History: This book was written in 1915. The novel is told using a series of flashbacks in non-chronological order, a literary technique that formed part of Ford's pioneering view of literary impressionism. Ford employs the device of the unreliable narrator, to great effect as the main character gradually reveals a version of events that is quite different from what the introduction leads you to believe. The novel was loosely based on two incidents of adultery and on Ford's messy personal life.
The novel’s original title was The Saddest Story, but after the onset of World War I, the publishers asked Ford for a new title. Ford suggested (sarcastically) The Good Soldier, and the name stuck.
Plot: The Good Soldier is narrated by the character John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the stories of those dissolutions as well as the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion that leaves gaps for the reader to fill.
The novel opens with the famous line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Dowell explains that for nine years he, his wife Florence and their friends Captain Edward Ashburnham (the “good soldier” of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Nauheim,Germany.
As it turns out, nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems. Florence’s heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to force them to stay in Europe so that she could continue her affair with an American thug named Jimmy. Edward and Leonora have a loveless, imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora’s attempts to control Edward’s affairs (both financial and romantic). Dowell is a fool and is coming to realize how much of a fool he is, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead.
Florence’s affair with Edward leads her to commit suicide when she realizes that Edward is falling in love with his and Leonora’s young ward, Nancy Rufford, the daughter of Leonora's closest friend. Florence sees the two in an intimate conversation and rushes back into the resort, where she sees John talking to a man she knows (and who knows of her affair with Jimmy) but whom John doesn’t know. Assuming that her relationship with Edward and her marriage to John are over, Florence takes prussic acid – which she has carried for years in a vial that John thought held her heart medicine – and dies.
With that story told, Dowell moves on to tell the story of Edward and Leonora’s relationship, which appears normal but which is a power struggle that Leonora wins. Dowell runs through several of Edward’s affairs and peccadilloes, including his possibly innocent attempt to comfort a crying servant on a train; his affair with the married Maisie Maidan, the one character in the book whose heart problem was unquestionably real, and his bizarre tryst in Monte Carlo and Antibes with a kept woman known as La Dolciquita. Edward’s philandering ends up costing them a fortune in bribes, blackmail and gifts for his lovers, leading Leonora to take control of Edward’s financial affairs. She gradually gets him out of debt.
Edward’s last affair is his most scandalous, as he becomes infatuated with their young ward, Nancy. Nancy came to live with them after leaving a convent where her parents had sent her; her mother was a violent alcoholic, and her father (it is later suggested that this man may not be Nancy’s biological father) may have abused her. Edward, tearing himself apart because he does not want to spoil Nancy's innocence, arranges to have her sent to India to live with her father, even though this frightens her terribly. Once Leonora knows that Edward intends to keep his passion for Nancy chaste, but only wants Nancy to continue to love him from afar, Leonora torments him by making this wish impossible—she pretends to offer to divorce him so he can marry Nancy, but informs Nancy of his sordid sexual history, destroying Nancy’s innocent love for him. After Nancy's departure, Edward commits suicide, and when she reaches Aden and sees the obituary in the paper, she becomes catatonic.
The novel’s last section has Dowell writing from Edward’s old estate in England, where he takes care of Nancy, whom he cannot marry because of her mental illness. Nancy is only capable of repeating two things – a Latin phrase meaning “I believe in an omnipotent God” and the word “shuttlecocks.” Dowell states that the story is sad because no one got what he wanted: Leonora wanted Edward but lost him and marries the normal (but dull) Rodney Bayham; Edward wanted Nancy but lost her; Dowell wanted a wife but has twice ended up a nurse to a sick woman, one a fake.
As if in an afterthought, Dowell closes the novel by telling the story of Edward’s suicide. Edward receives a telegram from Nancy that reads, “Safe Brindisi. Having a rattling good time. Nancy.” He asks Dowell to take the telegram to his wife, pulls out his pen knife, says that it’s time he had some rest and slits his own throat.
