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?