The Good Soldier
First Edition of The Good Soldier, with original title
|Author||Ford Madox Ford|
|Publisher||John Lane, The Bodley Head|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion is a 1915 novel by English novelist Ford Madox Ford. It is set just before World War I and chronicles the tragedy of Edward Ashburnham, the soldier to whom the title refers, and his own seemingly perfect marriage and that of two American friends. The novel is told using a series of flashbacks in non-chronological order, a literary technique that formed part of Ford's pioneering view of literary impressionism. Ford employs the device of the unreliable narrator to great effect as the main character gradually reveals a version of events that is quite different from what the introduction leads the reader to believe. The novel was loosely based on two incidents of adultery and on Ford's messy personal life.
The novel's original title was The Saddest Story, but after the onset of World War I, the publishers asked Ford for a new title. Ford suggested (sarcastically) The Good Soldier, and the name stuck.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2015, the BBC ranked The Good Soldier 13th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels.
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The Good Soldier is narrated by the character John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the story of those dissolutions and the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion. As an unreliable narrator, the reader can consider whether they believe Dowell and his description of how the events unfolded, including his own role in the "saddest story ever told".
Events as narrated
The novel opens with the famous line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Dowell explains that, for nine years, he, his wife Florence, and their friends Captain Edward Ashburnham (the "good soldier" of the book's title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Nauheim, Germany.
As it turns out, nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems. Florence's heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to ensure that he did not seek intimacy from her as it would seemingly be too stressful for her heart, and to keep him out of her bedroom at night so that she could continue her affair with a French artist named Jimmy. Edward and Leonora have an imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora's attempts to control Edward's affairs (both financial and romantic). Dowell is an innocent and is coming to realise how much he has been fooled, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead.
Dowell tells the story of Edward and Leonora's relationship, which appears normal to others but which is a power struggle that Leonora wins. Dowell narrates several of Edward's affairs and peccadilloes, including his possibly innocent attempt to comfort a crying servant on a train; his affair with the married Maisie Maidan, the one character in the book whose heart problem was unquestionably real, and his bizarre tryst in Monte Carlo and Antibes with a kept woman known as La Dolciquita. Edward's philandering ends up costing them a fortune in bribes, blackmail and gifts for his lovers, leading Leonora to take control of Edward's financial affairs. She gradually gets him out of debt.
Florence's affair with Edward leads her to commit suicide when she realises both that Edward is falling in love with his and Leonora's young ward, Nancy Rufford, and that Dowell has found out about her affair with Jimmy. Florence sees Edward and Nancy in an intimate conversation and rushes back to the resort, where she sees John talking to a man she used to know (and who knows of her affair with Jimmy). Assuming that her relationship with Edward and her marriage to John are over, Florence takes prussic acid—which she has carried for years in a vial that John thought held her heart medicine—and dies.
Edward's last affair is his most scandalous, as he becomes infatuated with Nancy. Nancy came to live with them after leaving a convent where her parents had sent her; her mother was a violent alcoholic, and her father (it is later suggested that this man may not be Nancy's biological father) may have abused her. Edward, tearing himself apart because he does not want to spoil Nancy's innocence, arranges to have her sent to India to live with her father, even though this frightens her terribly. Once Leonora knows that Edward intends to keep his passion for Nancy chaste, but only wants Nancy to continue to love him from afar, she torments him by making this wish impossible. She pretends to offer to divorce him so he can marry Nancy, but informs Nancy of his sordid sexual history, destroying Nancy's innocent love for him. After Nancy's departure, Edward receives a telegram from her that reads, "Safe Brindisi. Having a rattling good time. Nancy." He asks Dowell to take the telegram to his wife, pulls out his pen knife, says that it's time he had some rest and slits his own throat. When Nancy reaches Aden and sees the obituary in the paper, she becomes catatonic.
The novel's last section has Dowell writing from Edward's old estate in England, where he takes care of Nancy, whom he cannot marry because of her mental illness. Nancy is only capable of repeating two things—a Latin phrase meaning "I believe in an omnipotent God" and the word "shuttlecocks." Dowell states that the story is sad because no one got what they wanted. Leonora wanted Edward but lost him and ended in marrying the normal (but dull) Rodney Bayham. Edward wanted Nancy but gave her up, then lost her. Dowell wanted a wife but ended up a nurse to two women.
Dowell ends up generally unsure about where to lay the blame but expressing sympathy for Edward, because he believes himself similar to Edward in nature. The fact is he has been disengaged, a voyeur. While the other characters are flawed, he has never participated in life and is revealed as less than the foolish innocent he represents himself as when he walks way leaving Edward to slit his throat with a very small pen knife.
