Sentimentalist; ‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford [1915]

To say Parade’s End altered my appreciation of literature would be an understatement; it has given me a passion for classics and a love of books which force me to think as well as feel. Ford created characters that transcended the time in which they were set, their thought patterns are as understandable now as when published.

Initially, I was nervous about reading The Good Soldier; it is easy to dislike an author’s other novels when you hold one particular story in high esteem, however, I was far from disappointed.

“A Tale of Passion,” as its subtitle declares, The Good Soldier relates the complex social and sexual relationships between two couples, one English, one American, and the growing awareness by the American narrator John Dowell of the intrigues and passions behind their orderly Edwardian facade. It is the attitude of Dowell, his puzzlement, uncertainty, and the seemingly haphazard manner of his narration that make the book so powerful and mysterious. Despite its catalogue of death, insanity, and despair, the novel has many comic moments, and has inspired the work of several distinguished writers, including Graham Greene.Synopsis from GoodReads

“We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.”

The Good Solider is a story of two couples, one American the other English, over a period of 10 years. Narrated in its entirety by John Dowell, one half of the American couple, it masterfully unravels a story of affairs through stages of grief, realisation, anger and acceptance. Dowell irritated me during beginning of the novel, so I had some difficulty in settling into a pattern of reading, however, persevere and the novel suddenly clicks. We never discover if Edward Ashburnham, the character for which the novel is titled, is a good soldier or not; everyone says he is, which baffles Dowell. Edward’s title is a positive trait to the negative of his philandering; yes he has had affairs, but he was a good soldier. Ultimately, however, it feels irrelevant (or indecipherable), as Dowell’s unreliable narrative is the only version of Edward Ashburnham we are given.

Told out of sequence, we begin with John writing after Florenece’s death – he has recently discovered his ill wife, whom he has dedicatedly cared for, had never been ill at all. Florence had been having a nine year affair with Captain Edward Ashburnham, husband of Leonora Ashburnham, the couple with which they travelled. Florence has never been faithful to Dowell, he was a means to an end, an escape from her family and into Europe.

The story could be difficult to follow at times; Dowell begins before key events come to light. His narration travels an emotional path; beginning having just discovered Florence’s affairs he is shocked, unable to be truly disgusted with her. Returning to write the narration Dowell is more aware; he is angry at Florence (never at Edward, who he has an irrational respect for) and considerably fond of Leonora, who he sees as an ally. Finally, as he concludes the story, Dowell is contemplative and accepting, having been once again manipulated into a position of carer to an invalid companion.

This emotional flux in our narrator makes for a fascinating unreliability in how we understand the other characters. Leonora, who for most of the novel appears highly sympathetic, is at the end a different character. Florence is condemned, soiled by her affairs and Edward is a constant source of pity despite his philandering. Dowell’s admiration for him never falters, Edward is never to blame, even though Edward clearly does not hold Dowell in the same esteem: “You see, I suppose he regarded me not so much as a man. I had to be regarded as a woman or a solicitor.” Dowell is an understanding, but often oblivious character, his lack of anger at Edward is at times infuriating. When Dowell finally discovers exactly what happened over the nine years with the Ashburnhams, he cannot help but place a portion of the blame on himself for being so easily lead. Yet, with only having Dowell’s fluctuating point of view we are constantly left wondering if Florence and Leonora were as manipulative as they appeared, or if Edward was as respectable.

Dowell often sentimentalises, recounting stories that closely relate to his own situation without him realising. In the first section of the novel he discusses how, while travelling on a train, he witnesses one cow push over another and how funny he found this. “I suppose I ought to have pitied the poor animal; but I just didn’t. I was out for enjoyment. And I just enjoyed myself.” In discovering Florence’s indiscretion he has suddenly been toppled over, something he did not expect to happen – instead of getting angry he is laughing because it is so unexpected, he has no other way to react.

“Well, there you have the position, as clear as I can make it – the husband an ignorant fool, the wife a cold sensualist with imbecile fears – for I was such a fool that I should never have known what she was or was not – and the blackmailing lover. And then another lover came along….”

3 thoughts on “Sentimentalist; ‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford [1915]

  1. Glad Ford is continually good. I love stories where you have to work out for yourself if the narrator is biased, and what the actual story was, but the addition of Dowell’s thinking about Edward and the fact he himself is very much in the thick of it is appealing. It reminds me a bit of the way Wuthering Heights is written, only with a more involved narrator.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.