Religion and Women in Fifth Business

In Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, the life of Dunstan Ramsay is the backdrop and the thread connecting countless subplots and themes; but one of the most important themes, religion, is curiously reflected back on other aspects of Dunstan's life; involvements with women, which often drive plot, are often comparable with involvements with religions, which affect theme. Nearly every major female character in the novel has a relationship with Dunstan that parallels his involvement with a religion. In some instances, like Dunstan's Calvinist mother, the woman is a part of the religion she can symbolise. In others, like Faustina, she is completely unconnected. The parallels are effective both in terms of characteristics and in terms psychological influences on Dunstan. Both religions and women have strong influences on Dunstan and the course of his life.

During childhood, Dunstan Ramsay belongs to an upright Protestant family with strong Calvinist ideals. In particular, this religion restricts his interests in saints and magic. In general, Dunstan does not rebel against Protestantism, but is not particularly attatched to it, either. During the war, he reads the Bible several times over... because it is the only literature available to him. Dunstan often compares the tales of the Bible to those of the Arabian Nights.

Dunstan's mother's influence in his life lies parallel to that of Calvinist Protestantism. Like the religion, Fiona Ramsay is restrictive and has a certain element of fire and brimstone about her, demonstrated when she chases Dunstan through the house intent on delivering righteous punishment. As Protestantism stands against Dunstan's interests in saints and magic, Mrs. Ramsay restricts his contact with Mary Dempster -- later identified as a possible saint. As Dunstan is relatively unattatched to the Protestant church, he is relatively unattatched to his mother. The feeling he describes upon hearing word of her death was one of relief, not one of loss.

Dunstan's affair with Diana Marfleet culminates in his rebirth and renaming. His time with Diana matures him and adds to his scope of experience and breadth of understanding. The experience is comparable to the influence of Dunstan's excessive Bible reading during the war; he forms opinions and gains understanding. However, in the end, he does not remain a practicing Christian -- just as he does not marry Diana Marfleet.

In Leola Cruikshank, Dunstan's childhood sweetheart, is another parallel to Protestantism. When Dunstan returns from Europe, he has discovered both that he does not love Leola and that he is not a devout Protestant. However, both the girl and the religion remain part of his life -- Leola as a friend, and Protestantism as a piece of the general milieu and as a psychological influence. Leola, too, has psychological impact on Dunstan -- but as demonstrated when Leola discovers Boy's infidelity, Dunstan no longer wants to be involved with her, just as he no longer wants to be involved with the religion of his childhood.

Dunstan's fascination with Faustina during his middle aged years also is comparable to an aspect of his religious life. His time with the Jesuit Bollandists echoes the same tone of longing for the unattainable and wish for belonging. The close-knit community formed by the Bollandists attracts Dunstan, as does the aura of glamour surrounding Eisengrim's magic show performers and therefore Faustina. However, in both cases, Dunstan finds no niche for himself. He cannot stay indefinitely with the Bollandists, as he does not share their Roman Catholic religion; he cannot be Faustina's knight in shining armour, as does not share her youth and enthusiasm. Eventually, Dunstan resigns himself to the unattainability of belonging to either situation.

He finds replacements for both the religion and the woman in Liesl, and in Padre Blazon's god of the older man. Liesl's dramatic entrance into Dunstan's circle of intimates occurs as he realises his unsuitability for Faustina, one woman replacing the other. The concept of the older man's god is planted by Blazon long before this time, but its impact does not fully take effect until many years and a book later, after Dunstan's association with Liesl is established. Liesl and Blazon's concept guide Dunstan towards self-realisation and towards recognition and acceptance of his Shadow. He eventually comes to terms with himself, and so can make some measure of committment to a woman and a form of religious spirituality, though the ties remain rather tenuous.

The single constant in Dunstan's religious/love life is the combination of saints and Mary Dempster. From his early youth to his old age, Dunstan is keenly interested in saints, and feels responsibility -- and love? -- towards Mary. The connection between the two becomes especially interesting because of Dunstan's conviction that Mary herself is a saint.

Combined with his initial childhood interest, Dunstan's conviction that Mary Dempster is a saint leads him to spend much of his life learning about saints. The tangle of psychological influences which results is intriguing: the guilt Dunstan feels over Mary is clearly a destructive influence, while the saints bring him academic and personal growth and enjoyment. The combination both leads Dunstan towards and holds him back from self-actualisation. Eventually, before Dunstan squares with himself, issues surrounding Mary Dempster are resolved: Mary dies, and Dunstan confronts Boy Staunton and Paul Dempster with the stone that changed her life for the worse long ago.

Women and aspects of religion float somewhat nebulously through Dunstan Ramsay?s life, each leaving profound marks on him in their own ways. However, none seem to evoke solid, long-term commitment except the guilty responsibility directed towards Mary Dempster, and through her, the lasting interest in Roman Catholic saints. This single thread forms the basis of the plotline of Dunstan's life. Only when he deals with the feelings and thoughts which surround Mary Dempster and her possible sainthood can other issues be resolved.


Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
One's overanalytical mind.

This essay began its life as an open prompt IB English assignment.