Fifth Business: Search for Self Identity


In Robertson Davies' novel Fifth Business, the author uses the events that occurred in Deptford as a Canadian Allusion to reveal character identity. Three characters in the novel from Deptford: Boy Staunton, Dunstan Ramsey and Paul Dempster, leave Deptford to embark on a new identity to rid of their horrid past. The three main characters of the novel, all of whom to some extent try to escape their small town background, change their identity to become people of consequence. All in some way take on a new identity. Imbedded in this transformation is the assumption that one's original self, especially one's small town origins, must be discarded before one can become significant in the world.
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 whole family 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 he took from the town because of his mothers incident with the tramp. Dunstable comment's, "Paul was not a village favorite, and the dislike so many people felt for his mother - dislike for the queer and persistently unfortunate - they attached to the unoffending son," (Davies' 40) illustrates how the town treated Paul because of his mother's actions. Paul leaves his past because of the actions displaced by his mother and the guilt he feels because his "birth was what robbed her of her sanity," (Davies' 260) explains why Paul left Deptford. However, while Boy merely tries to ignore his Deptford past, Paul tries to create 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, reared perhaps by gnomelike Lapps after the death of his explorer parents, who were probably Russians of high birth." (Davies' 231). The scenery of this autobiography seems significantly Canadian, but Paul does not want his book to represent his past life in Deptford. Therefore, Paul Dempster is a troubled child because of his mother's actions in Deptford which in turn force Paul to leave Deptford and to create a new identity for himself.
Secondly, Dunstable Ramsey is haunted by the guilt of Mary Dempster over his entire life and he must create a new identity for himself. After a rock has hit 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 that he is "Watching a ‘scene', and my parents had always warned against scenes as very serious breaches of propriety." (Davies' 39) The actions of Mary bewilder Dunstan because Mary committed a serious crime in Deptford. Later in life Dunstan falls in love with his nurse named Diana who renames him after Saint Dunstan, who is "Mad about learning, terribly stiff and stern and scowly, and an absolute wizard at withstanding temptation." (Davies' 93) His new name does not replace his old identity, but rather makes him double-named and double-identified. Therefore, Dunstan changes his name to set forth on a new identity and 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 Mary getting hit by Boy's snowball.
Thirdly, Percy Boyd Staunton is at the center of the snowball incident which is the prime mover in the action of the novel which force's Percy to allow the incident to suppress his memory and leave Deptford to create a new identity for himself. He moves to Toronto and inherits the family sugar business and drops a letter from his middle name, becoming "Boy" Staunton, and begins to build a new ruling-class identity for his renamed self. "As Ramsay explains, "he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized and defined," (Davies' 147) his new identity allows Boy to start a new life and leave Deptford in the past. Also, Boy brings with him into his new life his Deptford wife Leola, whom he tries to change into "the perfect wife for a