A book by Ford Madox Ford, published in 1915, which was chosen as one of the Modern Library’s 100 best books of fiction. The story consists of the relationship between two couples, one American and one English, after they meet at German health spa. John and Florence Dowell become friends with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, and a truckload of lies, adulterous love triangles and deception enters into their lives. John Dowell is the narrator of the story, offering the tales of what happened between himself and the others in a distanced, somewhat cold manner. The bleakness of the story is compounded when the reader realizes how little John or his wife learned from the scandals, and how ignorant John is of the reality of some of the things that went on. Here, you will find heart disease and emotional sadism. Fun for the whole family.

The book was originally supposed to be called “The Saddest Story,” for obvious reasons. The tale is one comparible to many, how easy it is for people to involve themselves in lies and cheating, and/or how seldom we tend to recognize the falsity and truth in others. I read this a few years ago, and while I enjoyed the book it did not aid to my growing pessimism.

Other books by Ford Madox Ford include:

Parade’s End"
The Rash Act
Return to Yesterday

Or, You May Want to Take My Word For It

Ford Madox Ford's 1915 masterpiece is--for those who rate these sorts of things--largely considered to be one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. Standing aside other such works as Heart of Darkness, Ulysses, and The Waste Land, The Good Soldier is a compelling example of an experimental modernist narrative.

Not sure what "modernism" means? Don't worry, neither is anyone else. But one of its primary characteristics is a sense of isolation or alienation, which you get in spades as you listen to John Dowell's long and winding story. It's helpful to have an understanding of the movement when reading, but by no means necessary. As long as his telling leaves you feeling vaguely depressed and hollow, you're on the right track.

There is a lot more to look for, and I shall start with it now.

It Starts With the Title

As O-Swirl correctly writes, "The Saddest Story" was the intended label for this collection of scribble, a title that got nixed by Ford's publisher, John Lane. By the time the book was published--Ford sat down to write it two years earlier--World War I was in full swing, and it was thought the original title would turn buyers off.

When telegraphed to that effect, Ford sarcastically replied, "Why not the Good Soldier?" A very purchasable title. And to his surprise, Lane took him seriously. The book came out with that title six months later.

Ford declined to change it back for fear of causing more confusion.

HOWEVER. As humans will, they've found meaning in a simple accident. The title as it is makes a potentially interesting comment on the character of Edward Ashburnham, a decorated British soldier of complex and questionable morality whose story, in many ways, this is.

And Then It Goes On

O-Swirl also provides a brief plot summary, which I will attempt to expound without giving too much away. Love triangles there are, but in some cases that's a side or two short. There's at least two love squares or rhombuses, or some four sided figure, as well as a pentagon, if "love" doesn't necessarily have to mean "sex."

Here's a Cast of Characters.

  • John Dowell: American, and your humble narrator. Wealthy, not particularly ambitious, deceptively simple-minded, or shockingly self-delusional. Married to:
  • Florence Dowell: American New Englander, from Philadelphia--I would remind non-US types that Philly once was famous for more than cheese steaks and the Liberty Bell. It used to be a bastion of America's upper crust. Florence is no darling; she's horrible to her husband, and that heart condition she has? Well...
  • Edward Ashburnham: See above, for starters. English, rich, with a penchant for falling in love, gambling, and dangerously unchecked generosity. Good man or not? It isn't that simple, not by a long shot.
  • Leonora Ashburnham: Wife of Edward, described by John (of all people!) as cold, unemotional, and, intriguingly, normal. She forgives her husband many of his indiscretions, but not all. No, not all. Not by a long shot.

Then there are the supporting characters, not as well constructed, by and large, but of terrible importance.

  • Maisie Maidan: That's MRS. Maidan to her husband, but not to anyone else. Innocent, young, charming, also with a weak heart. Compare her heart to Florence's.
  • Nancy: The young female charge, sort of adopted, daughterish-niece of the Ashburnhams. A Catholic, an unremitting Catholic, naive, pure, and uknowingly tiptoeing along the edge of lunacy.

