The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
As The Good Soldier begins, seeped in doom and gloom, the narrator Mr. Dowell tells the reader, “I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.”
Thus, not in a sequence of time, but through a series of flashbacks, Mr. Dowell tells his story. It is a tale of 2 married couples… Captain Edward Ashburnham (the good soldier)and his wife Leonora, and Mr. Dowell (the narrator) and his wife Florence. Mr. Dowell hints at indiscretions, lies, hypocrisy, adultery, accidental deaths, suicide, and murder but assures the reader that the characters are all good people. And then he proceeds to tell the reader “this is the saddest story I have ever heard” as though he did not participate in the events and bears no responsibility… as though he were just an innocent bystander… as though it was all just a strange twist of fate and a few minor flaws of human nature – an unexplainable phenomena. So right from the start you question how reliable Mr. Dowell is in the telling of this tale, and how sympathetic you will be as a listener. However, that just adds to the mystique of this tragic tale.
The Good Soldier is number 30 on the Modern Library list of 100 best novels of all time. Mr. Ford’s forte is character development. As unlikable as the characters are, they come to life and as the story evolves, their actions become almost predictable. You grow to know them so well because everything they do and say is in character.
The two couples met nine years prior to the telling and immediately struck up a perfect friendship. They shared common interests, took vacations together to health spas, threw many parties, enjoyed the same foods and alcohol. And they possess many of the same traits: wealth, class consciousness, and a sense of entitlement… all the while struggling to keep up appearances of happy marriages and the morals of good people. In reality, they are not the kind of people one would be proud to call friends. In fact, both wives are despicable, and Mr. Ashburnham is a womanizer… yet Mr. Dowell still refers to them as “good people”. I guess goodness is relative – and very subjective.
At one point Mr. Dowell says, “is there any terrestrial paradise where…. people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people- like the lives of the Ashburnhams and the Dowells – broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?”
The plot itself is nothing to brag about, but is told with great aplomb. With a touch of genius Ford keeps the anticipation and intrigue alive until the very last page adding tidbits of information a little at a time – building to a crescendo. I felt like I was truly sitting across from Mr. Dowel in a cozy room feeling the warmth from the nearby fireplace on a winter’s eve. And to be honest, if that had been so – as soon as he finished his “poor me” tale – I would have thought to myself, “What a story!”, offered my sympathy, and made a hasty departure.
Rated 4 Stars November 2013
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