The first chapter of the book is preceded by a quote attributed to “Tho. Overskou” which defines “Fifth Business” as describing those roles that are not of the hero or heroine, confidante or villain, but are nevertheless crucial to the unfolding of a drama. “The player who acted these parts was often referred to as ‘Fifth Business’”
Thomas Overskou is a Dutch Playwright, who does indeed exist, but Davies has admitted this quote is one he made up and attributed to Overskou. This can be seen as a rather playful opening to a book interested in breaking history apart from fact, and asserting that the factual account and the true account are not always the same.
1. The book opens with narrator Dunstan Ramsay accounting for the exact date and time that his “lifelong involvement” with Mrs. Dempster began. Young Dunny (short for Dunstable) has been spending the afternoon sledding with his friend, Percy, who is angry that Dunny’s sled is faster than his even though it is old and inexpensive. Dunny decides to simply ignore Percy’s taunts and heads home so as not to be late for dinner. Percy follows him through the streets, yelling insults. Dunny senses that Percy is about to throw a snowball, and he steps in front of Mr. and Mrs. Dempster, imagining Percy will not throw if there is a chance he might accidentally hit someone other than Dunny. He throws anyway, and Mrs. Dempster is struck in the head. Mrs. Dempster falls to the ground in pain, and Dunny immediately feels guilty. Percy is not seen.
This is the central event of the book, around which the drama of Dunstan’s life will unfold. Percy, already greedily concerned with the relative success of his expensive sled, attacks Dunny, but Mrs. Dempster is struck instead. Dunny’s guilt is instant, whereas Percy, perhaps the more obviously guilty party, vanishes right after he releases the snowball. There is a significant kind of symmetry here: just as Percy vanishes from the scene, the scene itself will vanish from Percy’s memory (as we will discover at the end of the novel.) Dunny, on the other hand, will carry his guilt through the rest of his life.
Mr. Dempster asks Dunny for help and he agrees. Mrs. Dempster is put on the sled and Dunny pulls it as Mr. Dempster walks alongside it comforting Mrs. Dempster, who cries like a child. When they arrive at the house Mr. And Mrs. Dempster go inside and Dunny is not asked to join them. Dunny is late for dinner but has a good excuse, and tells his parents everything except that the snowball had been thrown by Percy, and was meant for him.
Dunny assists the Dempsters, and in so doing begins a life of atonement for what he believes he has done to them. Mrs. Dempster’s psychological difference is already on display, as she cries, notably, “like a child.” Mr. Dempster’s love for her is also apparent. Here Dunny keeps his first secret, writing Percy out of the history as he tells his parents what happened.
Mrs. Ramsay is interested in the condition of Mrs. Dempster. She decides to go over and see if she can help. Dunny recognizes this as a curious decision—Mr. Dempster is the Baptist minister in this small Canadian town of Deptford, and the Ramsay are Presbyterian. Usually a Presbyterian family would stay out of the business of a Baptist family, and vice versa. But Mrs. Ramsay’s unusual cleverness and competence has made her able to help in various medical situations before, and she has always felt sorry for Mrs. Dempster, who is not even 21 years old yet, and who is in Mrs. Ramsay’s opinion “silly” and “utterly unfit to be a preacher’s wife.”
We begin to see how religion divides towns like Deptford. Though it should not seem strange that Mrs. Ramsay might want to help a neighbor in need, the fact that the two households belong to two denominations makes this kind of behavior surprising. Mrs. Ramsay’s competence and judgmental attitude makes its first appearance in this scene—we get the sense that her compassion is real, but also that she enjoys being in control and displaying her talents.
Dunny stays up late and hears his mother come back to the house for supplies, saying that Mrs. Dempster has gone into premature labor, and that the birth is looking to be a difficult and dangerous one. Thus Paul Dempster is born.
The effects of the snowball and Dunny’s part in the accident proliferate—not only has he caused Mrs. Dempster’s injury, but he has also caused the premature birth of her child.
2. Dunstan explains to the headmaster, who is the ostensible recipient of this letter, why he begins his account with the birth of Paul Dempster. He explains that he has been deeply offended about an article in the school newspaper that describes him in dull terms—he is a devoted teacher though with an old-fashioned view of history. He is not even particularly mad that the article neglected to mention the fact that he was a recipient of the Victorian Cross, the highest military honor in Canada. Dunstan laments that the article treated him as though he had never known love, excitement, or hate. He maintains that he has been cast in the “glorious role of Fifth Business” and scornfully maintains that the young author of the article probably couldn’t even comprehend the meaning of the Fifth Business if he tried.