Dowell ends up expressing sympathy for Edward, even though he casts both Edward and Florence as the villains.
Review: The Good Soldier is an odd and maybe even unique book. That it is a masterpiece, almost a perfect novel, comes as a repeated surprise even to readers who have read it before. In a dedicatory letter to the second edition written some 10 years after the publication of the novel, Ford depicts himself "taking down one of [his] ten-year-old books [and exclaiming] 'Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?' ... And I will permit myself to say that I was astounded at the work I must have put into the construction of the book, at the intricate tangle of references and cross-references." Ford wrote other very good novels - his tetralogy Parade's End is moving and innovative - but he called The Good Soldier his "auk's egg" ("having reached the allotted, I had laid my one egg and might as well die"); it does have the quality of saying absolutely everything about both his story and his theme - not just everything he has to say, but everything there is to say.
This novel broke new ground when it was written, something in these jaded days that is almost impossible to do. Ford created an unreliable narrator and also wrote about the complex inner workings of relationships, an area of darkness that will always be immune from full enlightenment. His characters also deceive themselves as well as significant others, and yet are always in pursuit of the perfect appearance. The subtlety with which Ford has woven this tapestry makes you think twice and then three times about who his people are and what they want. Unbridled lust also rides through the book, but is forever reigned in by double standards and self-torturing conscience. Although the book requires a patient reader so that it can bloom, its payoff stays with you, and its sharp observations and lack of sentiment make you realize what a brilliant piece of art it is.
The story seems simple. Two wealthy couples, one American and one English, meet at a spa in Germany and spend several years in comfortable friendship until it is revealed that the American wife and the English husband are carrying on an affair that the English wife knows about but the American husband does not. After the deaths of the adulterers, more and more is uncovered about both the conduct and the emotional meaning of the affair. The story is narrated by the American husband and is in some sense a detective story, but he is no investigator. The facts come to him unwillingly, since he would have preferred from the beginning not to know; the suspense depends not on what has happened, as dramatic as it turns out to be, but on the narrator's unfolding interpretation of the passionate emotions manifested in very small gestures or brief remarks.
Ford's greatest gamble is in the naïveté of the narrator (Dowell), supposedly an idle but well-meaning wealthy man from an old Philadelphia family who readily accepts a sexless marriage with a woman (Florence) whose emotional life is a secret and a deception. Florence persuades Dowell at the commencement of their honeymoon that marital relations might so tax her weak heart that they are out of the question - she turns him into a servant who takes care of her every need while leaving her lots of free time to carry on with at least two lovers of her choosing. Dowell's idiom and mode of thinking are not perfectly American, and Ford's insights into American ways are slightly off, but America is not his subject, England is, and Dowell is convincing enough. His real virtue is that he is disarming, and he does not pretend to reliability. He freely offers his own self-doubts about his competence, both as an actor in the drama and as an interpreter, and he manages not to seem either untruthful or self-serving. He paints four portraits - Edward Ashburnham, the owner of a large estate in England; his wife, Leonora, daughter of impoverished Irish gentry; Florence, heiress to a New England fortune; and Nancy Rufford, Leonora's ward, who has lived with Edward and Leonora from the age of 13.
Edward and Leonora have every appearance of grace, character and respectability. Edward, too, is suffering from a bad heart, but he has been in the army in India, and has also been an excellent landlord and magistrate back in England. His failures are failures of self-knowledge and intelligence more than morality - he is upright, generous and responsible. But, fatally, he is "a sentimentalist", which makes him susceptible to the appearance of suffering or weakness, and also makes him immune to his wife (theirs is an arranged marriage), whose virtues are those of strength and reserve. She is repeatedly termed "cold" by Dowell, but her coldness seems more in the nature of untapped warmth (for example, she wants children, which she and Edward can't seem to produce). The first startling fact about them that the reader learns is that they haven't spoken in private for 13 years, though they are gracious to one another in public (surely this is possible only in an especially grand setting, with perfectly trained servants). Everything about Edward is plausible for, even typical of, a man of his position, but Ford takes a different approach from every previous English author to have contemplated the landed gentry, because he takes Edward's inner life, as empty as it is, seriously, anatomising and sympathising with its very emptiness.
