Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I'm listening to the Wind Quintet Op. 43 by Carl Neilson as I write.  You can listen here.

I bought this book on a whim.  I had not heard positive things about Ford but then again, my only source was Ernest Hemingway who despised Ford.  But then Hemingway despised a lot of people, especially those that helped him get his start.  As my husband said, "You can afford to be mean when you're good (at what you do)."

I'm not sure Hemingway could afford it, considering his own ultimate ending.  At any rate, I wasn't inclined to read The Good Soldier.  I allowed an unreliable source to prejudice me.  Furthermore, when I read the reviews on Amazon, the only thing anyone could say about the book was how very sad it was.  This inclined me even less.

But there it was in the Indie bookshop in Shreveport, in such an appealing edition and at such an appealing price that I whipped it off the shelf and handed it to Josh who brought it to the cashier.  (After thirteen years of living off of a single mom's income, I can't tell you how much I enjoy doing that.)

The book is not long.  I read it in a couple of days.  For a short book, it has a powerful impact.

 Before continuing let met say that I was reading the blog by a literary agent who decried people who wrote "spoiler alerts" because they were going to give away key elements of a story.  I understand her point if one is writing a review of a contemporary author and the point of the review is to give potential readers (and buyers) the ability to make informed decisions.

However, this book has been around for a hundred and one years and even if you don't know the story already,  the first person narrator does not tell the story as the events occurred; he tells you the ending of his sad tale at the front.  

Also, I want to be free to analyze the story without avoiding important points.  There is no plot to speak of, just the musings of a dazed and confused man trying to make sense of the tragedy of his life and the others in his sad tale.

The protagonist,  John Dowell, is telling us the story.  Later in the book he explains that he sat down in his English country manor and wrote the story down over eighteen months.  He explains to the "silent reader" that he knew nothing of what was happening as it happened and only discovered the reality after two of the people involved were dead.

Dowell elopes with his wife, Florence via a ladder at the window from her aunts' house.  The aunts try to warn Dowell about marrying her but he replies that he doesn't care if she "robbed a bank", he was going to marry her.

So they do marry and sail for Europe.  Florence had sailed once before with her Uncle and a young man, Jimmy, some years previously.  We are made to understand that perhaps Florence's relationship with Jimmy was not respectable but back then Dowell was blind to subtle hints.

After they land in Europe, Florence informs John through several doctors that her heart is so delicate that she will not survive a return trip to America so must stay in Europe. 

They meet a British couple, Leonora and Edward Ashburnham.  The four become friends and see each other over the next nine years.  

For nine years, Dowell gives us to understand that his life was serene.  He does not reveal any passion he shared with his wife but apparently things sailed along smoothly.  None of his life looks serene to us because he is informing us of how things really were after he discovered it through a blunt, thoughtless comment from Leonora who assumed he knew as much as she did.

Dowell has given the previous nine years a lot of thought and is trying to piece together the reasons and motives each player had for acting as they did.  He is attempting to explain to the reader and to himself how and why everything came about.

He comes to understand that Florence had it in her mind to return to the country of her ancestors, England, and acquire an English manor.  Dowell was simply a vehicle of means. 

Ford relates this story from the perspective of an American, even though he is English, and he explains that Americans of old aristocratic ancestry valued their lineage and it was important to them to maintain a class distinction even though they lived in America.  Florence wanted more than that.  She wanted to be the English Lady.  This is all the more ironic as we learn how "classy" she really was.

She gets Dowell to bring her to Europe immediately after eloping.  As soon as they get to Europe she devises a reason to stay in Europe.  As it turns out her heart ailment is a fabrication and a manipulating tool to ensure a permanent home in Europe.

We later find out, through Dowell, that Jimmy soon enters the picture and right under his nose, Jimmy and Florence continue their previous affair.  Jimmy, we are made to understand, is a sleaze ball of the highest order.  As if someone who would sleep with another man's wife would be anything but.  This also allows us to appreciate the true quality of Florence's character.

Dowell, believes that Florence tired of Jimmy fairly soon and got rid of him by having an affair with Edward Ashburnham who no doubt gave ol' Jimmy his walking papers in no uncertain terms.  Florence also saw in Edward the means to achieving her object of becoming the Lady of an old English manor and all the status that would accompany it.  Of course, Leonora, his wife was an impediment but Florence figures she can manage that.  

