Fifth Business: Search for Self IdentityIn Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business, the author uses the eventsthat occurred in Deptford as a Canadian Allusion to reveal character identity.Three characters in the novel from Deptford: Boy Staunton, Dunstan Ramsey andPaul Dempster, leave Deptford to embark on a new identity to rid of their horridpast. The three main characters of the novel, all of whom to some extent try toescape their small town background, change their identity to become people ofconsequence. All in some way take on a new identity.
Imbedded in thistransformation is the assumption that one’s original self, especially one’ssmall town origins, must be discarded before one can become significant in theworld.Firstly, Paul Dempster grows up as an outcast in Deptford, his mother’s’simpleness’ leading the tight social world of the town to cast out his wholefamily and force’s Paul to leave the town and create a new image for himself.Paul runs away to the circus in his early teens because of the mental abuse hetook from the town because of his mothers incident with the tramp. Dunstablecomment’s, “Paul was not a village favorite, and the dislike so many people feltfor his mother – dislike for the queer and persistently unfortunate – theyattached to the unoffending son,” (Davies’ 40) illustrates how the town treatedPaul because of his mother’s actions.
Paul leaves his past because of theactions displaced by his mother and the guilt he feels because his “birth waswhat robbed her of her sanity,” (Davies’ 260) explains why Paul left Deptford.However, while Boy merely tries to ignore his Deptford past, Paul tries tocreate a completely new one and Paul asks Dunstan to write an autobiography that”in general terms that he was to be a child of the Baltic vastness, rearedperhaps by gnomelike Lapps after the death of his explorer parents, who wereprobably Russians of high birth.” (Davies’ 231).
The scenery of thisautobiography seems significantly Canadian, but Paul does not want his book torepresent his past life in Deptford. Therefore, Paul Dempster is a troubledchild because of his mother’s actions in Deptford which in turn force Paul toleave Deptford and to create a new identity for himself.Secondly, Dunstable Ramsey is haunted by the guilt of Mary Dempster overhis entire life and he must create a new identity for himself. After a rock hashit Mary in the head (in a snowball thrown by Boy Staunton meant for Ramsay),and her preacher husband is crying over her, young Ramsay’s only thought is thathe is “Watching a ‘scene’, and my parents had always warned against scenes asvery serious breaches of propriety.” (Davies’ 39) The actions of Mary bewilderDunstan because Mary committed a serious crime in Deptford. Later in lifeDunstan falls in love with his nurse named Diana who renames him after SaintDunstan, who is “Mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and anabsolute wizard at withstanding temptation.” (Davies’ 93) His new name does notreplace his old identity, but rather makes him double-named and double-identified.
Therefore, Dunstan changes his name to set forth on a new identityand he never forgets his Deptford past and in fact he becomes obsessed with it,particularly with Mary Dempster, mainly through guilt about his role in Marygetting hit by Boy’s snowball.Thirdly, Percy Boyd Staunton is at the center of the snowball incidentwhich is the prime mover in the action of the novel which force’s Percy to allowthe incident to suppress his memory and leave Deptford to create a new identityfor himself. He moves to Toronto and inherits the family sugar business anddrops a letter from his middle name, becoming “Boy” Staunton, and begins tobuild a new ruling-class identity for his renamed self. “As Ramsay explains,”he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognizedand defined,” (Davies’ 147) his new identity allows Boy to start a new life andleave Deptford in the past. Also, Boy brings with him into his new life hisDeptford wife Leola, whom he tries to change into “the perfect wife for a risingyoung entrepreneur in sugar.
” (Davies’ 151) She cannot lose her small-townbackground as well as Boy, and she falls by the wayside, eventually committingsuicide. Although, Boy is the antagonist character of the novel, his newidentity embraces him as one of the most powerful men in Canada, but he willalways hold the guilt from the snowball incident which occurred in Deptford.To conclude, the actions that occurred in Deptford change the wholebasis of the novel. Thus while Boy and Magnus have taken on new identities andtried to displace their old ones, Dunstan takes on a new identity thatcomplements the old.
All three leading characters leave Deptford to changetheir life, but the spirit of the little town in Southern Ontario remains withthem forever.BibliographyDavies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Canada: Penguin Books, 1977.