Religion, Myth, and Magic in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business

4090 Words 17 Pages
Religion, Myth, and Magic in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business

Interwoven with light and shadows, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business is penetrated with fantastical elements that rub uneasily against feelings of guilt. A snowball thrown by young "Boy" Staunton misses Dunstan and hits Mary Dempster, causing the premature birth of Paul and the insanity of Mary. Guilt ensues and threatens to envelop Dunstable, Dunny, and Dunstan. One is his name by birth; the other a pet name; and the third, his true name upon being born again. With so many identities, Dunstan struggles to understand his role as fifth business and to learn to untie himself from his burden of guilt. Conventional religion may confine Dunstan Ramsay’s spiritual growth, but
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While saying prayers at home, Dunstan learns that "a respectful salute to Providence before breakfast is enough for anybody"5. Such organized religion does not aid one’s spiritual growth but contricts one’s creative soul. Like a good Presbyterian, Dunstan dutifully talks about religion with Diana Marfleet’s father, the Canon. However, it is without conviction of faith that Dunstan relates these tales and the Canon would rather speak of the war.

With a "lionlike spirit", Dunstan’s mother dominates the family. She places herself above God in Dunny’s world. When the young Dunstan breaks some eggs while practising magic tricks, his mother whips him and he becomes so dejected that he thinks about hanging himself. Dunstan obtains his mother’s forgiveness only when, on his knees, he begs her, and secondarily God, to forgive him. However, that night, Dunstan’s mother kisses him and calls him her "own dear laddie"6. Dunstan is confused – "how could [he] reconcile this motherliness with the screeching fury who had pursued [him] around the kitchen with a whip, flogging [him] until she [is] gorged with – what? Vengeance?" 7. The stern Scottish Presbyterianism leaves Dunstan’s soul thirsty and this incident increases his appetite for magic, for it is "necessary for [him] to gain power in some realm into which [his] parents – [his] mother particularly – could not follow [him]" 8. Even Diana, Dunstan’s English nurse who nurses him back to health during the war, complains that

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