This interjection from Dunstan as an adult (the letter-writing Dunstan who is narrating this story of his life) reveals a great deal about his personality and motivations. He resents that the school newspaper has simplified his life and his mind, and glossed over his successes. He contextualizes the opening quote by asserting that he has been cast in the role of “Fifth Business,” calling this appointment “glorious”—a word with a distinct religious connotation. We begin to see a picture of Dunstan as a psychologically complex man who is successful according to his own definitions.
Dunstan concludes to the Headmaster that he must lay down his strange life, its truths and its illusions, so that someone may understand he is not what his meager reputation among his students suggests he is. He writes that he hopes his account of the night of Paul’s birth has already started to convey the “extraordinary” nature of his story. He maintains that he will try to accurately describe his own boyhood, but notes that men are often incapable of being honest about their pasts, as their self-love skews their perception.
We learn the nature of the account we are reading—though it is a life story, a history, it will contain “extraordinary” elements, strange realities, and illusions. Dunstan does not seem to think that any of these elements contradict the nature and function of “history,” He does, however, comment that the psychological reality of ego and self-love might lead him to misremember his childhood.
3. Deptford is a tiny Canadian village containing five churches: Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. There are two doctors, Dr. McCausland and Dr. Staunton, Percy’s father. The village was built by the Athelstan family, who made their fortune in lumber some years ago.
Tellingly, Dunstan begins his description of Deptford with a list of Deptford’s churches, then proceeds to mention the townspeople who have achieved notoriety and success. Deptford is a town defined by religion and social hierarchies.
Dunny’s father owns a paper, The Deptford Banner. This puts their family in a good social and economical position, and they live a modest but pleasant life. The family is known for its common sense and cleanliness, and they are generally respected by everyone in the town.
The Ramsays are not too far down in this hierarchy, and enjoy their lives. Their good standing here is described in terms of Mr. Ramsay’s employment and the public’s opinion of their life and home.
4. Mrs. Ramsay enjoys being able to help with the birth and care of Paul, because it puts her competence and ability on full display. Paul is born roughly 80 days premature, and when he is born, small and weak, Mr. Dempster wants to dip him in water to baptize him. Mrs. Ramsay and Dr. McCausland forbid this, and so the minister must settle for simply sprinkling some water on the infant’s forehead.
Amasa Dempster’s almost absurd devoutness shows through here—his first thought when Paul is born, weak and fragile, is to dunk him in water. It is as though he comprehends religious realities and nothing else—his faith seems to blind him. Notably, this is the first of many times that Amasa will display his religion by attempting to force it on others.
A baby has never been born so prematurely in this town, and many expect that Paul will not survive. Dr. McCausland and Mrs. Ramsay do everything to keep Paul healthy, keeping him warm and feeding him while Mr. Dempster prays over his barely conscious wife as though she is about to die. He also prays that God will, if necessary, accept both his wife and son into heaven, though they are still both alive. Finally Dr. McCausland tells him he must stop with such nonsense. Mrs. Ramsay shakes her head sharply when she tells the rest of her family about Mr. Dempster’s behavior.
Mr. Dempster is no use in keeping his wife and child alive because he is too busy preparing them spiritually for their deaths. Dr. McCausland’s reproach and Mrs. Ramsay’s disapproval confirm that Mr. Dempster’s practices—though this town is a religious one—are abnormal. It is also notable that yet again, his religion seems to serve the purpose of control—he asks God to secure the fate of his family, even though his family is still alive. He seems to live only for the after life, not for this life.
The Ramsay’s house becomes disheveled and disorganized as Mrs. Ramsay spends long days at the Dempsters, but Mr. Ramsay thinks his wife is a wonderful woman, and would never “do anything to prevent her from manifesting her wonderfulness.” The hard work pays off, and Paul is finally able to keep milk down. He begins to put on a modest amount of weight and grows slightly stronger, though it is doubted that he will ever be fully healthy. Mrs. Ramsay maintains that he is a fighter, and believes he will grow to be strong.
Against long odds, Paul Dempster’s condition improves. More of the Ramsays family dynamic is revealed: Mr. Ramsay’s adoration for his wife is unfaltering, and Mrs. Ramsay’s headstrong approach to problem-solving is emphasized. Mrs. Ramsay is notably one of the few people who believe in Paul—this is a part of his own history that Paul will shut out as an adult.