There are a few others as well, husbands, mistresses, hotel managers and the like, but these are the folks to know.

Here's what else you have to know. The following are, were, or want to be amorously involved with each other:

  • John: Florence, Leonora, Maisie, Nancy
  • Florence: Edward, and quite a few others in the past
  • Edward: Leonora, Florence, Maisie, Nancy, and quite a few others in the past
  • Leonora: Edward, John

The similarities bewteen John and Edward's list are a revealing look at their relationship--with the exception of his wife, John's are all wants. Edward's are all hads.

Note that down.

This crew all hang about together at Nauheim, a German spa town, and back in old Blighty, going to each other's homes, shaking each other's hands, and generally doing their best at the old English tradition of keeping up appearances. Sometimes, of course, things fall down, and can get rather nasty--how nasty or to whom I'm not going to tell you.

The "plot," as it were, is the least of your worries. The idle rich don't do much, the action is a matter of their relationships, the consquences of the flaws in their characters.

Confusion? It's Built In

Keeping the relationships straight is the easy part. Hearing the story told as a recollected narrative bordering on stream of consciousness is where things get a bit sticky. The structure of the novel is what makes it groundbreaking--adultery had been around in books for years, and even Heart of Darkness's narrative, which, like its author, heavily influenced Ford's work, is more straightforward as it unfolds.

Dowell weaves in and out of his own story, quite self-consciously aware that the linear progression is strained at best. It's not quite nonlinear--but it does dip back in time, move forward, and return to the present (which you hear about at the end) with enough frequency to upset anyone wandering in and out of the reading room.

It's a difficult book to come back to after too much time has passed--to avoid getting completely lost, try and take it down in two or three sittings. It's less than two hundred pages.

You'll Get Lost Anyway

Which is rather the point. And this is where the modernism comes in, whatever it happens to be. You cannot completely rely on Dowell for the truth--his viewpoint is not in the least objective, giving us another of the increasingly popular unreliable narrators. So there is no way to know anything about anyone, in as much as it comes directly from him, without an alternate viewpoint.

Moreover, as his rather simple constructions--what is honor, virtue, etc.--are torn down, both he and the reader are left with less and less to turn to for a touchstone. Everything is in question: morals, mores, good/bad, integrity, the nature of life, love, and madness.

His tacit acceptance of it, some might say, is a sort of social shell shock. He's quiet in the chaos.

The calmness with which he relates the story produces the distinct sensation of roaming undirected through the age.

So I meant "lost" in the snooty, pretentious way.

Things to Look For

Plenty of sweeping ideas and important details. No order of preference.

  • The Characterization of the Prewar British Male

Lots of "I say" and "dear chap" running through the man's dialogue, and an overall essence of upperclass irresponsibility. The stereotype was have of the sort of London Sloane Ranger can trace some of its origins to men like Edward Ashburnham, though he is generally far less annoying.

  • Horse Racing and Hunting Terminology
  • Darrow's dialogue and narration are rife with it-as is the letter Ford writes dedicating the book to his wife, Stella. For example: "If Florence had put him at it," a phrase used when putting a horse at a fence, forcing an issue. Also, "up to the scratch," the starting point of a race.

    Circumstantial idiomatic expressions, or is there a deeper meaning? And who cares?

  • The Religious Angle

    Catholicism v. Protestantism, he brings it up again and again, you can't miss it. In Ford's philosophy, the Reformation did a number on far more than the Church--it set the stage for humanism over feudalism and the degradation of the modern world. Keep in mind who your Catholics are in this novel, and why.

  • References to Other Books

    Conrad's works of course, but also Thomas Hardy's and whole hosts of Greek chaps. They may evoke something for you, they may not.

  • This Writeup Is Coming Perilously Close to Being Longer than the Book

    True. So I'll wrap it up. Argument persists over this novel, about its value, its merit, even whether or not it's a comedy, tragedy, or both. It the first, it's dark as pitch; if the next, it has its funny moments. I vote for the last.