She does this by flaunting her relationship with Edward  in front of Leonora, hoping to push the envelope ever farther until Leonora admits defeat, but Leonora is made of sterner stuff.  She lets Florence know what kind of whore she thinks her and that she is never going to divorce her husband.  This discourages Florence but slightly. 

But here Florence's fictitious heart ailment backfires on her.  Because if she is too ill to travel abroad, she cannot cross the English Channel.

Edward Ashburnham is a weak, tepid individual who tries to break out of his own iced over shell by engaging in passionate affairs.  This only gets him into trouble and bankrupt.  One of his affairs that almost financially broke him was with a Spanish woman called "La Dolciquita".  He falls passionately in love with her but discovers that, after the first night, her love was to be had at a price.  A very expensive price.

By the time Leonora discovers everything, he has wasted a fortune.  But Leonora is up to the task.  She puts herself in control of his finances and puts a tight rein on him.  She is unable to keep him faithful, but she puts herself in control of his love affairs as well.

Ashburnham's last affair is with a young charge, Nancy Rufford.  She is staying with them fresh out of convent school because her parents are unstable and abusive.  She is too naive to understand his overtures even when he passionately declares his love for her on a bench outside a casino.

Florence, who has followed them and overhears everything, understands perfectly.  She realizes she's never going to have that English Manor (she even tried to persuade Leonora of a kind of polygamous relationship).  She rushes back to the hotel where she finds her husband in the lobby with a  man who recognizes her from her days traveling with her uncle and Jimmy.  She realizes that her husband is going to find out everything so she goes up to her room and commits suicide.

Dowell, is still clueless, he finds her body and believes that her heart finally failed her in the end.  It is not until after the funeral of Ashburnham that he discovers the truth about everything when Leonora informs him.  

"That's how I got it.  Full in the face."

That is the point in time when he realizes that he has been the most clueless cuckold in the history of mankind.  So here he is at his desk writing everything out trying to make sense of it.

I read one commentary that suggests that Dowell is really the evil one, playing the passive voyeur refusing to interfere with his wife or Edward's suicides but I didn't gather that myself.

What I saw was a man who married a woman for passionless reasons and a woman who married him to meet her ambitions.  Her character was that of a degraded reprobate who didn't even have the courage to live after seeing her desires come to futility.

I saw Leonora who lived a life tormented by her husband's lack of passion for her and forced to witness his own attempts at passionate experiences through a series of adulterous affairs.  Trying to gain some control of her life she managed his finances and even his affairs.  

Leonora, although acutely aware of the plays transacting around her is in denial in her own way.  She has in her mind that her husband will finally return to her and love her with the passion he seeks from others.

After seeing him fall in love with Nancy she wakes up and in despair drives her husband to despair as well.  She offers to divorce him so he can have Nancy.

Edward, according to Dowell, had by this time begun to develop a sense of self-loathing.  He edges toward despair as he realizes that he can never find meaning or passion in the relationships he seeks and his wife's final offer seems to put a cap on it.

That seems to be what the entire story is about.  A group of people trying to achieve some kind of significance or meaning in their lives and failing.  Every one of them seems to be groping blindly about, snatching whatever their hands touch but dropping it as soon as they realize that what they are clutching fails to satisfy.

Ford's writing technique is effective.  He tells you the basic story, then he tells it too you again from another character's perspective.  He brings you forward and then backward as he re tells the story several times from each person's vantage point. 

 Or rather from Dowell's perspective of their vantage point.  Again, the question arises as to Dowell's reliability as a narrator.

As Dowell finishes his story but he has not achieved any kind of resolution.  

The ending is filled with ironies. 

 Dowell, who did not want the English Manor, buys the Ashburnham's after Edward's death.  He does so with Florence's money, which he has inherited.  So he acquires what Florence spent so many years conniving for.

Leonora marries a neighbor who loves her deeply so she receives the passion that her husband never gave her and what he never received from any of his affairs.  Dowell is somewhat denigrating about Leonora and her new husband but I think that is sour grapes on his part.  He admits that he is jealous and wished that perhaps he had acted a little more quickly.