All this time, Dunny is convinced that the premature birth of Paul Dempster is his fault. He talks to Percy about it, but Percy tells him that the snowball hit his head, as it was supposed to, and not Mrs. Dempster’s—threateningly adding that Dunny ought to believe this story, too, or else. Dunny knows from the look on Percy’s face that he is afraid, and that he will do anything to prevent the truth from coming out. So Dunny is left alone with his guilt, which makes it all the worse. His religious upbringing combined with the fact that he is just starting puberty makes his mind one in which guilt can utterly take over, and this is what happens. He lives with a persistent fear of sex, of his parents finding out about the smutty conversations he has with other boys, and feels responsible for “a grossly sexual act—the birth of a child.”
Dunny’s sense of guilt grows deeper and stronger. Percy rejects the idea that he is responsible for the accident, and gives Dunny a version of the story that exonerates both of them. Dunny cannot think this way, however, and is tormented by his feeling of responsibility. The narrative also points out that as an adolescent, Dunny’s mind is more prone to guilt than a young child’s or an adult’s might be—this psychological thinking will continue in various ways throughout the novel. Notably there is a Freudian kind of emphasis on sex and its effect on the mind; to Dunny, everything in his life seems shamefully sexual.
One night a few months after Paul’s birth Dunny overhears his mother telling his father that Paul will likely survive—but that Mrs. Dempster seems to be permanently mentally impaired from the blow to the head. She’s “gone simple.” Mr. Ramsay wonders who threw the snowball, and Mrs. Ramsay supposes that whoever it was, the devil guided his hand.
Another consequence of Dunny’s actions makes itself clear. Mrs. Dempster has “gone simple”—a small-town euphemism for mental impairment. Mrs.. Ramsay’s comment about the devil guiding the hand of whoever threw the snowball no doubt increases Dunny’s fear and guilt.
5. As time passes, Percy’s refusal to accept guilt eventually translates to Dunny’s inability to blame him anymore—he comes to find himself alone responsible for Mrs. Dempster’s condition.
Interestingly, Percy’s refusal to accept guilt worsens Dunny’s own feeling of responsibility. He begins to feel that he alone caused the accident.
Even before Mrs. Dempster suffered the blow to the head, she was perceived to be “silly” or strange. She smiled too much, and was often out in public even when she was pregnant. She seemed improperly happy when she was meant to be the shy and modest wife of a preacher. And Mr. Dempster was far too fond of her, helping her too willingly and sometimes even taking chores off her hands and doing women’s work around the house.
Deptford’s norms are further outlined in this passage. This small town is one in which affection, excitement, and love should be kept out of sight (we could perhaps call Deptford “repressed”). Even Amasa’s marital love for his wife is deemed unseemly or strange.
Mrs. Ramsay always tried to help Mrs. Dempster learn how to do feminine work. She’d had a servant as a child and was not good at keeping house, mending clothes, etc. But Mrs. Ramsay agrees with the townspeople that Mrs. Dempster has become even more inappropriate after Paul’s birth, going so far as to breastfeed him in front of Mr. Dempster and houseguests. Though they agree she is a good mother, they think she does not take it seriously enough.
Deptford’s “repressed” mindset becomes increasingly clear—it is inappropriate that Mrs. Dempster would think to breastfeed in front of anyone, including her own husband. And Mrs. Dempster’s charmed childhood is looked on as a kind of deficit—Deptford is a place where one should know how to work.
Dunny is tasked by his parents with looking after Mrs. Dempster and Paul most afternoons after school when Mr. Dempster cannot be there. The house and grounds are neglected, and Mrs. Dempster often gets into trouble by giving away too many of her belongings to neighbors or beggars, giving compulsively even when it is unnecessary or inappropriate. While the rest of town becomes increasingly off-put by the Dempsters, Mrs. Ramsay’s compassion does not waver, and the Ramsays take care of the Dempsters in every way they can.
Dunny’s atonement (which will be, as we will see, a lifelong process) continues as he is tasked with taking care of Mrs. Dempster and Paul. Mrs. Dempster displays a strange compulsion to give (a nod to her potential sainthood), to the extent that her generosity is off-putting to their neighbors. But, to Mrs. Ramsay’s credit, she commits to taking care of the Dempsters in every way she can. Though Paul will not remember this generosity as an adult, Dunstan certainly notices it.