    My initial reaction--I'll need to read it a few more times--to this novel has been like that to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was incredibly frustrated going through it, but as soon as I finished and could step away--get back my bearings, as it were--I thought it quite challenging and compelling. It gives a great deal to think about, and asks the reader a lot of him/herself.

    And this is my favorite line, spoken by John of Edward:

    It would have done him a great deal of good to get killed.

    That's funny, isn't it?

    The August 4 Hullabaloo

    When I first started researching this book for a paper I was writing, I read through eight articles before I found out what all the controversy was about. I understood that August 4 is deeply important in the book and is symbolically significant of something. A majority of turning points and escalations within the narrative occur on various August 4ths, and the date takes on superstitious importance to characters in the novel. However, the source of the literary criticism angst is that August 4, 1914 was the date on which England entered World War I.

    The debate over whether Ford meant to reference this major historical event is apparently still simmering. Ford claimed to have finished the manuscript in June, 1914. Arthur Mizener, one of his biographers, sets the date at July. The book was published in March, 1915. Theoretically, if Ford had wanted to make a connection to the war, he could have changed his ms. However, there is no evidence that he ever did so. In fact, a sentence in which John Dowell complains about the Belgian government's regulation of the trains (in the first chapter of The Good Soldier) was changed after the ms was submitted, due to a surge in sympathy for Belgium (see Mizener). Ford always claimed that his choice of date was a coincidence.

    I then found a different reading in an article by James B. Scott: ''Coincidence or Irony? Ford’s use of August 4th in The Good Soldier.'' In this article, Scott refers to an article by T.A. Hanzo, 1966 in the Sewanee Review. Hanzo links the date to the reading for August 4th in the Catholic missal; Timothy II, Chapter 4.

    I found the connection compelling upon reading the epistle, especially chapters two and four. Ford was nominally a Catholic, certainly well read, and would have been familiar with 2 Timothy 4. His secondary choice of title reflects this text, and his prompt supply of it suggests that the phrase ''the good soldier'' was linked to the novel in his mind. Although it should not be given much weight, it is also true that the recurrent quality of August 4th as a date of significance in the novel works well with the perennial nature of the epistle reading.

    Chapter 4 – I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
    For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. … - From St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy:

    Chapters two and three are interesting as well, especially as the former is the origin of the phrase ''the good soldier.''

    My paper discusses that the narrator as Dowell is presented, not as a character within the body of his tale but who he is revealed to be by his telling of it, becomes the central character of the work. The novel is then a present commentary on the past, and his diversions and asides are all evidence of his presence and are preserved for the reader in the act of being performed. The performance of the narrative, and thus the narrator, is dynamic and in direct contrast with his role within the story.

    Dowell’s writing can be seen as an effort to create a new world view which makes sense of his recent past. The words ''As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry'' strike a chord with Dowell’s role as the originator of the text. He has been steady, he has suffered, and he consciously conveys his story and its interpretation beyond himself, not just for self-exploration but to influence his readers.

    You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads. -The Good Soldier

    The tone of this also echoes the epistle as it places a private, internal conflict within the context of epic public upheaval. This, of course, resonates with England's entry into the war. A war reference is certainly appropriate and does not contradict the workings of the narrative. However, considered as the sole intended reference, I find that it is insubstantial and unsatisfying in comparison to an allusion to 2 Timothy 4.

    My research took me elsewhere and I remain convinced that the confluence of dates was a coincidence. However, I would be very interested to see evidence to the contrary.

    For the text of The Good Soldier on the web, try www.eldritchpress.org/fmf/gs.htm

    Scott, James B. ''Coincidence or irony? Ford’s use of August 4th in The Good Soldier.'' English Language Notes 30, no.4 1993 June: 53-58.
    Mizener, Arthur The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford.World Pub. Co., 1971.
    May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Edition, Oxford University Press, NY, 1973, 1977; 1446-9.

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