1. Dunny fights in the war from 1915 until 1917. Though there was much camaraderie and bonding, Dunny rarely socializes and doesn’t really make friends. He is horribly bored without anything to keep him intellectually active. Nevertheless he excels in acquiring the necessary skills and passes his training.
Dunny’s social isolation continues into his adult life. He is bad at forging relationships and finds a way to isolate himself even in environments where camaraderie is easy and encouraged.
Dunny goes home one leave before being sent abroad, and he and his parents do not speak much. He longs to see Mrs. Dempster but knows he cannot. Leola admires him even more now that he is in his uniform, and they go “a little beyond the kissing stage.” He sees Paul once, but believes Paul doesn’t recognize him because he simply stares blankly.
His brief trip home is another telling psychological event. He does not speak to his parents—in fact barely mentions seeing them. He describes his pseudo-sexual encounter with Leola in a bragging tone, but his euphemistic language betrays his ignorance and inexperience.
Dunny heads off on his ship, and listens to officers tell stories about German atrocities, and Dunny concludes the Germans are “absolute devils.” Once Dunny is stationed in France, he is still bored, but instead of lonely he feels constantly afraid. He is able to hide it, but the fear eats away at him always. He sees quite a lot of action, as he “miraculously” manages to avoid injury and he is strong and sturdy. Dunny learns to ignore the horrible reality of war, and steps over dead bodies as though they are nothing.
Dunny continues to apply mythological language to his daily experiences: the Germans are “devils;” his continued health is “miraculous.” Though he appears calm, in reality he is simply bottling up his fear and dread, pushing forward in spite of these emotions, rather than dealing with them in any way.
Most of the time, however, there is no fighting. In his down time, Dunny reads the only thing available to him—the Bible, and earns a reputation for being very religious, even though he is reading it for entertainment. He decides the Bible is true in the same way Arabian Nights is, and especially likes the Book of Revelation. His fellow soldiers begin to call him “Deacon.”
Dunny continues to grow spiritually during this time, investigating and refiguring his relationship with the Bible and other texts—ultimately deciding that the Bible is “true” in the same way other fantastical and Mythical tales are—it contains truth, but is not a factual history. The other men interpret his bible reading as devout and religious, even though Christian churches would consider his view regarding the Bible—that it is similar to other mythologies—sacrilegious.
One day an impromptu show is organized, and a call for volunteer performers is put out. Dunny decides to perform, and does a good imitation of Charlie Chaplin, telling disparaging dirty jokes about the officers. The audience loves it, and he is re-named Charlie, and they tell him they are shocked to see how funny he is. Dunny is shocked that these people don’t understand how many sides to him any man has.
2. Dunny’s fighting days come to an end sometime in early November of 1917. His group is trying to take out a German machine gun operator firing from a shed across an open field. Dunny crawls through the mud, but when flares start raining down he decides he must get out. He hears gunfire from both sides, and realizes he may be shot accidentally by his own side. He stumbles around until he finds himself at a door. He crawls inside, and there are three Germans with the machine gun. He shoots all of them.
Dunny achieves great success on the battlefield basically by accident. He does take out the German machine gun operators—admittedly no easy feat—but he is able to do so only because he accidentally stumbles upon their hideout, inadvertently sneaking up on them from behind. The way Dunstan remembers this act is distinctly unheroic.
As he crawls back through the mud to his own side, he notices his left leg is injured. It begins to “scream” with pain. He thinks of himself dying of tetanus. He thinks of Mrs. Dempster’s advice that he never be afraid. He finds this advice ludicrous now.
Dunstan is injured and cannot hold back his fear—he even begins to doubt the validity of Mrs. Dempster’s advice. This moment greatly resembles a kind of crisis of faith.
Dunny hears the bombardment stop, and as flares light up the sky he sees a statue of the Virgin and Child. He thinks for a moment it is the crowned woman from Revelation, but suddenly sees that the face on the statue is Mrs. Dempster’s face. He loses consciousness.
Seemingly in response to his spiritual moment of doubt, Mary Dempster “appears” to Dunstan on the battlefield, via the statue of the Virgin Mary. Her saintliness is once again confirmed to him—she has performed another miracle.
3. Dunny wakes up in a bed with a very pretty nurse watching over him. He feels he has been in a peaceful place, where his spirit was “wholly his own” and where nothing was evil. Now he gives his name (Ramsay, D.) to the nurse and asks how long he has been unconscious. He is told about six months.
Dunny’s way of describing the heavenly place he went to during his coma is telling: a place where his spirit was “wholly his own.” This draws attention to the fact that Dunny does not know how to live for himself, how to accept himself and his humanity. It also refers to his desire to be his own man, to be unencumbered by human connections.
The doctor thinks he is a medical curiosity and is very interested by him. It had not looked like he would survive, so his reawakening now is a special surprise for everyone who worked on his case. The bad news is that he has lost his leg, but Dunny accepts this.
