Fifth Business

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Love, Family, and Psychology Theme Analysis

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.
Love, Family, and Psychology Theme Icon

The novel demonstrates a persistent interest in psychology—the works of Freud and Jung are often cited by several of its characters. Like these psychologists themselves, Davies is interested especially in the psychology of love and family.

Dunstan often tries to understand the psychology of his family dysfunction growing up—his relationship with his mother was not strong, yet he always felt guilty about lying to her as a child, and wonders if his attraction to certain women is a function of the Freudian oedipal complex (where the subject feels a sexual attraction for his mother.) And Boy’s sexual promiscuity is also often described in psychological terms. Dunstan is less sexual than Boy, and has trouble comprehending Boy’s relentless pursuit of adventurous sex.

There are many examples of split identities in this book—it is especially significant that Dunstan, Paul, and Boy all rename themselves. Dunstan often reflects on this as a kind of psychological phenomenon wherein the three of them all leave past versions of themselves behind and grow into new identities. This resembles discussions in both Freud and Jung about repression of childhood memories and the divided self—a concept (appearing in both Freud and Jung) that describes how the human psyche is divided into the conscious and unconscious, which together make up the self.

Mrs. Dempster’s insanity is in many ways at the heart of the novel’s conflict—and Dunstan’s (perhaps neurotic) attachment to Mrs. Dempster is also a focus of the novel’s psychological discussion. Dunstan’s love life, though perhaps seemingly uneventful, is deeply psychologically complicated. In many ways the novel serves to describe Dunstan coming to understand himself and his psychological capacity to love not only his work but also other people—to love his family, his friends, the women in his life.

Published in 1970, Fifth Business was written at a time when the western interest in Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychiatry was still quite avid. Davies incorporates contemporary questions about the meaning and merit of psychological science—for psychology is yet another way we can understand ourselves and our humanity, and this book is in many ways an effort to do just that.

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Love, Family, and Psychology Quotes in Fifth Business

Below you will find the important quotes in Fifth Business related to the theme of Love, Family, and Psychology.
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.

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.

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).

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.

I felt that everything was good, that my spirit was wholly my own, and that though all was strange nothing was evil.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of World War One, Ramsay is struck down in combat and sent to the hospital, where he spends the next half a year. Ramsay awakes in a hospital bed and learns that he was hurt on the battlefield. He's not shocked or traumatized by his experiences, however: he remembers seeing the apparition of Mary Dempsey just before he lost consciousness. Ramsay accepts that his life isn't fully in his control. And yet he also believes that he is in complete control of his own spirit: no matter what happens to his body, he'll maintain an inner strength and peace, rooted in his acceptance of magic and mystery.

Dunstan's beliefs in the independence of the spirit can be vague and frustrating, but it's clear that he believes that the world is a place of wonder. Dunstan tries to keep an open mind when he explores the world, even when he's a soldier risking his life in battle. He's an eternal optimist, who believes that everything is happening for a reason, even if the reason is very hard to see.

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.

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 3 Quotes

It was characteristic of Boy throughout his life that he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized and defined.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Boy (Percy Boyd) Staunton
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

The contrast between Boy and Ramsay couldn't be clearer. Boy grows up to be a conceited, successful person, who makes lots of money and succeeds in everything he does. And yet Boy defines himself by his outward success: his material wealth, his professions, and particularly his ability to become what people want him to be. At every turn, Boy measures himself against others' opinions and beliefs about him. On the other hand, Ramsay never achieves remotely the same success that Boy achieves--but he doesn't seem to care too much what other people think of him (even when he gets his medal from the King, he's strangely indifferent, thinking of the occasion as an example of the arbitrariness and meaningless of success). Instead, Ramsay maintains control over the purity of his own spirit: his life and his achievements in life are always secondary to his inner happiness. (One could argue that such a way of living is heavily influenced by Christian ideals.)

I was rediscovering religion as well…The Presbyterianism of my childhood had effectively insulated me against any enthusiastic abandonment to faith

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramsay becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious statue that he thinks he saw just before he lost consciousness on the battlefield (the statue that, supposedly, looked just like Mary Dempster). As he researches the religious statues of Europe, Ramsay finds himself developing a passion for religion and religious studies itself. Oddly, he claims that by growing up in a strict Presbyterian home, he was "insulated" against enthusiastic faith.

What is the difference between religion and faith? Ramsay suggests that the Presbyterian, with all its tenets and rules, is designed to train Christians to be stoic, reserved, and orderly in all ways. To have enthusiastic faith, on the other hand, has nothing to do with following rules or prohibitions: instead, faith comes from within (i.e., from Ramsay's spirit). Ramsay rediscovers his religious faith, it's implied, during his hunt for the statue, precisely because it's he and he alone who's embarked on such a quest--and because he's passionate about what he's searching for. (The journey, as the cliche goes, is more important than the destination.)

