“This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even supernumeraries”.
Somehow, I missed reading Fifth Business in high school yet it is a carefully woven tale which skillfully draws the reader in and leaves them satisfied, yet still thinking about the story, at the end. This novel, published in 1970 by the late Robertson Davies is on the 100 Novels That Make You Proud to be a Canadian list which I am slowly working through. It inspires me to add the Manticore (1972) and World of Wonder (1975) to my ever-growing to be read pile to complete mu reading of this Deptford Trilogy.
Fifth Business is written in the form of one long letter from the retiring professor to the headmaster. It tells a life story impacted by guilt and responsibility which began at the age of 10 years and seven months old with an errant snowball. This packed orb, aimed for Dunny, hits a pregnant woman in the head causing a cascade of events beginning with the premature birth of her son. This event impacts the rest of Dunny’s life while the culprit who had thrown the snowball denies culpability in the events that follow. The simple snowball slams into many lives and the letter tells the tale.
The novel has aspects of religion and magic which adds interest as the main character travels through his life, going off to WWI, learning in love, attaining his education and taking his role as a professor seriously. The author has drawn on his own experience living in a small town (Thamesford) and founding a residential boys school where he taught. He was known as a novelist, playwright, journalist, critic and professor and the reader can see evidence of the influence of these roles in Fifth Business.
The author’s experience is seen in the main character, Dunny being sharp witted and cutting in his speech – the role of the critic. It is seen in his thirst for knowledge while Dunny researched saints, becoming an author during his school breaks. The entire novel was written using his experience as a playwright since this theatrical term, Fifth Business, became both the title and the framework for the well-planned story. Lastly, Davies experience as a journalist was written into the character of Dunny’s father who published the local paper. This fictional novel provides some insight into Robertson Davies.
Davies likely drew on his own experiences as a student when he wrote Dunny saying: “I affected airs of near-equality with the teacher that must have galled her; I wanted to argue about everything, expand everything, and generally turn every class into a Socratic powwow instead of getting on with the curriculum”. As a parent of a teenage boy, I have heard similar sentiments! Davies later must have chuckled at his changed views when as a teacher, Dunny pondered that “I have deal with in innumerable variations of my young self in classrooms since then, and I have mentally apologized for my tiresomeness”. I am sure that teachers hope that students will see themselves in these comments or consider the impact of their actions although I am afraid that much of this reflection would be missed by teenagers despite the blatant nature of these comments.
Fifth Business was an interesting novel that leaves the reader pondering fate and karma. It is likely a novel that teens should read as part of the curriculum on Canadian literature and then pick up again as adults to understand the story from a new perspective. Davies died in 1982 but his legacy lives on through the carefully constructed characters in his novels which remain with the reader.
“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… you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? you had better find out”.