The Odd Man Out
Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies is a great piece of literature. Though the story was not always interesting to me, it is apparent that the author is talented.
The story begins in 1908 in a small fictional Canadian village called Deptford. I think this village is very important to the story. The author describes everything one could possibly need to picture Deptford in his mind. This helped a lot in showing what the main character’s childhood was like. Later in his life, the main character traveled a lot, so many other places were described. I don’t think these places are as important as Deptford. It seems that the author thought this also, for he didn’t use as many details to describe these places as he did with the village.
The main character is Dunstable Ramsey, Dunny for short. He is a very real character to me. The whole book is a letter that the old Dunny is writing to someone about his life. The way the author writes as Dunny is great. I can picture an old man sitting at a desk writing the letter. For parts of the story that have lots of detail, I imagine that the old Dunny remembers these parts of his life because they were important to him. For the parts he is vague about, Dunny writes that he would write more if he remembered more clearly. I think those are the times in his life that were not very important to him.
A character that stands out a lot for me is Dunny’s mother. She seemed like a very kind and strong woman at the beginning of the story. She kept their neighbors preborn baby alive when the town doctor said he would die. She was committed to that baby with all her heart. Another time, Dunny took an egg from his house so he could try to learn magic tricks with it. His mother noticed it was missing, and when he would not say why he took it, she flipped out. She beat him to pieces with a whip for an hour, screaming the whole time. In my mind she went from being a kind woman to an hysterical fool of a mother. She seems as though she could not be related to this old man reflecting on his life. I think the author is showing how different children can be from their parents.
As I said, Dunny is writing a letter. It is for the headmaster of a school he taught at for forty-five years. It seems that his reason for writing this letter is because of a farewell article in the College Chronicle written for him. He is deeply offended by it and thought it to be idiotic. He said that the person who wrote the article could never understand what it is like to be cast with the role of Fifth Business. It seems that the Fifth Business has something to do with the baby his mother nursed to health. When he was ten years old, he and his friend were in a fight. Dunny dodged an icy snowball that was thrown by his rival and it ended up hitting a woman walking down the village street. Mrs. Dempster was pregnant, and the fright and shock of being hit in the head sent her into labor. Therefore Dunny believed that because that snowball was mean for him, it was his own fault that Paul Dempster was ever born.
At sixteen Dunny left Deptford and joined the army. He is very vague about his horrifying time at war. During one battle he had his leg blown off and then wakes up in a hospital six months later. Right here in the story I think the author is stretching the truth. Could a man be in a coma for half a year just because he lost a leg? I am not a doctor, but it seems strange.
Dunny goes many places after he is healed, even with his wooden leg. He only goes back to Deptford twice. In one of his travels he encounters Paul Dempster who had become a very talented magician. A woman working with the magic show first told Dunny about his role in life. He had related much about his life to her, and she said he sounded like a Fifth Business. She explained this by comparing it to a play. There is always a heroine and her lover. Then there is the rival to the heroine, a sorceress or something. Also there is the villian who threatens the lover. But one cannot make the plot work without an odd man out. This man may know the secret of the hero, or assists the heroine when she has given up hope. He is the Fifth Business.
At the very end Dunny writes about the death of his lifelong friend, the one who threw the snowball. The book ends with And that Headmaster is all I have to tell you.’ The ending doesn’t really satisfy me. It just ends. I don’t think there is enough explanation to why Dunny’s part as Fifth Business should make him so angry about the article written for him. The beginning half of the book was more interesting for me because it was more about Dunny’s childhood and young adulthood. I found that more interesting than his later years. Because I didn’t find the latter half of the book too exciting, I guess I didn’t expect the ending to be anything special. It was just the ending of a letter. I couldn’t think of a different ending to suit this story. Despite the fact that this book was not extraordinary, the author did an amazing job of creating a man’s whole life in which many events happened.
Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1970. 266 pages