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.
The Meaning of Success ThemeTracker
The Meaning of Success Quotes in Fifth Business
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.
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.
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.
It was characteristic of Boy throughout his life that he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized and defined.
“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.”
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.
“Life is a spectator sport to you.”