Character development in Fifth Business, and the role of name changes


Robertson Davies’s novel, the Fifth Business, is full of symbolism, magic, saints, miracles and myths. Its characters are rich and colourful. Just like in classic theatre plays, there are five main characters in the book, two female ones and three male characters: the Hero, the Villain and the so called “fifth business”, who helps the story move along. The book’s main character, Dunstable Ramsey, plays a similar role in people’s lives around him.


It is interesting how the author develops the characters during the book. There is an important symbol that is connected to the changes in this development. All the three male characters have their names changed at one point, which then signals important changes in their lives, almost as if by changing their names they become new persons. This idea is also connected to the religious aspect of the book, because when somebody becomes a monk they change their names as a symbol to the fact that now their lives are about to change forever.


If we look at the two female characters first, Mrs Dempster and Leola Cruikshank, we realize that their characters do not change. Mrs Dempster gets hit by a snowball with a stone packed into it right at the beginning of the book and becomes “simple”, as the people in Deptford say. She remains like that all through the book. Although this simpleness makes her very mysterious, the secret of that stays hidden to the end.


Leola is also a simple, uncomplicated person. When she marries Boy Staunton, he actually tries very hard to change her but she cannot change, no matter how hard she tries. Actually that is what causes her to try to commit suicide at one point, and there is a hint in the book saying that her eventual death is not completely accidental, that she wanted to die exactly because she could never change or get used to the position her married life put her into.


The three male main characters on the other hand undergo great changes. Mrs Dempster’s son, Paul, who is born prematurely because of that snowball, changes not only his name but his whole identity, so that besides Dunstan Ramsey nobody even knows who he really is. Actually he changes his name twice: first he becomes Faustus Legrand. At that time he is a sort of a criminal character who uses his great talent for thieving. The second time, when he becomes Magnus Eisengrim, he becomes a respectable artist and his major act, the Brazen Head, often causes changes in other people’s lives by revealing their hidden secrets as part of the show.


The one who threw that snowball at the beginning of the book is Percy Boyd Staunton. The secret of the snowball remains a secret, just like the nickname by which his mom used to call him at home: Boy Pidgy-pidgy. But when he leaves Deptford, he decides to use the name Boy, almost hinting to the secrets from his childhood. The changes that happen to him are not very pretty. He becomes greedy, snobbish, psychologically cruel to his wife and children, not caring about the effect his actions have on the people around him or the consumers that his businesses exploit. Yet, he pushes the memory of the Dempster family completely out of his mind, so that he cannot even remember who Paul is when he reveals his true identity to him at the end of the book. Only the fact that Boy keeps helping Dunstan Ramsey gives the impression that deep down he does remember and wants to reward the keeper of his secret.


Ramsey is the narrator in the book and so his life story and the changes that happen in his life are presented in great detail. He starts out as Dunstable Ramsey, and his name change happens at a time when everything else changes around him. The curious thing is that none of it is his doing, everything happens to him. He loses a leg, gets badly burned on his body and is in coma for more that half a year. When he wakes up, it is almost as if he was born a new person. Every