Sunday, October 20, 2013

Serious Business in Fifth Business

Robertson Davies is a serious man with a serious beard. Judging by his picture, you might think that he wrote in the glory days of seriously-bearded serious men. But actually, he lived until 1995. While most of his contemporaries were preoccupied with writing about the pointlessness of human life, Davies wrote a novel about guilt and moral responsibility. That novel is Fifth Business.


The novel places its defining moment right at the beginning. I will quote a summary from the splendid introduction in my edition: “On a winter’s day in Deptford, a village of five hundred in southern Ontario, Percy Boyd Staunton throws a barrage of snowballs out of spite at his friend and rival Dunstan Ramsay, who is on his way home for dinner following an afternoon of sledding. The last snowball contains hidden in it a stone. Dunstan ducks the ball and it hits the young bride Mrs. Dempster, out on a walk with her husband, the Baptist minister. The pregnant Mrs. Dempster gives birth prematurely by three months; the baby, Paul, barely survives; and the woman becomes ‘simple.’ Dunstan Ramsay is wracked with guilt” (Vassanji ix).

“How do you deal with a guilty conscience?” This is not the kind of guilt over tossing organic garbage in a non-organic bin. This is the guilt that comes from changing the course of someone’s life for the worse. Fifth Business uses a snowball to explore that question, but it could just as easily be an at-fault car accident or a practical joke gone wrong. This kind of situation is part of the human experience, and Robertson Davies does us a great service to take up the question.


The novel examines two ways to deal with guilt, represented by Percy and Dunstan. Percy, who actually threw the snowball, manages his guilt with outright denial. In the days following the accident, he bullies Dunstan into silence. At the novel’s climax – the confrontation between Percy, Dunstan, and Paul – Percy claims he has no recollection of the accident: “I really don’t remember... I don’t remember what is of no use to me” (251). Apparently, he has edited his memory to erase the incident. In the end, however, his fa├žade cracks under the crushing weight of suppressed guilt. Percy takes his own life later that same night.

Fifth Business focuses most on Dunstan’s effort to deal with his conscience. After the accident, he does his best to help the Dempster family by taking care of chores and errands. He sticks up for Mrs. Dempster whenever anyone mocks her. His strategy is not to deny or run away – instead, he hopes to somehow balance the scales of cosmic justice. He goes off to fight in WWI, and in some sense he feels that losing a leg in battle helps to repay his moral debt. But his conscience won’t allow it: “the war and my adult life had banked down that fire but not quenched it” (129). He spends the rest of his adult life trying to make atonement by caring for Mrs. Dempster and providing for her. In the end, though, it seems that nothing will take away his burden of guilt and secrecy.

The novel does not end with a question mark. Dunstan’s final action is to write a memoir of his entire life’s story, beginning with the accident, and he address it to his former headmaster. That memoir is the novel in our hands. We have no indication that Dunstan knew his headmaster well; he simply explains that “when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice” (110). After a lifetime of trying to balance the scales in secrecy, Dunstan resorts to confession.

I find Dunstan’s confession understandable, but in the end, not satisfying. For confession to work, for guilt to be relieved, one must confess to the offended party and receive forgiveness from the same. Dunstan confesses to someone who had no involvement in the accident, someone who has no authority to forgive.

I came away from Fifth Business with a fresh perspective on confession in my Christian faith. The Bible claims that all misdeeds against people are ultimately done against God. God is the offended party, and therefore God has the final authority to forgive. In Psalm 32, David tells his experience this way:

                              When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
                              through my groaning all day long.
                              For day and night your hand was heavy on me;
                              my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
                              Then I acknowledged my sin to you
                              and did not cover up my iniquity.
                              I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”
                              And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

For that reason, the psalmist can end in the joy of freedom, finally released from guilt:

                              Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
                              sing, all you who are upright in heart!

God’s forgiveness does not make light of an evil action, nor does it soften the pain of consequences. But it does offer the promise of real healing – something that denial or trying to balance the scales can never do.


Photo portrait of Robertson Davies: http://arts.lgontario.ca/aboutface/robertson-davies/
Vassanji, M. G. “Introduction.” Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Group Canada, 2005.

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