Chris's Reviews > The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
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's review
Jul 11, 2008

really liked it
Recommended for: just about anyone
Read in July, 2008

Today’s special from the bill of fare: Crow. Market Price. Served with a complimentary slice of stale pumpernickel and a glass of river water.

I really did not think I was going to enjoy this book one bit; I also erroneously believed it was included in the collection of crap known as Time’s ‘100 Best 20th Century Novels’, and the fact it isn’t is probably why it was actually enjoyable. This is, however, included on several other ‘hits lists’, such as the ridiculous 1001 Books to Read Before You Die (which is basically 901 lame entries longer than Time’s list) and Another Preposterous List of Over-Hyped Books by Some Barmy Old Codgers Adorned With Glowing Accolades For Their Thorough Understanding of Meritorious Literature. After reading “The Good Soldier”, I have no problem offering my own totally unfounded pronouncement that this book should be considered for inclusion on any such list.

This is the second story in a row for me (following Martin Amis’s “Success”) in which the central gimmick of the tale is unreliable narration and point of view; and while the p.o.v. and narration are always a key factor to a story, in both of these cases the importance and bearing is decidedly pronounced, every event must be considered and weighed in light of the narration before attempting to discern its ultimate reality. I tend to look at these stories in the light that the author knows that the fibers of the yarn they’re spinning aren’t unique nor profound, but the way in which it is spun is compelling; thus to me it’s more of an exercise in writing than captivating storytelling.

Narrating “The Good Soldier” is Captain Oblivious, better known as John Dowell to his extremely small group of friends, who readily admits that he isn’t a very perceptive fellow, nor is he very good at getting across a story in a straightforward fashion, so he begs that the reader understand that his intention is to lay this saddest of stories out in a fashion as though he was sitting by the fire with a close and attentive confidant (and a bottle of brandy), simply discussing any pertinent events as they come to mind regardless of their rightful chronological juxtaposition. I actually found the technique effective at making John Dowell an extremely likeable character, but at the same time it does completely strip away much of the oomph which should be imparted by any event that might be seen as pivotal or climactic: by page ten you already know the unfortunate outcome of the story, all that is left is to get the details, a difficult feat when your narrator has powers of perception trumped by those of an aardvark in a sensory deprivation tank. There is no way you can really create a ‘spoiler’ for this work, at least not for anyone who has so much as begun reading it.

Capt. Oblivious has to get this story off his chest, and so he’s telling it to you, dear reader. It concerns his deceitful trollop wife, Florence, and the couple which they are best friends with, the well-shod Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. The foursome meet for the first time in Nauheim, Germany, at a spa reputed for their effectiveness in combating cardiac problems, which is required for the well being of Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham, and proceed to accompany each other for the next decade to Nauheim, outwardly portraying the ideal friendship of two affluent, successful, and loving couples. Little does anyone know that beneath this veneer, things are worse than can even be imagined, and interestingly enough, Captain Oblivious seems to be on the outside looking in as well, clueless as to what transpires after his nightly blackout from overindulgence of gin. But, it’s been some time since the blinders were removed from our narrator, who has taken his time to collect his thoughts and connect the dots, and he can now make some sort of sense of the proceedings.

Both couples are of good social standing in polite society, or ‘Good People’, as John Dowell assures us often. Both men proudly hail from old, established wealth, and Edward ended up with Leonora due to an arranged marriage of sorts, and John pursued Florence for what seems like no better reason than to acquire a trophy wife while shirking anything resembling employment or social responsibility (had World of Warcraft existed at the time, he’d probably never have bothered, and would have set a Guiness World Record for most hours logged of online play). The couples share one very interesting aspect in their unions; it appears that neither has ever consummated their marriage. The reasons for this strange lack of passion are similar; Edward Ashburnham is an english Adonis whom women clamor for the attentions of, and he makes sure to perform the gentlemanly duty of never denying a lady, and Florence Dowell was (unbeknownst to Captain Oblivious) quite the tramp before John ever made her acquaintance. John, who has absolutely no clue as to what is going on, is under the belief that Flo has a heart condition, and that the act of lovemaking might potentially sound her death knell, thus the trips to Nauheim and other strange facets of her behavior, which all reek of subterfuge to the normal human. Leonora is completely aware of Edward’s infidelities, which have all taken the form of long-term ordeals with increasing passion for his partners, but in order to maintain the façade of Good People, she dutifully covers these transgressions up, while also taking over her husband’s business affairs to prevent them from financial ruin due to his nature as a wastrel.

As absurd as it may seem, the easiest time that Leonora has ever had keeping the rest of society’s upper crust from discovering her husband’s true nature is in suppressing the trysts which Edward and Florence have been continuing for years. Naturally, if this knowledge never saw the light of day, there wouldn’t be a story.

There isn’t a whole lot that keeps me from giving “The Good Soldier” a full five stars. I’ll say this is a four-and-a-half, but will round it down, for the following reasons:

First, the end of the novel seems to taper off. I understand that there is a lapse in the amount of time that has passed in the narration itself when John Dowell resumes to tell Part IV, and I interpreted this to be representative of his preoccupation with changes in his lifestyle (most notably Ms. Rufford’s presence), a marked descent into melancholia, and generally a lack of enthusiasm to find the right fit for the remaining puzzle pieces. This is all good and well, but the first three parts are so ecstatically told, that I couldn’t really enjoy his festering ennui.

Secondly, his continuous praise of Edward Ashburnham. The way Ford approaches the narration manages to make even despicable frauds like Edward and Florence likable, no easy feat, and Dowell’s conviction even made me like the guy. But his praise was incessant, and left me wondering which of the Dowells Edward was actually buggering.

Lastly, one thing which I still haven't quite wrapped my head around; so I don’t know whether to call this a positive or a negative. It is mentioned repeatedly that prior to his ugly demise, Edward went on a long-winded speech/apology/rant to John. As I was personally craving to hear it, it was a tremendous let down that it is completely left out of the story!! Or is it? (cue Twilight Zone music). Sure, Dowell admits to having skipped many significant details from lack of proper recollection, but he does make reference to Edward’s Grand Pronouncement about 30 times, and each reference connects it to some event or sentiment. Could this great confession be surreptitiously dispersed throughout the novel, and one could go back and reconstruct the gist of it themselves? If so, it’s possible that this might be the cleverest trick in storytelling I’ve personally been subjected to. Or I suppose I could just be really baked.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Jackmccullough I liked this review, except that it should all add up to a "1" instead of a "5". You're right: John Dowell is a dolt, they're all allowed by their circumstances to be idle wastes of space (not clear why Teddy gets to spend so much time away from the army, since he is supposedly an officer), and nobody has what passes for a comprehensible or human emotional reaction to anything.

Frederick Your review is well-written, humorous and insightful. Of course, Ford is that rarest of British writers: one who never makes a joke. While his narrator gradually reveals things which seem to contradict other things he says, I'm not certain Ford is trying to make us think he's being untruthful. (Full disclosure. My very brief Goodreads review, posted a year or two ago, states my idea that the narrator here is not much more unreliable than most first-person narrators.) I think what Ford is doing is showing us what a hollow existence a typical upper-bourgeois Englishman of the day led. Ford's essays are as full of back-pedaling and second-guessing as this narrative is, so I don't feel that he is trying to show his narrator to be confused about reality. What he DOES want to show is the savagery behind the urge to keep up appearances. The people in this book are not only two-faced, they are unforgiving and murderous. To the outside world they are models of civility.

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