6. Dunny faces some social rejection due to his time spent with the Dempsters, but he has a quick wit and a way with words, and is able to defend himself against taunts. He has an insult saved for Percy should Percy ever give him any trouble: Mrs. Staunton calls her son “Pidgy Boy-Boy”—this would be a terminal embarrassment for Percy, and Dunny enjoys knowing he has the power to humiliate him. Dunny feels he needs this sense of power, as his duties at the Dempster’s house are depriving him of certain parts of his childhood—he is not playing games after school or dating girls, though he does have a slight crush on Leola Cruikshank.
Dunstan’s proud account of how smart he was as a boy perhaps suggests to us that his ego is re-shaping his boyhood. We are asked to wonder how “accurate” this history is. Dunstan also calls attention to the psychologically abnormal aspects of his childhood—he cannot develop relationships with friends, and he cannot pursue girls. He does develop a crush, however, on Leola (an ill-fated choice, as we will see.)
But Dunny believes he is truly in love with Mrs. Dempster. He loves her not in the way young boys often love older women, in a trivial, confused sort of way, but in a painful, real way. He believes he has made her into what she is, and this makes him love her (for he believes his only other option is to hate her.) Because he loves her, he defends her against the insults of his classmates, especially Milo Papple, a class clown who possesses very little wit. Dunny hears him insult Mrs. Dempster and insults him cleverly. His classmates then refrain from talking about Mrs. Dempster in front of him, but he knows they do it behind his back, and this makes him feel all the more isolated.
A “real” passionate love for Mrs. Dempster grows out of Dunny’s guilt. He believes that, psychologically, he must either hate or love Mrs. Dempster, since he has “made her what she is.” He speaks of creating her and caring for her as though he is a parental figure (and his conviction that he must either love or hate her is distinctly reminiscent of the Freudian idea of Oedipal love). What’s more, he becomes socially isolated by this love—his classmates, though they don’t taunt him directly, implicitly reject him.
7. Dunny is thirteen, and should be getting the hang of the printing business. But he is clumsy with his hands, and does not excel at the job like his brother Willie does. Useless in the print shop, he instead gets a job at the front desk of the library, a job he much prefers. He likes helping other kids find what they are looking for, and when no one is at the library he can spend the afternoon reading. He becomes especially enamored of books about magic, and studies them devotedly, admiring and believing in the work of famous magicians throughout history.
Dunny’s physical awkwardness drives him to work in the library, where he discovers what will be a lifelong love of magic. At this stage, Dunny begins seeing magic, illusion, and tricks with a kind of religious reverence. He pores over the texts as though they are sacred and studies them as though he is a devoted follower. He also appreciates the historical aspect of this study, and it is easy to see how his study of the history of magicians might prefigure his study of the history of sainthood.
Dunny becomes especially interested in slight of hand tricks, partially because they are the only ones that require few supplies. He practices with an egg stolen from home, and has some success, until one day he puts his thumb through it. His mother demands to know where the missing egg has gone, and he lies, claiming ignorance. She finds the yolk on his pants in the laundry, and she gets out the whip and strikes him on the shoulder. He commands her not to touch him. She becomes furious, chasing him around the house and beating him. They both cry, and she yells about how ungrateful he has become, how strange and arrogant his intellect is.
This confrontation between Dunny and his mother will have a lasting effect on Dunstan’s psychological integrity. This is a moment of culminating defiance—Dunny is rejecting his mother as he grows into a man. They are mutually affected by this development—Dunny and his mother both cry, and his mother insists he has been acting especially defiant lately. The fact that such an intense fight erupts from the absence of a single egg suggests that tension has been building for a long time, as well as the degree of control Mrs. Ramsay expects to exert in her home.
Mrs. Ramsay locks herself in her room and cries after this episode. When Willie and Mr. Ramsay come home to find that no dinner has been made, they immediately side with Mrs. Ramsay, and Dunny is made to apologize to her. She forgives him, and hugs him and kisses him. Dunny does not know how to reconcile his mother’s violence with her affection. As an adult Dunstan thinks Freud might help him understand his mother, but as a child the episode simply convinces him that nothing is what it seems on the surface.
Dunny does feel guilty about making his mother cry, and shows appropriate contrition. Nevertheless, he has learned from this experience that people are not what they seem—a doting mother one minute is perfectly capable of being an abusive mother the next. Dunstan guesses his mother’s strange behavior might be explained by certain Freudian concepts—but his most important takeaway is that people are complicated; a person’s psychology and personality are varied and conflicted.
8. The incident doesn’t keep Dunny away from magic—in fact it makes him more enthusiastic. He takes up card tricks next, mastering a few simple illusions and sleights of hand. He chooses for an audience the young Paul Dempster—and displays his talent for teaching as he shows Paul how to do certain tricks.