The novel has potential narrative inconsistencies that suggest different, hidden plot elements. For example, Dowell marries an heiress who ostensibly has a bad heart. He states repeatedly that he has no need or interest in her money—one might argue that he protests his disinterest rather too much. Florence eventually dies, stated by Dowell to be suicide. If readers suspend their trust in the narrator, some may be left with the impression that the narrator is obfuscating, happy his wife dies and not doing anything to prevent it; just as he does little throughout the entire book. Thus, behind the more or less explicit narrative lurks a possible counter-narrative in which Dowell is something of a sociopath, caring for no one but himself, an observer of others who are living more fully while never actively engaging very intensely in life himself, and indeed, perhaps a voyeur relishing the demise of others. This would be the story of a manipulative man trying to elicit the sympathy of the audience he speaks/writes to, which must decide whether he is a deluded victim or a heartless manipulator of the reader's emotions.
Florence supposedly poisons herself in a possibly painful manner, and Edward supposedly cuts his own throat, but as always in this novel, we only have Dowell's word for it, and he epitomises the "unreliable narrator." The reader must decide just how much of the truth Dowell reveals. Some commentators have even suggested that Dowell, who presents himself as considered by all to be passive, murders both Florence and Edward. In this view the entire story is his justification for doing so without his admitting his guilt.
John Dowell: The narrator, husband to Florence. Dowell is an American Quaker, either a gullible and passionless man who cannot read the emotions of the people around him or a master manipulator who plays the victim.
Florence Dowell: John Dowell's wife and a scheming, manipulative, unfaithful woman who uses Dowell for his money while pursuing her affairs on the side. She fakes a heart ailment to get what she wants out of her husband and has a lengthy affair with Edward Ashburnham.
Edward Ashburnham: Friend of the Dowells and husband of Leonora. Ashburnham is a hopeless romantic who keeps falling in love with the women he meets; he is at Nauheim for the treatment of a heart problem, but the ailment is not real, he used it as an excuse to follow a female heart patient to Nauheim. He is Dowell's opposite, a virile, physical, passionate man.
Leonora Ashburnham: Edward's wife by a marriage that was more or less arranged by their fathers. Leonora comes to resent Edward's philandering as much for its effect on her life as on her marriage and asserts more and more control over Edward until he dies.
Nancy Rufford: The young ward of the Ashburnhams; Edward falls in love with Nancy after he tires of Florence. Eventually, Edward arranges for Nancy to be sent to India to live with her father, but she goes mad en route when she learns of Edward's death.
La Dolciquita: A Spanish dancer (The Grand Duke's mistress) who is Edward's first sexual affair. Although he believes himself to be romantically attached to her, he quickly becomes disillusioned by her thirst for his money.
Maisie Maidan: A young, pretty, married woman with whom Edward fell in love. Leonora pays for her treatment for a weak heart at Nauheim, knowing that Edward would follow her there. Maisie's heart gives way after she hears Florence and Edward talking about her disparagingly and she dies.
How well can we judge the characterisations the novel when Dowell was such an unreliable narrator? A question to consider is whether he presented himself in a true light, or manipulated his description of events to prevent the reader from discovering his true character. However
"by the end of the novel Dowell has tested the limits of rational explanation. He has interpreted character by religion, by nationality, by gender, and by the calendar…Dowell's disillusionment follows the arc of modernism. He begins with presuppositions typical of much Victorian characterization: the individual conditioned by circumstance, composed of intelligible motives, susceptible to moral analysis-the justified self. Then, confronted with the singularity of desire, his 'generalizations' totter and fall."
Dowell admits that his assumptions and characterisations of people in his life may be flawed. Whether that is because of guilt, or an attempt to reshape history in his favour, there is no clear answer.
The novel was adapted into the television film of the same title by Granada Television in 1981. It starred Jeremy Brett, Vickery Turner, Robin Ellis and Susan Fleetwood. It was directed by Kevin Billington and written by Julian Mitchell. In the US it aired as part of the Masterpiece Theatre series.
- Womack, Kenneth and William Baker, eds. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Broadview Press, 2003.
- Ford, Madox Ford (2003). Kenneth Womack and William Baker, eds. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. New York: Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-381-3.
- Ciabattari, Jane (7 December 2015). "The 100 greatest British novels". BBC. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
- Levenson, Michael (1984). "Character in The Good Soldier". Twentieth Century Literature. 30: 373–387.
- BBC – Book at Bedtime – The Good Soldier
- Global British Comedy Collaborative – Ford Madox Ford[permanent dead link]