Fifth Business

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Religion, Faith, and Morality Theme Analysis

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Religion, Faith, and Morality Theme Icon

Dunstan Ramsey’s account of his life involves at almost every stage questions about religion, faith, and morality. Can one have faith without religion (or religion without faith)? Does being faithful or religious make us morally upright?

Families in Dunstan’s small hometown of Deptford, Ontario are divided by religion: one’s social life and community is determined by whether one is Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc. Though Dunstan’s family is Presbyterian, they provide help to the Baptist Mrs. Dempster when a snowball (meant for Dunstan) hits her in the head and causes her to prematurely give birth to her son Paul. Dunstan’s exposure to Mr. Dempster, a Baptist preacher, teaches him that “deeply religious” men are not always faithful or moral men. Dunstan believes Mrs. Dempster—though she is aloof and far too trivial for this hardened protestant town’s taste, and ultimately is discovered having consensual sex with a tramp—is more godly than her devout husband. In fact, Dunstan becomes convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a saint, and perceives her to perform three miracles: bringing Dunstan’s brother Willy back from the dead, reforming the tramp with whom she has sex that night, and appearing to Dunstan in a kind of vision when he is an injured soldier during WWI. Dunstan’s interest in saints (which is regarded by others as an illegitimate interest, since he is a protestant) drives the course of his whole life—he becomes a scholar of sainthood, and travels the world to better learn the stories of saints, allowing these stories to inform his faith and his moral decision-making.

The religion, faith, and morality of other main characters in the novel are also investigated at length. Paul grows up to be a magician—and his belief in the power of illusion is described as a kind of faith by Dunstan, who in many ways shares this belief. Boy Staunton (who threw the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster, but doesn’t remember doing so) is in many ways an investigation of moral and religious failure. He is indecisive about religion, ultimately declaring himself an atheist. Dunstan maintains that Boy only became an atheist because he worshipped himself as God, and was disappointed.

The book concludes decisively that there is nothing inherently moral about religion, though it does stress the importance of faith to a person’s moral fiber as well as his self-knowledge, self-love, and self-discovery. In other words, the book posits that in coming to find and know our own personal faiths, we come to find and know ourselves. In many ways the novel (structured as a letter from an old man, desperate to reveal that his life has significance) is an investigation of how our lives come to have meaning; Davies’ conclusion is that faith (whether it be in saints, God, magic, or anything else) is crucial to this sense of meaning.

Religion, Faith, and Morality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fifth Business related to the theme of Religion, Faith, and Morality.
Part 1 Quotes

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).


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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.

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.

Part 3 Quotes

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.)

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.

“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.

“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.

Part 6 Quotes

“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.