Again Dunny’s study of magic mirrors religious devotion: after a pronounced hardship, he becomes more devout, and even takes a kind of disciple. His talent as a teacher (this is ultimately his profession) thus seems to grow out of his spirituality.
Eventually Dunny progresses from card tricks to coin tricks, which are vastly more difficult. Dunny has clumsy hands and limited access to appropriately sized coins, but does his best anyway. One day Paul sees Dunny working on a sleight of hand trick that involves flipping a coin between two fingers and palming it—a difficult maneuver that Dunny struggles with. Paul listens to Dunny’s explanation and then performs the move perfectly on his first try, his small hands prodigiously dexterous and smooth. Dunny is jealous, of course, but knows he cannot change anything and continues to teach Paul. Besides, he knows Paul has no friends, as the rest of the village dislikes his “queerness.”
Paul, it turns out, is far better than Dunstan at sleight of hand tricks. Dunny ought to be jealous—this would be a normal response for an adolescent boy who is bested by a child much younger than him at his favorite hobby. But Dunny ends up being remarkably accepting—not least because he knows Paul has very few friends and struggles at school. Thus we have another example of atonement and sacrifice: Dunstan’s teaching of Paul becomes a way to repay him after causing his premature birth.
9. Dunny’s hatred is reserved for Mr. Dempster, whose first name is Amasa. Mr. Dempster’s devout religiosity is something Dunny and others find strange and out of place. The intensity of Mr. Dempsters prayers strike many in the town as “indecent.” Dunny often hears him asking God for strength in bearing his heavy burden—and knows he is talking about his wife. Mr. Dempster used to love her authentically; she used to be “the blood of his heart.” But now he seems to love her “on principle.”
The hatred that Dunny cannot feel for Paul or Mrs. Dempster (due to his feelings of guilt and responsibility) is instead directed towards Amasa. Dunny resents that Amasa calls Mrs. Dempster a “burden” in his prayers, and he recognizes that the only thing making Amasa “love” his wife is “principle”—a devotion to righteous conduct. Dunny therefore sees Amasa’s love as forced and inauthentic.
One afternoon Mr. Dempster calls Dunny into his study and scolds him for bringing sin into his house by teaching Paul “gambling tricks” and making him into a cheat. What’s more, Amasa has heard that Dunny has been telling Paul stories about saints (about which Dunny has been doing some reading.) This is, according to Amasa, encouraging “vile superstition.” Mr. Dempster threatens to tell Dunny’s parents, and Dunny agrees that maybe he should, knowing this is not a threat he will likely follow through on. Mr. Dempster responds by saying Dunny is never welcome in his house or near his family again.
Dunny’s attempt to repay his debt to Paul has backfired: Amasa’s staunch religious views reject magic tricks as sinful. Where for Dunny magic is a revelatory discipline, for Amasa it is cheap, and amounts to “cheating.” What’s more, Amasa’s Baptist faith proscribes the worship of saints, and he is furious that Dunny would tell Paul about the Saints he has been reading about in the library. Yet all this raises the question of why Amasa feels the right to define what is a true history or Jesus versus “vile” superstitions. Why is Amasa wanting to dunk his just-born son in water better than Dunny’s magic or stories about Saints?
Dunny is angry with himself for forgetting how much Baptists dislike cards and card-playing. And as for the stories about saints: he found them to be entertaining diversions, compelling and amusing, not unlike Arabian Nights. He is also hurt that Mr. Dempster reduced magic to mere gambling and cheating.
For obvious reasons this outcome is hurtful to Dunny, who now feels even more guilty for getting Paul in trouble and getting himself kicked out of the Dempster’s life. But he still remains devoted to his interest in magic and sainthood, and we have the sense he will continue on with his study.
Dunny does not see much of the Dempsters after this. Every once in a while, he will see Mr. Dempster, looking more and more ragged and hunched. Mrs. Dempster will wander around town offering strange “gifts” of wilted garden vegetables to her neighbors—Mrs. Ramsay always accepts kindly. Dunny only sees Paul once, and he runs away crying. Dunny cannot see Mrs. Dempster or think of Paul without feeling guilt or sorrow, but he has no pity for Mr. Dempster.
The time following Dunny’s conversation with Amasa is characterizes by more guilt and sadness. Mrs. Dempster continues to give compulsively (again her sainthood is suggested) and Mrs. Ramsay responds to her with affection and kindness—she is a compassionate mother once more. Mr. Dempster, despite his repeated prayers for strength, looks defeated.
