Fifth Business


Robertson Davies

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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.

Religion, Faith, and Morality

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…

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Guilt and Sacrifice

The internal conflict driving the story is one based in guilt: Dunstan feels responsible for Mrs. Dempster’s premature labor (since the snowball that hit her was meant for him). This guilt compounds over the course of the story: subsequent misfortunes also seem linked to Dunstan’s behavior. He is banished from the Dempster’s house for teaching Paul magic (something to which Mr. Dempster is religiously opposed). He is the one that discovers Mrs. Dempster with…

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The Meaning of Success

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…

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History and Mythology

Dunstan eventually becomes a history teacher, a historian of sainthood, a biographer of Paul’s falsified history, and (in the form of the letter that the book consists of) an autobiographer, a historian of his own life. Accordingly, the novel is deeply invested in a discussion of how history is made and recorded, how history and myth are intertwined, and how we determine what is “real” (factual) and what is imagined, fabricated, and reinterpreted—in other…

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Love, Family, and Psychology

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

Dunstan often tries to understand the psychology of his family dysfunction growing up—his relationship with his mother was not strong, yet he always felt guilty about lying to her as a child, and wonders if his attraction to certain…

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