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.
History and Mythology Theme Icon

Dunstan eventually becomes a history teacher, a historian of sainthood, a biographer of Paul’s falsified history, and (in the form of the letter that the book consists of) an autobiographer, a historian of his own life. Accordingly, the novel is deeply invested in a discussion of how history is made and recorded, how history and myth are intertwined, and how we determine what is “real” (factual) and what is imagined, fabricated, and reinterpreted—in other words “mythological”—about our past.

Dunstan clearly believes that history should not consist simply (perhaps “merely”) of “fact.” He resents his students who wish to take a more “scientific” approach to history, and values historical accounts that include marvelous or unexplainable happenings. This is shown foremost by his own history—He maintains that Mrs. Dempster brought his brother back from death, and that her face appeared to him on the battlefield. He cannot verify these rather mystical events as factual, but, in his estimation, this should not prevent them from appearing in his history. He also believes in fate, and in the idea of destiny—in other words, that history is driven by a mythological power that essentially directs us to a certain fate. He borrows much of this thinking from the mythology of the Greeks.

His interest in the history of sainthood is also indicative of his belief that history and mythology should not be kept utterly separate. He investigates the deeds and lives of saints as one might investigate the deeds and lives of more traditionally historical figures. This earns him skepticism from his friends and contemporaries, but he carries on nevertheless.

The novel thus suggests how we might best understand history—whether it is our own personal history, or world history—as something more than the progression of verified factual events. We cannot fully understand history without grasping the non-factual elements of experience: impressions, interpretations, and misunderstandings also make history. Given that the book is a fictional account of a mythological history of its protagonist, we could say that in many ways this discussion of history and mythology could emphasize the importance of fiction and literature itself. Perhaps Davies is warning us against a view of history that excludes artistic, literary, imaginative or fictional accounts (such as Fifth Business itself.)

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History and Mythology ThemeTracker

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

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

But what most galls me is the patronizing tone of the piece—as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or hate.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage introduces Dunstan Ramsay as an outspoken, energetic, somewhat curmudgeonly person, who teaches at a school. The conceit of the book is that Dunstan is writing a letter to his headaster, responding to a recent article in a newspaper that claims that Ramsay is a boring, old-fashioned, and generally uninteresting man. Ramsay takes great pains to correct the newspaper's position, writing a long, careful letter to the headmaster (the book itself) in which he explains his rich, strange, and complex life.

The passage sets the tone for the entire novel by endeavoring to show how ordinary things (or people, rather) often have extraordinary capabilities and histories. To his students, Ramsay seems like an ordinary, boring man, and yet his life has been full of passion and magic, even if the passion and magic haven't been shared with the people he lives among now.


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Can I write truly of my boyhood? Or will that disgusting self-love which so often attaches itself to a man’s idea of his youth creep in and falsify the story.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramsay is going to tell us (or rather, the headmaster) about his extraordinary life, and yet he worries that he won't be an unbiased source. Ramsay considers the possibility that, when talking about his life, he'll unknowingly or knowingly distort certain details in order to present himself as better (or at least different)  than he really is.

Notice that the passage doesn't offer an answer to Ramsay's own question--in fact, once the question is raised, no answer could possibly satisfy readers! Because Ramsay is our only source throughout the novel, we'll have to take what he says with a grain of salt. Here, Davies seems to wink at readers, acknowledging that what we're about to see is not exactly real or trustworthy.

Nobody—not even my mother—was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Mrs. Fiona Ramsay
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dunstan learns an important, if ambiguous, lesson about human beings. Dunstan has become obsessed with magic tricks: he's still a child, and gets a lot of pleasure and wonder from making objects disappear and reappear. Dunstan plays with an egg and accidentally breaks it: a "crime" for which his mother beats him, only to apologize later, tearfully. Dunstan isn't sure how to interpret his mother's actions: his conclusion is that his mother's aggressiveness and affection are linked at the core, and that nobody can be entirely trusted or understood, not even his own family members.

The passage is a good example of the way that Davies conveys a sense of magic and enchantment without ever actually showing any magic: Mrs. Ramsay is a confusing, mysterious person, meaning that her personality itself is like the magic trick (she "transforms" anger into love in a flash; not a bad illusion). The passage is also a good summing-up of the novel's Freudian motifs (a broken egg, for example, is a classic Freudian symbol for fragmented motherhood and femininity, suggesting that Mrs. Ramsay somehow feels out-of-joint from her son).

In later life I have been sometimes praised, sometimes mocked, for my way of pointing out the mythical elements that seem to me to underlie our apparently ordinary lives.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Mrs. Mary Dempster
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunstan and his peers are sent out into the night to track down Mary Dempster, who's gone missing suddenly. Dunstan is sent out to the gravel yard at the periphery of his community, and as he goes off into the night, he feels a sense of exhilaration: he's having an adventure.

Dunstan is smart enough to acknowledge that his sense of magic and wonder is totally arbitrary (it's all in his head, at the end of the day). And yet Dunstan seems proud of his ability to spin wonder and meaning out of the most trivial occurrences. Mrs. Dempster's disappearance isn't really much an adventure at all, but Dunstan makes it an adventure. He is already a historian, in a way, finding larger narratives and meanings within seemingly ordinary events.

