Title: The Good Soldier
Author: Ford Madox Ford
Type of Text: Novel
Main Characters: Captain Edward and Mrs Leonora Ashburnham, an upper-class English couple, of whom he is sentimental and prone to adultery and she is rational, calculating and generally long-suffering. Mr John and Mrs Florence Dowell, originally from America (New England) and friends of the Ashburnhams; John is the narrator. Mrs Maisie Maidan, with whom Edward has an early affair. Miss Nancy Rufford, the attractive young ward of Leonora, who is introduced to the narrative shortly after the explanation of Florence’s death but is supposed to have been present all along.
Genre: Confessional, Romance, Modern Tragedy
Narrative Style: First-person retrospective, in chapters and in four parts, starting from the point when two main characters (Florence and Edward) are already dead. Not chronological: narrative jumps about all over the place, with extended flashbacks: some from the perspective of the narrator’s knowledge at the time, others explaining events by means of subsequent revelations and with heavy foreshadowing. Narratorial tone is largely despondent throughout.
Themes & Imagery: Marriage and adultery. Culture, class, religion; appearing to be civilised or “good people”. Superficiality and keeping up appearances of propriety despite the secrets and lack of trust eating away at relationships. Consuming passions, whether love or hatred, and the importance of duty. Knowledgeable women and (even wilfully) ignorant men.
Synopsis: This is the story of two outwardly normal, loving, upper-class pre-war couples – the Ashburnhams and the Dowells – and the secrets which come out after two of them are dead, exposing their apparent functional happiness as a superficial facade – the lies, the love affairs, and the secrets which have been so carefully kept from the narrator. What had seemed to be a blissful existence not only ends in sadness and tragedy, but is revealed to have been corrupt from its very beginnings – which the narrator describes, presenting piecemeal the history of his marriage and that of the Ashburnhams. More than that I don’t want to reveal, since much of the strength of this text stems from the gradual way in which the reader’s understanding of events is overturned alongside that of the narrator.
Personal Response: I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end; I was particularly impressed by the ambivalence which the author was able to create in me in response to the Ashburnhams. Like John Dowell, the narrator, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them even after their many faults and cruelties had been slowly revealed; and this slow reveal is itself a great success of the authorial technique. Thanks to the unreliable narrator and the theme of superficial marital bliss and hidden vice, this book is often compared to “The Great Gatsby”; but whereas I feel that Fitzgerald’s characters deserve their fates, Ford manages to instill in me a similar sadness to that felt by the narrator throughout his account.
Favourite Part: The manic, confused and yet poetic tone of the first chapter; the revelation of Florence’s long history of deceit, when things start to make sense to both reader and narrator.
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
Narrator’s confusion and despair at start of novel:
I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.
After Florence’s death:
It was as if an immensely heavy, an unbearably heavy knapsack, supported upon my shoulders by straps, had fallen off and left my shoulders themselves, that the straps had cut into, numb and without sensation of life. I tell you, I had no regret. What had I to regret? I suppose that my inner soul – my dual personality – had realized long before that Florence was a personality of paper – that she represented a real human being with a heart, with feelings, with sympathies and with emotions only as a banknote represents a certain quantity of gold.
Explanation for the original title, “The Saddest Story”:
I call this The Saddest Story, rather than “The Ashburnham Tragedy”, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had nobke natures – here then we’re two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness.
Leonora’s view of marriage:
She saw life as a perpetual sex battle between husbands who desire to be unfaithful to their wives, and wives who desire to recapture their husbands in the end. That was her sad and modest view of matrimony.
Narrator’s attitude at the end of the novel:
Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness. But I guess that I myself, in my fainter way, come into the category of the passionate, the headstrong and the too-truthful.