Dunny survives against long odds. His only real loss is of his leg—which he will think of as another atonement for his guilt in his role in Mrs. Dempster’s injury, making it easier for him to accept.
The nurse’s name is Diana Marfleet. She is an intelligent, compassionate and beautiful girl, and Dunny thinks his unusual rate of progress is due to her. She tells him he has won the V.C. (the Victorian Cross, a medal for bravery) for his work on the battlefield, but since he was declared dead, it was given to him posthumously. When he hadn’t returned, the men had assumed his death, and the man pulled out of the mud was not identified as him.
Dunny, via a kind of clerical error, has also been “brought back from the dead.” In a book about religion and reality, this is both a good joke and a commentary on how myth is made. He attributes much of his recovery to Diana, who is notably the first truly intelligent woman he has met in his life (perhaps with the exception of his mother), and therefore represents the broadening of Dunstan’s horizons.
Diana says she will let Dunny’s parents know at once, so that they may stop mourning him. But she soon receives a letter saying that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 after hearing of Dunny’s death. Dunny is ashamed by the fact that he feels very little in response to their deaths.
Dunstan’s parents have both died. He feels ashamed—not because they died without him after he vindictively joined the army; not because his last encounter with them was unloving and disinterested—but because he does not feel sad about their deaths.
4. In fact it is years before Dunny can think of his parents’ deaths without feeling relief. He confides in Diana, with whom he is growing increasingly close. She is a romantic, and Dunny learns from her that women are capable of exploring emotions sagely and intelligently.
Diana is also the first woman who is contemplative and curious about emotions—Dunny’s upbringing has only exposed him to repressed, emotionally stunted women (his mother and Leola).
Eventually Dunny realizes that Diana wants to be with him, romantically. He meets her equally intelligent and charming family, and in their home he feels his “spirit expand.” He hopes he has behaved himself in front of them and not sounded like a fool.
Diana’s entire family teaches Dunstan there is more to the world than Deptford—they “expand” his spirit. What’s more, Diana is becoming Dunstan’s first real lover; unlike Leola, she truly wants to be with him,
5. Though Dunny is not absolutely in love with Diana, he is flattered by her attention. He knows he has earned a pleasant rest after fighting in the war. Eventually the war is won, and he goes with Diana to London to witness the revelry. Dunny notes that people spared from violence become very violent themselves, and generally detests the dirtiness and depravity of postwar celebrations. However, he joins in, in some respect, for on this night he loses his virginity to Diana. Dunstan says he will always be grateful to Diana for kindly and compassionately teaching him how to be a lover and thus helping him on his way to manhood.
Dunny does not love Diana, but he is grateful to her for teaching him how to be a lover—Diana is his first fully-realizes sexual relationship, and Dunstan believes this relationship is integral to his becoming a man. However, though he can see his carnal relationship with Diana as a beautiful, human thing, the rest of the celebrations occurring appear to him to be violent and depraved. Liesl will later accuse Dunstan of refusing to be human. His distaste of the postwar revelry is perhaps an example of this.
The next great moment in Dunny’s life is his reception of the Victorian Cross from the King himself. The most memorable moment of the ceremony for Dunny is when he looks into the King’s eyes and realizes that though everybody sees him as a hero, he could have easily failed to kill the Germans, and simply died in the mud like so many others. Just as the King is only an icon of Kingship, Dunny realizes that he himself is only an icon of heroism—but there is no reason he ought to be a hero, and there is no reason the king ought to be the king. These are simply the roles in which they are cast.
Dunny’s reception of the Victorian Cross inspires in him a kind of existential crisis. He realizes that publicly revered figures often amount to icons—people who have earned nothing more than false praise. What many would consider to be Dunstan’s greatest achievement, his biggest success, Dunny realizes is an incidental and meaningless honor. He thinks of himself as simply playing the “role in which he’s been cast,” a fatalistic kind of comment that also echoes the book’s title. It is also a comment on the complexities of people versus the simplicity of “roles.” The world needs heroes, so complex people are put into those simple roles. No one wants to know that he became a hero by getting lost.
6. Dunny is not sure what to do about Diana. He knows she loves him in part because she regards him as her own creation—she did save him, Dunny reasons, and it is only natural she would feel that way. But Dunny, in spite of what he’s heard about Oedipal complexes, is not in a hurry to acquire another mother figure, having just recently found out he was rid of his real mother, and decides he never wants to be anyone’s “dear laddie” ever again.
Contrary to Freud’s belief that boys posses a latent desire to sleep with their mothers, and often seek out women who resemble their mothers in adulthood, Diana’s motherly disposition is off-putting to Dunny, who doesn’t wish to have another mother figure in his life ever again.
Diana has made it clear she expects Dunny’s future will be her future. Every two weeks, she delivers Dunny a letter from Leola, but never asks questions. Dunny always answers Leola’s letters, trying not to be rude but also trying to avoid leading her on. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Diana asks about the letters, and Dunny makes a mess of his explanation and leaves Diana crying. Dunny argues with her, claiming she had been engaged before him, but Diana’s fiancé died a hero’s death in the war and Dunny’s point is not well-received.