“A fool-saint is somebody who seems to be full of holiness…but because he’s a fool it all comes to nothing…because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can’t tell where it’ll end up.”

Related Characters: Father Regan (speaker), Dunstan Ramsay, Mrs. Mary Dempster
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ramsay, obsessed with the potential sainthood of Mrs. Mary Dempster, goes to speak with a priest, Father Regan, about the issue. Ramsay describes Mary's supposed "miracles," and tries to convince Regan of his position. Regan, however, is highly skeptical of Mary's status as a saint, and his reasons for skepticism are interesting. Regan argues that Mary is a "fool-saint," not a real saint. A fool-saint, as he understands the term, is a person who's capable of seeming holy (and maybe even capable of performing holy acts), but who is too mentally unstable to be considered fully in control of their actions.

In other words, Regan believes that sainthood isn't just about external acts, as Ramsay seems to believe. A saint must accomplish miracles, but must also exemplify a certain state of mind and be a virtuous person. Someone who appears saintly but isn't really sane (like Mary) isn't really an appropriate model for human behavior--she's just stumbled upon holiness.

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.

Thus I learned two lessons: that popularity and good character are not related, and that compassion dulls the mind faster than brandy.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Orpheus Wettenhall
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a prominent lawyer, Orph, has killed himself after his best client, Bertha, dies. Orph is a popular figure in the community, even after it comes out that he's been embezzling funds and stealing from his peers. Ramsay is shocked by the way Orph's own victims continue to think of him as a good man, and forgive his crimes and sins. Ramsay says Orph's suicide teaches him that compassion is irrational, and that popularity and good character aren't necessarily related.

The passage confirms Ramsay's preexisting belief that external events don't reflect the true nature of a man's soul: Orph might be popular and successful, but he's also sinful. Second, it's interesting to see Ramsay level his criticism at compassion. Ramsay seems like a good, optimistic person, and yet he's suspicious of this kind of compassion because it's irrational. Ramsay feels something somewhat different from compassion: it's a kind of obsession, over which he feels he has no real control. Ramsay feels no real compassion for Mary; rather, he feels that it's his duty or his purpose in life to discover the secret of her saintliness.

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.

“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.

“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

Boy had always been fond of the sexual pleasure that women could give him, but I doubt if he ever knew much about women as people.

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Boy (Percy Boyd) Staunton
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Boy, we're told, marries someone new, but Dunstan isn't optimistic about their chances for happiness. Dunstan knows Boy pretty well at this point, and he claims that Boy is more interested in women as objects than he is in women as human beings: as far as he's concerned, women are just devices to help him toward sexual gratification.

It's important to take Ramsay's critique of Boy's sexism with a grain of salt. While Boy is in many ways the principle antagonist of the story, our impressions are filtered through the prism of Ramsay's own experiences and perceptions, to the point where we really don't know anything about him. In many ways, Ramsay's critique of Boy sounds a lot like the critique we could make of Ramsay himself: he's clueless around women, and never really understands them as people (although his encounter with Liesl could be interpreted as a turning point). As the novel goes on, Ramsay seems to become more confident in the legitimacy of his own philosophy of life, and more critical of Boy's: as he sees it, Boy lives for eternal pleasure, and fails to be truly content because he's too invested in what he can "get out of" other people (sexual gratification, for example).

“You created a God in your own image, and when you found out he was no good you abolished him. It’s a quite common form of psychological suicide.”

Related Characters: Dunstan Ramsay (speaker), Boy (Percy Boyd) Staunton
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this confrontational scene, Boy and Ramsay finally argue with one another about the ways they've lived their lives. Ramsay notes that Boy has become an atheist: in Ramsay's view, Boy has given up not only on God, but on himself, and on life. Boy has always been a narcissist: he was his own God. Now that Boy has seem himself as he truly is (flawed, vain, weak), he naturally gives up on "God" as well.

Ramsay's interpretation of Boy's life is insightful in the way it associates atheism with narcissism. Some religious people (like Dunstan, apparently) argue that an atheist is a person who values nothing more highly than human life, and his own human life in particular (this is a debatable interpretation, however). The passage also makes the paradoxical point that people who live "for other people" (i.e., trying to please or impress them) may be more narcissistic and self-hating than people like Ramsay, who seem to set themselves apart from worldly concerns and embrace their own souls. Because Boy has no real respect for himself, he can't have any respect for other human beings, and so he treats others as mere objects.

“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.