Fifth Business by Robertson Davies Book Review
The term guilt denotes a feeling of worry or unhappiness because of a wrongful deed committed, causing harm to another person. In Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, the effects of guilt obtain a predominance power, negatively impacting the novel’s future events. These repercussions are evident through the doomed occurrences of Boy Staunton, Paul Dempster, and Dunstan Ramsey.
As a consequence of Boy’s neglected guilt, he brings himself closer to his ultimate death. In the novel, Boy Staunton is a man of authority. He is successful, intelligent, and wealthy but is too arrogant, not to mention egotistical. His faults are his selfishness and lack of accountability, leading to his unconscious guilt and demise. Following the snowball incident, Dunstan confronts Boy stating, “You threw that snowball” (Davies, 14), while Boy portrays an ignorant, heartless young child who chose not to admit his fault and replies, “I threw a snowball at you” (Davies, 14). “We looked into each other’s eyes and I knew that he was afraid, and I knew also that he would fight, lie, do anything rather than admit what I knew” (Davies, 15). Guilt is disbelief to Boy. Mindfully, guilt is meaningless to him because he holds his pride over everything else. His manifested guilt is not an outward attempt to reconcile the past but to turn to stone to prevent it from getting to him. Boy knows what his actions were; he knows he had thrown the snowball that hit Mary Dempster. Unfortunately, he chooses to deal with it the only way he knows how; to run from it. Deny, deny, deny—anything it takes to come out innocent. Likewise, Boy suffers a tragic fate. The more he neglects his guilt, the closer he brings himself to his death. Boy is unaware that his accumulating guilt is a time bomb counting down his seconds to live. Further in the novel, Dunstan finally confronts Boy about his part in the incident, even revealing his life long secret of the stone hidden in the snowball. Boy still denies his actions because his shadow has overpowered him. Nonetheless, the damage has been done. “He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, (…) by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth business, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone”(Davies, 251-252). Boy chose to ignore his guilt and the incident in every respect, ever since he was a child. Correspondingly, at the end of the novel, he has forgotten the full accident entirely. Above all, the guilt and shame that arose from the event killed Boy, with help from himself. His decision to not deal with and come to terms with what had happened became his demise. Even after supposedly maturing, becoming an authoritative figure in his town, his ego still does not let him admit to his wrongful doing at his final confrontation with the issue. His hidden guilt piled into a ball of destruction; in his mind, it was too late for him to admit to his fault. He had lied for years and became an innocent figure with no involvement. Boy did not want to be held accountable for what he had done so many years before. Owing to Boy’s childish behaviour, his neglected guilt impacted his life negatively, leaving his death in the hands of Paul Dempster. Boy is found lifeless with a rock in his mouth, symbolizing his inability to swallow his guilt.
Furthermore, Paul’s guilty conscience leads him to his tragic capture and abuse by Willard. Davies represents Paul as a young, innocent boy, unaware of the issues he is surrounded by. In contrast, as Paul ages, he gains a better understanding of the things and the people around him. Hence, he begins to persistently blame himself for his mother’s insanity, choosing to believe his birth was the cause and that if she had not been pregnant with him, she would be excellent. Paul emotionally proclaims, “My father thought it his duty to tell me, so that I could do whatever was possible to make it up to her. (…) I was too young for the kind of guilt my father wanted me to feel; he had an extraordinary belief in guilt as an educative force. I couldn’t stand it” (Davies, 246). In addition to Paul’s initial guilt, later in the novel, his guilt grows immensely due to the townspeople isolating him. For this reason, Paul feels that he has no other choice than to escape his guilt after it becoming too strong for him to handle. Due to his interest and obsession with magicians, more specifically Willard the Wizard, he chooses to run away with the circus and becomes Magnus Eisengrim, breaking free of his undivided past entirely. Subsequently, Boy and Paul proceed in conversing near the end of the novel. “I suppose it is part of every boy’s dream” (Davies, 244), Boy voices, touching on Paul’s conclusion to join the circus. “Then boys are lucky that it remains a dream” (Davies, 244). Paul states, rather aggressively. “But when I had well and truly found out what travelling with Willard meant, he had me in slavery; he told me that if anybody ever found out what we did together I would certainly be hanged” (Davies, 245). Paul reveals his experience with the circus, which is surprising to both Dunstan and Boy. As Boy expresses that it is without a doubt every boy’s dream to run away with the circus, this enrages Paul causing him to convey his experience finally. As a consequence of Paul’s guilt, in an extremely harmful matter, he is led to running away from his guilt and joins the circus where he is sadly captured and abused by Willard, sexually and mentally, indefinitely destroying Paul’s life experience. This event shapes Paul into a person he was not supposed to be, resulting in him forever impacted negatively from the consequences of his never-dying guilt.
Furthermore, owing to Dunstan's conscious guilt, he is compelled to take care of Mrs. Dempster, squandering his entire life in hopes of redeeming himself from his unfortunate past. Dunstan's guilt consumes him completely. Although Dunstan was not the one who threw the snowball, he becomes overwhelmed with guilt as Boy's rock loaded snowball was intended for him. "I was contrite and guilty, for I knew the snowball had been meant for me" (Davies, 3). Dunstan becomes engulfed with the accident, especially while Boy denies his part completely. Dunstan's guilt begins to control his life from that point on, leading him on a path he was never supposed to be on in the first place. His guilt over the accident takes over, making him feel like a criminal and starts an almost lifelong devotion to Mary Dempster out of guilt. "Furthermore I felt myself tied to her by the certainty that I was responsible for her staying wits, the disorder of her marriage, and the frail body of the child who was the greatest delight in life" (Davies, 24). Dunstan feels obligated to care for Mrs. Dempster and her child, Paul Dempster, to lessen his guilt. This obligation drastically changes into a personal commitment, and he begins to love and care for Mrs. Dempster, all resulting from his guilt. Hoping that his lifelong devotion to Mrs. Dempster would be taken away from the accident, he was awarded more guilt when he is entrusted with the care of Mary Dempster and cannot afford to put her in a respected institution or have her live with him. He is left to put her in a public mental hospital. While Mary was in the mental hospital, "[Dunstan] visited Mrs. Dempster forty Saturdays every year and at Easter, Christmas and on her birthday" (Davies, 168). As his guilt lingers, he fulfills his commitment to take care of Mary until her death. After taking care of Mrs. Dempster throughout her life, he stops visiting her and feels responsible for her death, carrying out his guilt further. After Mary passes, Dunstan feels a slight, but not complete, wane of his guilt. In short, no aspect of Dunstan's life is untouched in some way by guilt. Each act is either consciously or unconsciously perpetuating the endless cycle until his life begins to lack an independent meaning or value.
As one can see, the characters in Fifth Business are controlled by their guilt, leading to pessimistic events that forever affect their lives. As a consequence of Boy's disregarded guilt, it leads him to his murder. Paul experiences a forever life-changing incident where he is captured and abused owing to his crucial escape from his guilt back home. Along with Dunstan becoming consumed with a lifelong devotion to Mary Dempster, changing his path in life in hopes of repaying his wrongful part in the accident. Davies shows how one's life plays out when dealing with the guilt along with hiding from it, including the adverse events that will follow when left unresolved. A person's guilty conscience compromises the price of human life. One's guilt caused by a fatal flaw brings about both heartless actions upon others and self-deterioration. Undoubtedly, guilt can only be neglected for so long before it intensifies and reinforces to the point of no return.