by Robertson Davies is the first novel of the Deptford Trilogy
. The protagonist and narrator Dunstan Ramsay has an impassioned interest in hagiography, or the biographies of saints and other spiritual beings. Throughout the story, he carries the guilt from an accident during his childhood involving Mary Dempster, and is convinced Mary is a fool-saint. Known also as holy fools and blessed fools, this term refers to someone who gives up all of their belongings and joins a monastic order or goes against the grain in society in order to serve a religious goal. This behavior is more common in Christianity than other religions.
An epistolary novel, Fifth Business
is split into six parts. Epistolary novels use structures such as journal entries or letters to tell the story. In part one, “Mrs. Dempster,” it is1908 and ten-year-old Ramsay is having a quarrel with his friend Percy Boyd Staunton. Percy tries to hit him with a snowball, but Ramsay jumps out of the way and it hits Mary Dempster instead. Mary is the pregnant wife of the local Baptist minister. The snowball surprises her, and she goes into premature labor, delivering a son named Paul Dempster. Though Paul survives, his constitution is weak for a while; for this, Ramsay feels guilty his whole life.
Mrs. Dempster, meanwhile, has also endured lasting effects from the snowball. Her mind is not what it was. She and Ramsay become good friends despite this. He falls in love with her despite the fact that their association damages his popularity with his classmates. He starts working at the library, where his interest in hagiography sparks. He also becomes interested in magic tricks, which becomes a bone of contention between Ramsay and his mother, and a common ground for him and Paul. The minister, who feels burdened by Mary, forbids Ramsay to continue seeing her or Paul.
When Mary goes missing, Ramsay finds her in the arms of another man—Joel Surgeoner—who is banished from the village. The minister resigns, deciding to live in poverty. He forbids Mary and Paul to leave the house. However, when he leaves, Ramsay sneaks in to visit. In 1914, World War I breaks out, and Ramsay’s brother, Willie, falls ill. Willie seems to die, so Ramsay brings Mary to pray for him and reports that Willie comes back to life. Ramsay and Percy have a falling out, and Ramsay joins the army. Before he leaves for war, he has a brief fling with Percy’s girlfriend, Leola.
In part two, Ramsay says little of his time at war, save that he was an infantryman and spent much of his free time reading the Bible. In the Third Battle at Ypres, he is injured but manages to crawl to safety. There he sees a statue of the Virgin and Child and thinks he sees Mary Dempster’s face in the statue before he passes out. He spends six months in the hospital, during which time everyone thinks he died. He learns later that he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He learns also that his parents and brother are dead. His nurse, Diana, helps him to use a prosthetic leg. She wants to marry him, but he declines.
Upon returning home, he and other veterans are given a parade. He mends his friendship with Percy, who is engaged to Leola. He learns his father had accumulated great wealth before dying of the influenza outbreak, Paul ran away to join the circus, the minister died, and Mary Dempster went insane and was taken away by family.
Part three finds Ramsay in college where he earns an MA in History and subsequently begins working as a schoolmaster. On a return trip to Europe to find the statue he saw when he was wounded, he starts to learn more about the Catholic saints and becomes an expert in hagiology. Back in Canada, he encounters Joel, who claims Mary Dempster is a saint and she led him to God. Ramsay considers this to be one of three miracles she performs—the other two being resurrecting his brother and appearing in the statue.
Ramsay meets with a Catholic priest to ask about Mary Dempster and learns about the fool saint. He travels to Toronto, where he finds Mary in the care of her aunt, Bertha Shanklin. In his travels to study the Portuguese saint, Wilgefortis, Ramsay attends a traveling circus and meets Paul, who goes by Faustus Legrand. Paul is not happy to see Ramsay and later, Ramsay discovers Paul lifted his wallet.
In part four, Percy and Leola’s marriage is floundering. For four years, Ramsay visits Mary; when her aunt dies, Mary is left in his care. He places her in a hospital in Toronto, but she is not happy there. He starts to think of visiting her as a burden. Percy’s family falls apart in 1936 after Edward abdicates the throne in England. Leola tries to kill herself and blames Ramsay, but he manages to nurse her back to life.
Despite his efforts, Leola dies of pneumonia in the beginning of part five. In his travel to Mexico, he once again comes across Paul, who is known now as Magnus Eisengrim. He travels with him to ghostwrite Paul’s fictional autobiography. He sleeps with one of Paul’s associates, Leisl, and begins to heal from the guilt he has carried his whole life.
In part six, Ramsay returns to Canada and tells Mary that he found Paul, which troubles her. Mary dies in 1959 after she is transferred to a private hospital. Ramsay returns to Europe, where he finally relocates the sculpture. Ramsay connects with Paul again and confesses the snowball Percy threw had a rock inside it. In 1968, Percy is found dead in his car with a rock in his mouth. Paul is suspected, but not charged. Ramsay has a heart attack at the end of the story.