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.
The Meaning of Success Theme Icon

Dunstan, Boy, Mrs. Dempster, and Paul—as well as several other less central characters—could all be described as “successful,” though their lives do not resemble one another’s in any way. The novel thus wonders what “success” is, and what it means to the individual.

Boy Staunton chases “success” his whole life—he succeeds in finding fortune, prestige, and popularity. He is a “genius” (to use Dunstan’s word) at making his own luck, and fortune always seems to be on his side. But, he is nevertheless morbidly unfulfilled. He cheats on his first wife repeatedly because she can never be enough for him. And when he eventually earns a seat in government he is even unhappier, though this is arguably one of the greatest successes of his life.

Dunstan repeatedly refers in his letter to the Headmaster to his own success, which he notes is too often overlooked by his students and his colleagues at Colborne College. He has won the VC for bravery in war (though he considers this a dubious kind of “success”), published several books, has learned many languages, has traveled the world, and has attained a great deal of knowledge which has allowed him to lead a rich spiritual life. Unlike Boy’s success, this kind of success often goes unnoticed—but Dunstan, we can assume, is far happier and more fulfilled than Boy.

Mrs. Dempster is reviled by her town for being insane and morally bankrupt. Her sexual act with the tramp is regarded as a failure not only for her, but also for her husband, son, and entire community. Yet this act, we learn, reforms the life of the tramp, whose name is Joel Surgeoner. Both Joel and Dunstan consider this act—far from depraved and condemnable—a miracle. In some ways we are led to believe that Mrs. Dempster’s spiritual success surpasses the success of anyone else in the novel. Her son Paul, who runs away to the circus (an act typically attributed to vagrants and "failures") goes on to become a famous magician, beloved and adored on an international scale. But it is unclear whether this success means much to Paul, who is the first to acknowledge that he has not led a charmed life by any means.

The novel asks us to examine how we understand success as individuals, how we understand it as a culture, and how a single person can be simultaneously a success and a failure. Davies paints a complicated picture of the meaning of success, and forces his reader to engage difficult questions about how best to define success.

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The Meaning of Success ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fifth Business related to the theme of The Meaning of Success.
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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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

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

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.)

“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

“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

“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.