It is clear as the novel proceeds that not only do Edward and Leonora have no idea what intimacy is, they also have no way of finding out: for one thing, they don't read novels, and for another, Leonora consults priests and nuns for marital advice, and what they have to offer are third-hand clichés such as "men are like that". Edward consults no one, and there seems to be no structure in his life that would permit such consultation. Other men of his social class tell dirty stories, perhaps as a form of sharing information, but these make Edward uncomfortable. Thus, when Edward begins to feel out of sympathy with Leonora some three or four years into their marriage, he is ripe for exploitation, and he ends up making a costly liaison and losing about 40 percent of the principal value of his estate. Over the next 10 years Leonora takes over management of the estate and brings it back to its original value, but the balance of their relationship is fatally undermined by her control and his untrustworthiness.
Both the American marriage and the English marriage suffer from the emasculation of the husbands, and Dowell criticises Leonora and Florence, but Ford depicts the husbands more complexly. They have fully colluded in their emasculation by not knowing how to be men - the reason for Dowell's failure (symbolised by the fact that unlike other Americans, he has no interest in earning money) is unclear, but the reason for Edward's failure is that he has received no instruction in anything but duties and forms. He is also slightly stupid. Dowell is content in his emasculation, but Edward has unfulfilled yearnings for companionship and support that he finds in a series of women, with Leonora's tacit acceptance. Leonora holds out the hope that once their financial imbalance is righted, he will get interested in her again, and things seem to be moving in that direction when Florence entangles Edward in her much colder and less sentimental designs - Dowell says that she "annexes him".
Dowell maintains that Florence is a woman of the most shallow possible motivations - she wants to look good, dress well, display herself to intellectual advantage, and be catered to. She is purely and discreetly a social climber. Until Florence comes along, Leonora has accepted Edward's liaisons as well-meaning and necessary, worthy of her respect and even her care, but when he links himself with Florence, whom Leonora despises, she loses all respect for and sympathy with him, though she still loves and desires him.
I do want to comment on Ford's style, which makes great use of paradox. At one point, for example, while giving the history of Edward's military career, he says, "It would have done him a great deal of good to get killed." There is something quite reckless about that sentence, and yet it is perfectly understandable in context - it comes late in the novel, when we know that not only is Edward's end to be tragic, but also that the downward path to it is painful and pathetic. How much better for the dumb animal to have died heroically, in accordance with the system by which he lived. There are those who believe that The Good Soldier is one of the few stylistically perfect novels in any language, and perhaps what Ford was alluding to in his remarks about references and cross-references is this sense that the contradictory and complementary meanings in every paradoxical sentence are entirely understandable because he has made sure a clear explication of his fictional situation - the psychologies of his characters, the interweaving of character and event, intention and chance.
Ford originally titled his novel The Saddest Story. After the outbreak of the first world war and his departure for the front, his editor changed the title to The Good Soldier, which Ford did not care for. But the editor was right - Ford's title is empty and meaningless. The Good Soldier subtly cues the reader to the larger social dimension of Ford's subject. Leonora and Edward, and to a lesser degree Dowell and Florence, are struggling with ignorance as much as moral failure. They are representatives of a system that fails them and fails in their failure. It is the subtler side of Dickens's Circumlocution Office, of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. In Dickens's and Thackeray's day, the landed gentry could still be attacked. By Ford's time, all the social and cultural arrangements of feudal Europe were imploding in the first world war. Ford was astute enough to depict both the inevitability of the implosion and its sadness - the world of Jane Austen a hundred years on, depopulated, lonely and dark.
Opening Line: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
Closing Line: “She was quite pleased with it.”
Quotes: "But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist."