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Guilt in Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business”

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One feeling that may cause mixed emotions such as anger, hate, or fear, a feeling that can also cripple one’s mind, is guilt. Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business” demonstrates how guilt is able to corrupt the young minds of children through the characters of Paul and Dunstan. On the other hand, he also shows how a child will suppress an incident into their unconscious mind if it makes him feel uncomfortable, or guilty through the character of Boy Staunton. The outcome of each case is unpredictable and could possibly result in lives being corrupted or constantly having feelings of guilt on ones conscience.

Dunstan Ramsay has lived his life full of guilt, feeling guilty for things he should not. During an incident involving Boy, Boy throws a snowball at Dunstan, however, Dunstan dodges the snowball and it ends up hitting the pregnant Mrs. Dempster. As a result, Mrs. Dempster gives birth prematurely to Paul shortly after. Dunstan feels that since the snowball was directed towards him, it is his fault for Paul’s premature birth, “I was contrite and guilty, for I knew the snowball had been meant for me, but the Dempsters did not seem to think that” (Davies 3). Dunstan tries confronting Boy about the incident in hopes of passing the guilt on to him, however Boy denies it, leaving Dunstan no one to blame but himself, “So I was alone with my guilt, and it tortured me” (Davies 16). Dunstan’s childhood is mostly spent at the Dempster’s place doing chores, which could possibly be his way of making it up to them.

During his daily visits to the Dempster’s, Dunstan gets to know Paul and introduces him to magic. Paul eventually abandons his mother to pursue a career as a magician, leaving his mother heartbroken, which also contributes to Dunstan’s feeling of guilt. Mrs. Dempster believes that Dunstan is keeping her from seeing her son in the hospital, “Dunstan Ramsay, who pretended to be a friend, was a snake-in-the-grass, an enemy, an undoubted agent of those dark forces who had torn Paul from her” (Davies 237). Dunstan also feels guilty for the death of Mrs. Dempster because he stops visiting her, and does not provide her with the care that she was in need of. The following events have significantly altered Dunstan’s life, for example the books he writes and his studying of saints all relate back to Mrs. Dempster. On the whole, the several events that have made Dunstan feel guilty all revolve around the snowball incident that occurred during his childhood.

Paul Dempster comes from a damaged home, born prematurely, with an insane mother. Similarly, Paul feels guilty for the events that are not his fault, for example, he believes that his mother’s insanity is caused by his birth. Consequently, Paul decides to leave his life in Deptford and run away with the circus to search for a life in the world of magic, leaving his mother behind. Paul is then confronted by Dunstan during one of his magic shows at the circus, where Paul confesses, “My father always told me it was my birth that robbed her of her sanity” (Davies 148). He tries to forget his life in Deptford so he does not have to deal with the guilt, and results in becoming a world famous magician.

The changing of his name to Magnus Eisengrim, “My real name is Magnus Eisengrim; that is who I am and that is how the world knows me” (Davies 264) shows how he has left his past behind and started a new life. Paul creates a new life in order to forget about his past and to rid of him the guilt he once felt. When Paul finally discovers that Boy is to blame for his mother’s simple mind, he comes to terms with him by confronting him about the incident. The mysterious death of Boy followed, possibly driven from his own guilt or the doings of Eisengrim.

It is not guilt that has an impact on Boy Staunton’s life, but the lack of guilt that he felt from his childhood. Boy Staunton suppresses the snowball incident into his unconscious mind so he does not have to deal with it throughout his life. Boy is later on confronted by Dunstan about the incident which he hesitantly denies his doings, “I threw a snowball at you, […] and I guess it gave you a good smack” (Davies 16). Boy also leaves his past behind in Deptford like the other characters however, he is able to move on with his life, something that Dunstan could not do. His obsession with obtaining materialistic possessions such as wealth, fame, and maintaining youthfulness, as suggested by his name, leaves no room for guilt in his life. However, the snowball incident is not the only guilt he represses; he avoids guilt all throughout his life, such as cheating on his wife Leola, and being more concerned about running a successful business than being a better father figure.

Although it seems that Boy has escaped many of these situations by leaving it all behind, it eventually comes back to haunt him. At the age of sixty, Boy meets with Dunstan and Paul, and is confronted about the snowball incident which caused the chain of events to occur. Boy has no recollection of Paul or his mother and refuses to believe of his evil acts. Dunstan gives Boy a stone, which is the stone that Boy used in the snowball to hit Mrs. Dempster, which shows how Dunstan is finally able to let go of his guilt and pass it on to its rightful owner. Eventually, Boy cannot cope with all of the damage he has caused in everyone’s life and drives his car into a lake. Boy Staunton has lived his whole life in denial which drives him to his own death in the end.

In conclusion, guilt has played a significant role in altering the lives of Paul Dempster, Dunstan Ramsay, and Boy Staunton. Paul, feeling guilty for his mother’s simple mind, causes him to run away but becomes a world famous magician. Dunstan lives his life feeling guilty, spends a great deal of his life making it up to Mrs. Dempster, basing his saint exploration on her, and playing his role as “fifth business”. Boy lives his life avoiding guilt by running away from his fears which in the end leads to his inevitable death. The chain of events that grew from one incident corrupted the lives of the characters until the guilt was dealt with.

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