10. On a night in October in 1913, Mrs. Dempster disappears. The village organizes a hunt for her, and Dunny is told by his mother to go help. Dunny feels he has been acknowledged as a man for the first time. They go to “the pit” a gravel yard owned by the railway company where tramps and other shady characters often gather. Dunstan has always considered the pit a kind of hell—as it is his wont to “point out the mythical elements that…underlie our apparently ordinary lives.”
Dunny is recognized as a man by his mother, which makes him feel important. They search for Mrs. Dempster in the “hellish” gravel pit where trams and other ne’er-do-wells often reside. By comparing this space to Hell, Dunstan engages in what will become a characteristic activity: mythologizing everyday life, and mythologizing history itself.
The men spread out and begin to sweep across the pit in search of Mary Dempster. After about a quarter of a mile, Dunny hears a rustling in a clump of small bushes—he makes a sound that brings the men around him instantly. A light is shined through the branches, revealing a man having sex with a woman. He rolls off of her and the woman is Mary Dempster.
This moment of startling revelation again emphasizes the marvelous and perhaps fatalistic force that keeps bringing Dunny into the Dempster’s lives—how appropriate that he is the one who discovers Mrs. Dempster, and reveals her indiscretion to everyone.
Someone points a pistol at the tramp and Amasa Dempster appears. He asks his wife, “‘Mary, what made you do it?’” Her simple answer becomes famous in Deptford: “‘He was very civil…And he wanted it so badly.’” Mr. Dempster takes her arm and walks her home.
This act, and Mary’s explanation of it, will be interpreted by the townspeople as madness, but by Dunny and the tramp as miraculous. Questions of spiritual interpretation, and personal faith are centered on this moment. If generosity is to be treasured, is this not a most generous gift?
11. Mr. Dempster decides not to press charges against the tramp, who is driven out of town and told never to return. Mr. Dempster resigns as minister at Sunday services the next morning. The town’s opinion of Mrs. Dempster has changed—she is no longer a benign if off-putting simpleton. She is a filthy adulteress. Even Mrs. Ramsay’s position has shifted—she and Mr. Ramsay get in a loud fight about it. Mr. Ramsay accuses his wife of not being charitable, and she responds that she is shocked the man she married would support such filthy, godless behavior. He calls her cruel, but eventually agrees that the family will provide no more help to the Dempster’s.
Dunny’s realization that people are not what they seem and are capable of immense psychological contradiction is supported by the town’s response to Mrs. Dempster’s actions. Mrs. Ramsay, who has been nothing but compassionate and sympathetic to Mrs. Dempster, suddenly thinks her an irredeemable menace, and decides to refuse to give any more help. Mr. Ramsay identifies his wife’s cruelty but complies with her demands anyway. This is a telling moment regarding the family’s dynamic.
All of the women in Deptford seem to be horrified that Mrs. Dempster was not raped—decent women could be raped by tramps, but no decent woman would ever have consensual sex with one. Men who defend her are thought by women to be adulterers themselves. At school, boys pester Dunny about the details of what he witnessed in the pit, and Dunny tries to avoid the gossip but Cece Athelstan (the fat black-sheep son of the wealthy Athelstan family) and his crew of drunkards spread the story around. When the Dempsters move to a new house on the edge of town, a group of men with blackened faces throw a broom that’s been lit on fire on the roof, but it doesn’t catch. Cece’s voice can be heard shouting for Mary to come outside. Dunstan wishes he could say Amasa Dempster came outside and faced them, but he can say no such thing.
More psychological and spiritual hypocrisy is evident in this passage. Deptford’s moral system is one in which it is acceptable to think of rape as decent but consensual sex as depraved. This demonstrates not only a strange kind of sexual repression (once again easy to consider in Freudian terms) but also a glaring moral and spiritual hypocrisy: in the name of “decency,” the townspeople have become indecent, forsaking kindness, compassion and understanding, instead turning to cruelty and violence. And Amasa, for all his praying for strength, demonstrates only weakness.
Mr. Dempster gets a new job as a bookkeeper at the sawmill. It is rumored that he keeps Mary tied up in the house, with a long rope that allows her to move from room to room but not go outside. Everyone in the town agrees that if she was not mad before, she is mad now.
Amasa’s obligatory “love” for his wife turns into something sinister: he keeps her tied in the house like an animal in order to make sure she does not “transgress” again, or embarrass him again—even the townspeople who no longer care about Mrs. Dempster’s well-being acknowledge that this is damaging treatment.
