As a young boy, Dunstan Ramsay carefully evades a snowball thrown by a rival. The snowball hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the small Ontario town's minister, and causes her to go into labor early. She comes out of the labor in a state some might call "touched"--a kind of simplicity en route to madness that makes her the subject of the town's whispers. Dunstan grows up feeling protective of her, and her son Paul, whom he teaches the rudiments of stage magic. Paul grows up and leaves home to become a famous magician, while Ramsay becomes convinced that the near-mad Ms. Dempster is a kind of saint, complete with three miracles. Meanwhile, the boy who actually threw the snowball, a rich kid actually called Boy, suppresses the act past remembrance.
Writing all that out, I'm struck by the fragile complexity of Robertson Davies' Fifth Business. All that is really the set-up; the novel follows Ramsay through his entire life, first as an accidental war hero in World War I (one of Mrs. Dempster's "miracles" is appearing in the face of a Madonna at the battlefield at Passchendaele) and then a respected teacher and scholar on the saints. But Davies has a true novelists' touch in plotting, and though it takes a long time for the form of the narrative to take shape, the snowball turns out to have serious and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and Boy that resonate throughout their lives.
And for Ramsay, too, but in a different way. A woman tells him that he is a part of the "Fifth Business": the fifth character in an opera, separate from the two main couples, without whom the plot cannot function. It's a sad idea, to think of yourself as a minor character in the story of your own life, but it comes with it a kind of power and a kind of freedom from the mechanisms of fate. The novel ends as it begins, with Paul, Boy, and Ramsay, but Ramsay's peculiar position means he comes out of the scenario relatively unscathed by the ponderous history the two others share.
Fifth Business speaks also to the importance of myth and legend in the world. Ramsay isn't really a war hero, except by accident, but he accepts the role when he wakes up in a European hospital, sans one leg, and tries to occupy it the best he can. There's a moment where, having a medal pinned on him by the King of England, he feels a twinge of recognition and sympathy for the King: neither is quite what myth demands of them, but they recognize the importance of sustaining the myth for others. This regard for myth becomes Ramsay's interest in the saints, and his desperate need to have Mrs. Dempster's sainthood recognized by others. A priest tells him:
Oh, miracles! They happen everywhere. They are conditional. If I take a photograph of you, it is a compliment and perhaps rather a bore. If I go into the South African jungle and take a photograph of a primitive, he probably thinks it a miracle and he may be afraid I have stolen a part of his soul. If I take a picture of a dog and show it to him, he does not even know what he looks like, so he is not impressed; he is lost in a collective of dogginess. Miracles are things people cannot explain. Your artificial leg would have been a miracle in the Middle Ages--probably a Devil's miracle. Miracles depend much on time, and place, and what we know and do not know.
Miracles are conditional, Davies tells us, but that does not cheapen their value. Instead, it should alert us to the possibility of miracles in the everyday, and resist the kind of shallow realism that thinks it can escape the importance of context. Even when you're the fifth business--a supernumerary in your own story--miracles can still happen for you, and their meaning need not be validated by anyone else.