Dunny is still understandably clumsy in romance. His desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings leads him to be dishonest with both of the women in his life. He continues to answer Leola’s letters even though he doesn’t seem to be interested in her anymore, and does not know how to tell Diana that he doesn’t love her. He even goes so far as to bring up Diana’s dead fiancé, betraying his youth and ignorance with respect to romance.
Eventually they make up, but there is still distance between them because their expectations are mismatched. Finally, Dunny tells her he cannot see himself getting married. They talk late into the night, and Diana eventually accepts that they should not be together. But she does tell him he should not go back and marry a small-town girl from his childhood, because he is more than that. Dunny is grateful for her understanding, and thanks her.
Fortunately, Diana has loved before, and is mature enough to have a productive conversation with Dunstan about whether or not they should be together. Her eventual understanding of his feelings further points to her maturity. That she sees him as having grown bigger than a small-town marriage speaks to his growth and experiences and, even, “success” in the war.
Diana asks Dunny if she can do one more thing for him—she wants to rechristen him, and name him Dunstan, as “Dunstable” does not suit him. He agrees, and Diana gets wine and rechristens him. She is Anglican, and takes religious ceremonies less seriously—though this surprises the Presbyterian in Dunstan, he accepts his excellent new name. And though he loses his lover on this Christmas, Diana and her family become some of his best friends.
“Dunstan” is finally christened in a moment that he will later describes as his “second birth.” The ceremony is fairly casual, which startles Dunstan, as he has still had very little contact with faiths that are not his own. Diana, though she cannot be Dunstan’s lover, is a valuable friend from whom he learns a great deal.
7. Dunstan goes back to Canada, where there is much ceremony and pomp waiting for him. He was Deptford’s very own hero, and his reception is elaborate. As he is sitting onstage during the ceremony, he notices Percy and Leola sitting together in the front row of the audience, and Leola is wearing a ring. Dunstan feels tricked and resents Leola for not mentioning her engagement in any of her letters.
Dunstan is received as a hero by his hometown. In one sense, he has transformed from a strange, isolated child to town celebrity, though again he is in some sense just filling a role—the town needs a hero, and his exploits (of which the town knows no details) easily fit into a mythic here-story. Ironically he is mad at Leola for being vague in her letters and leading him on—when he was doing a very similar thing to her.
During the ceremony, which is long and tedious, Willie’s name is read on the list of those killed in action. This is the first moment that Dunstan really understands he will never see his brother again.
Though the loss of Dunstan’s parents does not have much of an effect on Dunstan, the loss of Willy is felt more fully. In many ways, this is Dunstan’s first real experience with grief.
After the ceremony, Dunstan takes Leola in his arms in front of Percy and kisses her. Percy nervously tells Dunstan of he and Leola’s engagement, and Dunstan good-naturedly shakes his hand, telling him “the best man has won.” Dunstan enjoys this moment thoroughly, and happily notes that Percy’s medal, the D.S.O., is not as illustrious as his V.C.
Dunstan, though he has repeatedly downplayed the importance of his VC, clearly enjoys the prestige that comes with it. He is happy that his medal is more prestigious than Percy’s, and competitively makes a show of kissing Leola in front of him.
That night there is a bonfire, and an effigy of a German soldier is hung and burned. Dunstan watches in horror as the kind, patriotic people of his hometown descend to a level of barbarism that Dunstan has only seen in the war. Dunstan creeps away, not wanting to stay until the end of this cruel and symbolic ritual.
Dunstan once again bears witness to the hellish, devilish impulses of mankind. This is something he will only come to terms with after he meets his own devil, in the form of Liesl.
8. The next day Dunstan goes to get his hair cut, and finds Milo Papple is the barber. Milo updates him on town gossip, mentioning that no one ever thought Leola would end up with him—she was always plainly in love with Percy. He tells him about how his parents died—how his mother busily nursed everyone who was sick until her husband died, and then she seemed to give up. He also says that Amasa Dempster had died of the flu, but that Mary had survived. However Paul had run away with the circus just before Amasa died, unable to take the teasing from children who called his mother a whore. This seemed to drive Mary over the edge—she was truly mad when she was taken away to go live with her aunt. Dunstan leaves Deptford two days later, though he says he could never wholly leave it “in spirit.”
Dunstan hears a more detailed account of the fates of his parents and the Dempsters. His mother remained competent and productive until she lost her husband. Amasa is also dead (we can imagine Dunstan is not sorry to hear this), but Mary and Paul were spared—though it is not likely Paul will ever be seen again, and his fate is unknown. Paul’s disappearance, in Milo’s opinion, drives Mary truly insane. This is a grim end to Mary’s unfortunate existence in Deptford; and Dunstan feels largely responsible for this misfortune. Perhaps his enduring guilt is part of the reason he feels he can never really leave Deptford.