One day Dunny goes over to visit Mary. She is uneasy at first but then warms to him and they talk eagerly—she knows nothing about the outside world because Amasa does not have a paper delivered. Dunny goes over a few times a week and reads to her from the Banner, stories he thinks would interest her and bits of town gossip. He plays with Paul oftentimes, too, knowing that Paul has no playmates to speak of. It is understood they must keep these sessions a secret from Mr. Dempster, who likely still considers Dunny a bad influence.
Dunny takes a risk to go visit Mrs. Dempster—no doubt he continues to feel responsible for her misfortune and her son’s isolation. He kindly keeps her updated on town gossip. Ironically, this kindness would likely be regarded as a “bad influence” by the devout Mr. Dempster, whose religion—though it guides everything he does—seems to prevent him from leading a moral or spiritual life.
Dunny must also keep this secret from his mother, who would be furious if she knew. But Dunny begins to realize that Mrs. Dempster is helping him as much as he is helping her. He cannot fully explain it: she seems to him to be unnaturally wise, but she was not philosophical. Rather, it seems to be a religious wisdom—but not religion as her husband understands it. Mr. Dempster sees religion as a thing to be imposed on others, where Mrs. Dempster seems to “live by a light that arises from within.” Dunny thinks this light is akin to splendors he has read about in fantastical and mythical books.
Dunny’s mother would also hypocritically condemn his kindness and generosity. But Dunny persists, because he realizes he has much to learn from Mrs. Dempster. Where her husband’s practice of religion involves externally manifesting his faith in the interest of controlling others, Mrs. Dempster’s faith “arises from within”—it is something innate and not judgmental. Dunny begins to see a kinship between Mrs. Dempster’s splendid inner light and the spectacular figures in mythological books.
Eventually Dunny becomes so comfortable he doesn’t even notice the harness Mary has tied around her, or the dirty raggedness of her clothes, or her momentary lapses in comprehension and judgment. Mrs. Dempster is his greatest friend, and their relationship amounts to nothing less than his purpose in life.
Though Mrs. Dempster is an unlikely spiritual leader—with her ragged clothes, harness, and seeming insanity—Dunstan is able to look past this, and in fact Mary Dempster becomes the center of his psychological and spiritual existence.
Though they grow increasingly close, Dunny can never bring himself to ask Mary about the night with the tramp. He notes that her sexual indiscretion was a particular “kind of reality” which his religious small-town upbringing had declared obscene. He sees in this act something unknown to him, something he cannot or will not recognize, and he decides this “unknown aspect must be called madness.”
Still, the repressed attitudes of Dunny’s small protestant hometown have had their effect on Dunny, and like others in Deptford, he assumes anything he doesn’t understand must be an example of madness. The way in which he reflects on this (in the narration of the letter) suggests that he will eventually grow out of this attitude.
12. Besides Mrs. Dempster, Dunny has no friends, and his life is lonely. Other kids at school accuse him of being a “know-all” and, though he knows it is meant to be an insult, he rather enjoys the title. He sets out to become a “polymath”—someone with extensive knowledge in many fields. He reads the encyclopedia, finding entries that are of particular interest to him.
Dunstan pours all of himself into forging a relationship with Mrs. Dempster and, when he is not doing that, competitively cultivating a superior intellect. He is constructing his identity in a certain way, and notably this identity does not involve friendship, companionship or love, unless Mrs. Dempster is involved.
Dunny’s father, in the aftermath of the mess with Mrs. Dempster, tries to befriend Dunny, and helps teach Dunny Latin. In addition, Mr. Ramsay has joined the school board, which makes Dunny’s attitude in school even more arrogant and argumentative. Dunny’s classmates have all grown up quite a bit—Leola is now the town beauty, and is known to be dating Percy.
Dunny, edging ever closer to manhood, begins spending more time with his father and his arrogance grows even more severe. Dunny’s classmates are also growing up—Percy has begun to date Dunny’s crush, Leola. This highlights the fact that Dunny has not been pursuing romance and dating like most boys his age.
In spring, the most significant piece of gossip in the town is that Percy and Mabel Heighington (a notoriously promiscuous young girl) have been caught having sex by Mabel’s mother. Dr. Staunton is thought to have paid Mrs. Heighington off. Percy is sent away to boarding school (Colborne College, where Dunstan will eventually teach), and despite his betrayal, Leola still pines for him, which makes Dunny “cynical about women.”
