’s premature labor (since the snowball that hit her was meant for him). This guilt compounds over the course of the story: subsequent misfortunes also seem linked to Dunstan’s behavior. He is banished from the Dempster’s house for teaching Paul magic (something to which Mr. Dempster is religiously opposed). He is the one that discovers Mrs. Dempster with the tramp, leading to her imprisonment by her husband. In fact, everything he does seems to have some kind of tangential effect on the life of Mrs. Dempster, who eventually goes insane and dies after spending most of her life in a mental hospital. Conversely, Dunstan begins to think of his own hardships as sacrifices he’s made to atone for his guilt. He believes in some ways that his leg—lost during the war—is a kind of cosmic punishment for his role in the unlucky accident involving Mrs. Dempster.

Another major tension in the novel concerns the fact that Boy Staunton, who actually threw the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster, feels no guilt at all. In fact, it is revealed at the end of the story that Boy has completely forgotten about the Dempsters' entire existence. Boy still is forced to make a sacrifice in atonement, however—Paul Dempster eventually kills Boy Staunton after Dunstan confronts Boy about his role in Paul’s life. This death is rendered directly symbolic by the fact that Paul places the stone that was in the snowball (which Dunstan has kept) in Boy’s mouth the night of his death.

Much of the fortune and misfortune in the novel is framed by Dunstan’s letter as a kind of cosmic back-and-forth between guilt and sacrifice, wrongdoing and atonement. The book therefore offers a way for the reader to understand how we sometimes cope with or comprehend tragedy. The novel spans two world wars and the Great Depression, events that were characterized by irrational—in fact incomprehensible—loss and degradation. Accordingly, the book’s discussion of guilt can be read as an explanation of how its narrator learned to rationalize the irrational. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Dunstan is so quick to attribute a kind of significance to every loss and hardship, when so much of his life and others’ seems to be defined by such hardship. Guilt is not simply a psychological phenomenon in this book—it is historically meaningful. (This theme is closely tied to the themes of “History and Mythology” and “Love, Family, and Psychology.)

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Guilt and Sacrifice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Guilt and Sacrifice appears in each part of Fifth Business. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Guilt and Sacrifice Quotes in Fifth Business

Below you will find the important quotes in Fifth Business related to the theme of Guilt and Sacrifice.
Part 1 Quotes

I had made her what she was, and in such circumstances I must hate her or love her.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Mrs. Mary Dempster
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunstan Ramsay forms an unusual attachment to Mrs. Dempster. A snowball is thrown at his head, and Dunstan ducks to avoid it: as a result, the snowball hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster in the head, causing her to become "simple" and go into labor early.

Dunstan feels a strong sense of guilt for what he did to Mrs. Dempster--though of course, he didn't really "do" it at all. He thinks that he's responsible for her fate, and as a result, he concludes that he "must" either love or hate her. Dunstan's thought process might seem unusual, and yet because Mrs. Dempster is such a huge part of his life, whether he likes it or not, he's forced to make a such a drastic assessment of her. At time Dunstan is a somewhat comical character, we'll see, because he can't even entirely control what's happening around him, and yet his first instinct is always to take full responsibility. It is this sense of fatedness, responsibility, and guilt, that makes Dunstan feel a connection to Mrs. Dempster for so many years.


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Part 2 Quotes

She had fallen in love with me because she felt she had made whatever I was out of a smashed-up and insensible hospital case.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Diana Marfleet
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunstan finds himself in the middle of a relationship with Diana Marfleet, the nurse who helped restore him to health. Dunstan thinks that Diana has come to love him because she took care of him in the hospital: as with plenty of other nurses, she's come to think of him as her own creation, almost her own child.

The passage has a heavy Oedipal flavor (in Freudian psychology, men feel a strong desire for the mothers, or for maternal figures; Diana could be considered one such maternal figure). The passage is also a challenge to Ramsay's philosophy of the soul: Ramsay, deep down, is the same person he always was (his spirit has remained intact, even as his body and his life change). And yet Diana thinks that she exerts control over Ramsay by virtue of having tended to his body.

Part 5 Quotes

“You make yourself responsible for other people’s troubles. It is your hobby.”

Related Characters: Liesl (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Liesl and Ramsay have wrestled and argued with each other. Liesl explains that she wanted to have a fight with Ramsay to prove to him that he was a human being, not a concept or a spirit. Liesl knows all about Ramsay's life, and she's determined that his problem is his desire to make himself responsible for other people at all costs. We've seen this firsthand: he blames himself for other people's problems, even when he had little or nothing to do with such problems (for instance, he blames himself for Mary's accident). Ramsay's desire to make himself responsible for everyone else, paradoxically, translates into a kind of distance from the world: because he sees himself as the scapegoat for everyone, he's a friend and lover to no one. Ramsay's mistake is to make a distinction between his life and his spirit: he thinks that what happens to him in real life is ultimately irrelevant to his spirit, and therefore he doesn't really care about it. Liesl wants to unite Ramsay's spirit and his external life, showing him that one can only be truly human by savoring the here-and-now.