A final irony is that he also gets Nancy, someone Edward wanted but never got.  But in an irony within an irony, Dowell cannot marry her because she has become insane so instead he serves as her caregiver in his nice, big English Manor.

When reading the story one realizes that John Dowell, changes his opinion about the incidents as he retells the story.  One wonders: is he changing his mind as he gives the matter more thought or does he not know what he thinks or is he, in fact, being manipulative?

Sometimes he describes Edward, Florence, Leonora and even Nancy as innocent, trying to act nobly without any intentions to cause harm.

Then he turns around and insists that all of them are evil, selfish or at the least, willfully stupid.

One thing he certainly achieves is showing how adultery destroys the mental health and emotional stability of everyone involved.

Ford wrote this story based on his own real life circumstances.  I think this is fairly clear because I don't believe anyone could write with such perspicuity on a topic like this from the outside. 

I'm not sure why Ford titled the book "The Good Soldier."  Edward is a soldier but that hardly comes into the story.  Perhaps because he tries to be (sort of) honorable in the end?  Or is John Dowell considering himself to be a kind of "good soldier" because he "stiff upper lips" his tragedy and carries on with endurance?

In The Good Soldier, Ford introduced writing techniques that influenced later writers, like Graham Greene.  He is credited with pioneering Literary Impressionism with his non-chronological story line, and also employing the "unreliable narrator".

If anyone has read this book I would be interested in their opinions as to how reliable they think Dowell is.


  1. Sharon, this is one of those books I've been promising to read for many years. I do not know why I've been procrastinating and avoiding it. When I am ready for a break from Flannery O'Connor, perhaps I will follow your lead and finally visit Ford's novel. And I have not forgotten about "Rappaccini's Daughter." I will wait until the mood is right for yet another reading (beyond last week's re-reading). My reader-response at this point is this: I read it as parable on the artist as creator (and the artist's responsibility to himself, his creations, and others). However, I could be wrong about that parable-reading. Now, though, I'm returning to O'Connor's Wise Blood, a harrowing tale of a Christian in spite of himself.

    1. Hi R.T. I hope you read The Good Soldier. It is so thought-provoking.

      I am not sure what to think about Rapuccini's Daughter. I wonder if Hawthorne was simply trying to write in a Romantic European style. He certainly accomplished that if he did. It is very different from the Americanaesque cultural flavor of his other writings.

      That is interesting what you say about Wise Blood. I didn't realize Hazel Motes was a Christian. Did you ever see the movie made in the seventies?

    2. He is at the very end, which is the author's point. Nope. I haven't seen the film but hope to someday.

    3. R.T. I hope to see it too. I saw the trailer. It looks like the movie makers (John Huston) make it a little humorous.

    4. O'Connor used humor and violence -- such a volatile blend for her prophetic tales.

    5. I think volatile is a good word to describe O'Connor's stories.

  2. I stopped after your alert...that there wasn't precisely a spoiler alert (or at least that's how I took it). I have this coming up sometime next year, and I have almost no preconception (my favorite way to begin). I got the impression you liked it I'll try and remember to check back here when I've finished it.

    1. Hi Joseph. I really did like it. It wasn't the storyline so much as Ford's writing style. The voice of the narrator was very strong and his ideas were clearly defined and developed in such an interesting way.

      I have always found human psychology fascinating and Ford makes good character studies.

  3. Hi Sharon.

    The changing perspectives of this story are one of several things that make it sound very good. I also like irony. I would like to give this a read.

    I often find that I must reveal spoilers in my posts in order to make my points. I do so without hesitation but I put up spoiler alerts.

    1. Hi Brian.

      I agree with you about spoiler alerts. One can't really give a good analysis without revealing something of the plot.

      I personally am not interested in reviews that simply give opinions such as "I really liked it" or "I hated it" without explaining what exactly the got out of the story.

  4. I haven't read anything by this author. I'm always intrigued about how one author influences another. I've only read one of Graham Greene's novellas (The Third Man) but that book sounds like it would be very different to this one you reviewed.

    1. Hi Carol! I never read the Third Man but I did see the movie by Orson Welles. I liked it a lot if for no other reason that it showed a lot of footage of Europe right after WWII. I think those films need to be preserved to show the destruction of that sad time.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.