Part 2 Quotes

I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunstan is now fighting in the war (World War One), and one day he entertains his fellow troops by doing an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin, which everyone finds highly amusing. Dunstan's peers are amazed that Dustan can be so amusing--they'd always thought of him as a dry, humorless kind of person. One gets the sense that Dunstan is used to being taken for a humorless man, and then disproving his peers (just as he's doing with the headmaster in his long letter). It's even possible that Dunstan enjoys surprising people: he enjoys seeming ordinary and then revealing his "other sides."

Dunstan clarifies his point by noting that all people have many sides to their personalities: his point seems to be that it's impossible to know people completely--at best, we can know a couple of their "sides," but never the complete human being. Thus, we can never know the real Dunstan, the real Mrs. Ramsay, etc. As with magic tricks, so with people: we must preserve a certain sense of wonder and enchantment, accepting that there is always something more beneath the surface.

We are public icons, we two: he an icon of kingship, and I an icon of heroism, unreal yet very necessary; we have obligations above what is merely personal, and to let personal feelings obscure the obligations would be failing in one’s duty.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramsay is wounded in the line of combat in World War One but survives, even killing some Germans before he loses consciousness. He only gets into danger because he loses his way, and yet he's ultimately rewarded for his behavior with the Victorian Cross--the highest military honor awarded to Canadian soldiers. Here the King himself gives Ramsay the Victorian Cross. Ramsay isn't dazzled with his award, however--on the contrary, he's thrown into an existential crisis as he wonders why, exactly, he is being given an award. If he hadn't lost his direction, or if he'd been wounded a little earlier, nobody would think him a hero at all. Total randomness led to Ramsay's receiving the award, but everyone treats him like a hero. Ramsay comes to see that, like the King, he's just impersonating a hero and playing a role, rather than being one.

If honor and achievement are random, is Ramsay's entire life random? Although Ramsay's achievements are always dictated by random chance, he seems to maintain a sense of control and independence in his own spirit. No matter what happens to him externally, we've seen, Ramsay is still the same person, deep down: happy, optimistic, worshipful, mystical.

Part 3 Quotes

I rather liked the Greek notion of allowing Chance to take a formative hand in my affairs.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

As Ramsay pursues the religious sculpture, his investigation is contrasted with the life of Boy. Boy converts to Anglicanism because he wants to please or rebel against the people around him (such as his father). Where Boy thinks in terms of external events, Ramsay thinks in terms of his own spirit and his faith. In turning away from the external world, Ramsay implies that he's putting his fate in the hands of random chance, like the ancient Greeks (supposedly).

In practice, what does it mean to submit to the power of Chance? Ramsay doesn't explain exactly what he means, but it's suggested that he sees the kind of political and worldly "climbing" in which Boy engages as futile, precisely because it ignores the supremacy of Chance in all earthly affairs. Although Ramsay describes his worldview as Greek, it's also somewhat characteristic of Christian theology: the material world is an arbitrary, uncontrollable place, so we should focus on our souls, putting our trust in the grace of God.

Part 4 Quotes

Now I should be able to see what a saint was really like and perhaps make a study of one without the apparatus of Rome, which I had no power to invoke. The idea possessed me that it might lie in my power to make a serious contribution to the psychology of religion.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Mrs. Mary Dempster
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ramsay is named the guardian of Mary Dempsey, he continues to believe that she is a saint. As such, he rejoices that the universe has given him the chance to "study" a saint in real life: he intends to explore what's going on in Mrs. Dempsey's mind, now hopeful that his investigations will make a contribution to the "psychology of religion."

It's characteristic of Ramsay that he doesn't take no for an answer. Even after people tell him that Mary isn't a true saint at all, he continues to believe that she is, and studies her life in the hopes of proving to other people that he's right. Ramsay is such an iconoclast because he makes his own meaning. Despite being a faithful, religious person with a lot of respect for other people's religions, he always returns to his own instincts and inclinations: thus, he continues to believe that Mary is a saint because it's what his instinct and "faith" tell him to believe.

“What good would it do you if I told you she was indeed a saint? I cannot make saints, nor can the pope. We can only recognize saints when the plainest evidence shows them to be saintly.”

Related Characters: Padre Blazon (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay, Mrs. Mary Dempster
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ramsay meets with an elderly Jesuit named Padre Blazon. Blazon takes a very different view of sainthood than Father Regan did: unlike Regan, he thinks of sainthood as a fluid concept, to be determined by individuals, not just the Pope in Rome. Thus, if Ramsay believes that Mary really is a saint, then in some sense she truly is.

Blazon's philosophy of religion is more individualistic than Regan's: he sees faith (i.e., the personal, close relationship between man and God) as being more important than a specific set of rules and practices (i.e, a complex beatification process). The very fact that Ramsay explains himself to Blazon indicates that he agrees more with Blazon's philosophy: instead of stopping when Regan tells him to stop, Ramsay continues looking for a religious authority who'll tell him that Mary is, indeed, a saint.

