Dunstan Ramsay the Fifth Business

(End of Book 1 of The Deptford Trilogy)

Tim: I’ve gotten to thinking about who exactly is supposed to be the fifth business character in Fifth Business. The book, of course, sets up Dunstan as the fifth business in this epic of Boy and Eisengrim/Paul Dempster, with supporting characters in Liesel and Leona. But the irony is that any story told from Dunstan’s perspective, as this one is, necessarily positions Dunstan as the main character. From this point of view, Boy is undoubtedly the second (or whatever that position was called) and it’s Eisengrim/Paul that is the one flitting in and out of the story with profound impact. Or else Mrs. Dempster. I mean, the opening line is, “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at…” so maybe she’s the fifth business in Dunstan’s story.

At any rate, what brought this to a head for me was the tripartite conclusion of Boy’s encounter with Eisengrim prior to his death. It seems at this moment that we have all the important players (the ones who stretch the whole story) together at last, and because the book invited me to, I started trying to parse their exact roles.

Debby: What a brilliant final scene: the three very different, yet intimately connected men, meeting in Ramsay’s old room. The tie that binds? Mrs. Mary Dempster. Davies circumvented her story at every available turn! We are well aware of the action/reactions that occurred due to her involvement in the story, yet we know so little about her as a woman.

I want so badly to call her Fifth Business. Yet the description Ramsay gives to Liesly directly contradicts this idea:

“… He is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot…” (p. 219)

First- specifically referred to as a “he” (by no means mandatory, but seems like a pretty pointed reference here)

Second- no opposite of the other sex (there are three men, two women in this little play)

Third- knows the secret of the hero’s birth (now this could imply Mrs. Demster, but Ramsay also fits the bill)

Fourth- comes to the assistance of the heroine (this could refer to Ramsay in regards to Mrs. D- or to Leona?)

Fifth- Keeps the hermitess in her cell (hmm… Ramsay is Mrs. Dempster’s keeper while she is in the asylum)

Sixth- May even be the cause of somebody’s death (MAY is a big word here… Ramsay tells the secret of the stone in the snowball to Eisengrim. Both could be the culprit indicated here.)

Needless to say, I think Ramsay fits the definition of Fifth Business best, but there is room for argument.

Tim: Well, and then there’s this: when we’re told the story of someone shouting, “Who killed Boy Staunton” at Eisengrim’s performance, the brazen head gives us this answer – “He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.” By that description, the characters are Boy, Denise (most likely, or I guess Leona, possibly), Mrs. Dempster (or Liesel), Eisengrim (definitely), and Dunstan (definitely). But I think in part what we’re getting at is that there are a lot of ways to divvy up the roles in a life which all depend on the perspective of the teller. In Dunstan’s case, even though he’s our main character, we’re flat out told that he’s fifth business in personality, which at least in context is all the characters ever really say. Which makes it good writing, I suppose.

Debby: Good connection, there. Of course, we do have to realize that Eisengrim concocted that answer, so it’s a perspective skewed in his direction, rather than Ramsay’s. Ultimately, I think the idea that we’re all actors in each other’s lives is the most direct interpretation of this. Every story has fifth business, but each story belongs to a separate individual. Because this is all written from the perspective of Ramsay, it is essentially his story. He is not fifth business in his own story, he is the lead. I’d like to argue that he is fifth business in the story of Boy.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s definitely his role in Boy’s story. Again, I’m a little in awe at the skill that lets him very clearly occupy that role in the important broader narrative, while making his personal story still very compelling. It’s sort of the counter-novel, like seeing Harry Potter from the perspective of Neville Longbottom or something.

Debby: I was thinking more of a Ender’s Game vs. Ender’s Shadow comparison myself, but certainly. Initially, I was frustrated by the idea of the story framed as a letter, but it certainly lends a unique “eye” on the story.

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