As is to be expected, Dunny and his classmates are experimenting and learning difficult truths about the nature of love and romance. Percy’s sexual appetite becomes apparent at a very young age, and Leola’s pathetic (at least in Dunny’s opinion) loyalty to him repulses Dunny—who will struggle to understand the irrational nature of human connection throughout the novel.
13. The following fall, Willie’s illness—the result of a childhood injury to his back—grows worse. He is having kidney problems, and has become delirious and weak. Dunny is asked to look after him one afternoon, and Willie begins moaning and thrashing. Dunny tries to comfort him, but Willie ceases moving and Dunny can hear no breath or heartbeat. Willie’s skin is cold—he is dead.
Something terrible once again happens under Dunny’s watch. Dunny is suddenly faced with the loss of his brother—perhaps the one person in his family he has no complaints about. Dunny firmly believes he has witnessed Willy’s death, and his account makes room for no other possibility.
Without knowing why, Dunny feels compelled to get Mrs. Dempster. He brings her back, and she touches Willie and calls his name. Willie wakes up and moves his legs a little—Dunny faints.
Mrs. Dempster’s seeming strangeness is turned into a marvelous capacity for miraculous deeds: according to Dunstan, she literally calls Willie back from the dead.
Word gets out that Mrs. Dempster is in the Ramsay’s house, and when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay get home Amasa is with them. Amasa takes Mary home and Dunny’s parents grill him about why he chose to get Mrs. Dempster and not a doctor.
Dunny is the only witness to this miracle, and the rest of the town continues to concern itself with relatively trivial matters—they do not know that Mrs. Dempster has just performed a miracle, and think Dunstan should have called someone more qualified.
When Dr. McCausland does arrive, Dunny tells him Willie died and came back to life. The Doctor dismisses this, concluding that Dunny is simply young and unscientific. Dunstan, as the writer of his letter, comments that causing Willie to rise from the dead is what Dunstan considers to be Mrs. Dempster’s “second miracle.”
No one believes Dunny when he tells them what he saw. They write him off as young and silly. But Dunstan’s belief in Mary’s saintliness persists—we even learn that this is not the first time she has performed a miracle.
14. Gossip gets out about Dunny’s story, and the fact that he believes his brother was brought back from the dead. People wonder if he has gone mad, and the Minister pulls him aside and tells him that it is blasphemous to believe that any mortal can bring someone back from the dead, let alone someone with a deficit of character like Mrs. Dempster.
Dunny is ostracized further for his beliefs. As a protestant, Dunny should not even be thinking about saints and sainthood—and the fact that he is thinking of someone whom the town considers depraved as a saint is even worse.
Dunny’s mother, whom Dunny thinks understands loyalty to be the same as love, cannot understand why he would disobey her. He simply remains silent, and she correctly interprets that silence as resolve—Dunny will not change his mind about Mrs. Dempster. Finally his mother demands that he choose between her and “that woman.” Rather than choose, Dunny decides he will join the army. His mother is distraught and his father is disgusted, for he knows Dunny is joining in order to hurt his mother.
Dunny’s family dysfunction comes to a head: his mother’s view of love as being equal to loyalty causes her to demand Dunny choose between his mother and his dearest friend. Rather than make this choice, Dunny vindictively signs up for the army. His father, though once again disapproving, does nothing to stop him.
Though his parents are angry, his classmates admire Dunny for his brave decision. Leola, who still pines for Percy but who has not seen him since he left for school, makes it clear that she will be Dunny’s “on loan.” Leola is a lovely girl, and Dunny enjoys their relationship, though it is not particularly physical or intimate.
Dunny’s enlisting makes him (at least temporarily) popular in school. He is admired as brave (though he joined the army to avoid a difficult choice) and even attracts the interest of Leola. However this love is not particularly intimate—we are led to believe that Dunny’s social “success” is more or less superficial.
Dunny knows that he will be called to fight in WWI soon, and cannot bear to leave without saying goodbye to Mrs. Dempster. They had often discussed the war during Dunny’s visits. When he tells her he is leaving, she grabs his face gently and tells him “it does no good to be afraid.” He promises not to be afraid, and soon enough his call comes and he boards a train. Leola does not come to see him off, for fear of how it might look. But the night before he leaves she tells him she has forgotten Percy and now loves only him.
Mrs. Dempster’s advice, though Dunstan will think of it many times during the war, will prove to be difficult to follow. And Leola’s promise to him is undermined by the fact that she cannot come to see him off, for fear of social repercussions. The love triangle between Leola, Percy, and Dunstan begins to take shape.