Part 5 Quotes

Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts?...The marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage could well be a thesis statement for the entire novel. Ramsay wonders aloud why people think of magic and wonder as being somehow "supernatural." Why, in other words, should a wondrous natural phenomenon like lightning or flight be thought of as normal, while something like resurrection or reincarnation be thought of as wondrous? The marvelous, Ramsay argues, is really just a part of the real. The only reason we think of reality and wonder as being different things is that we're ignorant of the true nature of the world: as with people, we only see one "side" of things, and therefore neglect the other sides.

The passage is also a good example of Ramsay's balanced, optimistic approach to living. Unlike most other adults, Ramsay doesn't give up on the concept of magic altogether. Instead of losing his childhood sense of innocence and wonder, Ramsay actually becomes more innocent and more curious in his philosophy of living; everything is a miracle, or a miracle in disguise. (All this makes us wonder why Ramsay is so singularly fixated on Mary's sainthood: if everything is potentially wondrous, what makes Mary so special?) 

“Life is a spectator sport to you.”

Related Characters: Liesl (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage the hideous Liesl confronts Ramsay about his feelings for the beautiful Faustina. Ramsay is concerned that if he shows physical affection for Faustina, his actions will offend Paul, who has a relationship with Faustina. Liesl accuses Ramsay of being passive in the face of reality: he just sits back and soaks everything in, not really committing to any one person, idea, or cause.

Liesl has a point. Ramsay thinks of himself as moving through life, guided by magical forces like chance and fate. He controls his own soul, and yet he seems remarkably indifferent to the external events of the universe, from war to suicide. Ramsay does concern himself with certain people, such as Mary, but even here, there's always the sense that he's holding back, placing more value in abstract concepts than in his relationships and feelings for individuals. Liesl sizes Ramsay up pretty well, even if she is otherwise seen as an almost devilish character.

“It is not spectacular but it is a good line of work…Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.”

Related Characters: Liesl (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Liesl tells Dunstan that he's meant to be the "fifth business" in life. Dunstan has an important part to play in his peers' existences: he's not really the hero of his own life, nor is he the antagonist or the comic relief. And yet Dunstan must eventually play a different role in life (a role that Liesl nicknames the "fifth business"--a character that doesn't fit a traditional role, but is nonetheless crucial to the plot). In order to find out what his "fifth business" is, Dunstan must actively engage in life, instead of standing aloof from others.

The passage is interesting because of the way Liesl both challenges Dunstan's beliefs and reconfirms them. Dunstan already believes in the notion of fate; the idea that people just play roles in life, which have been written for them by other people (or God, if you prefer). And yet where Ramsay thinks that he should escape his role by maintaining a stoic control over his own spirit, Liesl insists that he should try to explore his role in life (the role of fifth business). In short, Liesl and Dunstan seem to believe in two different version of fatedness: Dunstan thinks of fate as something to be accepted passively, with the help of one's spirit. Liesl, on the other hand, thinks that fate requires human beings to try hard and play an active role in life: just because life is fated doesn't mean that we get to put our feet up.

Part 6 Quotes

The Autobiography of Magnus Eisengrim was a great pleasure to write, for I was under no obligation to be historically correct or weigh evidence.

Related Characters: Paul Dempster (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage we learn that Dunstan has finished writing an autobiography of the magician Magnus Eisengrim, who's really Paul Dempster: a man Dunstan knows quite well (and whom he introduced to magic years ago). Dustan cheerfully notes that writing the book was fun because he didn't have to be truthful at all. The notion that Dunstan could 1) write someone else's autobiography, and 2) not be truthful in such an autobiography, is pretty funny--but there's also a serious point being made here. Whether he's dealing with spiritual truth or literal truth, Dunstan takes great liberties. He creates his own reality, using pleasure, instinct, and a kind of loyalty to storytelling as his guiding principles, rather than fidelity to "reality." In short, he blends mythology with history, and sees little different in the two.

“Come to Switzerland and join the Basso and the Brazen Head. We shall have some high old times before The Five make an end of us all.”

Related Characters: Liesl (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel ends ambiguously, with Dunstan recreating the letter he's received from Liesl, the woman who tried to bring him enlightenment (but who was also presented as a devil-figure). Liesl wants Dunstan to join up with her and Eisengrim, so that they can travel around the country performing magic and discovering their own unique form of spirituality.

The implication of the passage is that Dunstan's enlightenment is a constant, ongoing process, rather than a distinct event. Dunstan has learned to invest himself in other people, thanks to Liesl's mentorship, and yet he's still a neophyte. It's suggested that after writing his letter he chooses to rejoin Liesl and discover what it means to invest himself in his relationships with others (rather than holding his soul aloof and believing in destiny, as he had previously). The biggest surprise of the novel is that we're never given an entirely satisfying account of what the "fifth business" is: instead of telling us the solution to the mystery, Davies suggests that Dunstan must struggle and act in order to find out what his role in life is (if, indeed, he really has one). It's important to recognize that the end of the novel is really the segue into the second book in the trilogy: we're left with a lot of questions, but perhaps some of the questions will be answered in the later books.