"The Good Soldier" -- A Bad Novel

Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) is considered a classic of sorts from the early modernist era. W.H. Auden thought Ford was a great novelist (he had particularly strong praise for Parade's End, which deals with World War I), and so did Graham Greene. From what I can tell, The Good Soldier, which is not a war novel, but a novel about adultery in the British aristocracy, is still widely taught in college classes on British modernism (see here, here, and here); it's also widely cited in the scholarly literature. But it shouldn't be -- this thing is a mess. (Or more politely, "perhaps it's time for a reassessment"?)

One of the oft-repeated chestnuts about The Good Soldier stems from Ford's early relationship as an editor and collaborator of Joseph Conrad. Ford, it is said, aims to use a version of Joseph Conrad's nested narrators with their various, idiosyncratic approaches to the "truth." But if Ford is aiming for a Conradian effect, it's poorly done, to the point of unrecognizability. The Good Soldier has only one narrator, and the multiple points of view that emerge in the text are never fully explained (in Conrad, by contrast, the different narrators are usually in dialogue with one, primary narrator). The narrator in Ford's novel at once knows implausibly much about what his friends and family were thinking at various moments, and far too little -- it seems unthinkable that he could be such a poor judge of character (more on that below). Moreover, instead of creating a sense of suspense for the reader, the unraveling of the story merely creates confusion, as the story slides back and forth chronologically without leading to new insights on why the characters do what they do in the end.

I won't do a detailed plot summary (see Sparknotes for a refresher), but suffice it to say the novel is about two couples, the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, and the narrator is one of the husbands, John Dowell. Florence Dowell has an affair with Edward Ashburnham that goes on for several years, which John Dowell fails to notice for most of that time. (He also fails to notice that his and his wife's flatmate in Paris is his wife's former lover. For two years.) Leonora Ashburnham, on the other hand, notices it right away -- in fact, Edward is a serial philanderer, who is constantly getting himself into trouble over his various entanglements with women of both high and low classes. Leonora hopes (more implausibility) that her husband will reform and come back to her, and Ford keeps insisting that she loves him despite everything. Florence commits suicide, not when she's discovered by her husband, but once she realizes that Edward has fallen in love with some new floozy. And Edward himself also eventually commits suicide, for reasons that never really make sense.

There are numerous things in the plot and characterization of The Good Soldier that defy logic, and there are some major flaws I haven't even mentioned, but what really bothers me about this book is the way it stacks the decks to make its own narrator unreflectively passive -- to the point where he might as well vanish altogether. What Ford really wants to do is celebrate Edward Ashburnham, whose treatment of women by both Edwardian and our own standards ought to make him a clear villain. It might be understandable if Ford had some kind of point to make about sexual addiction, or some kind of Freudian explanation for Ashburnham's behavior. But in fact, he doesn't -- there's strikingly little psychological reflection in this novel, especially if you consider that both Conrad and Woolf were contemporaries, and many of the writers and artists in Ford's circle were by 1915 smelling Freud. In effect, while the The Good Soldier is often read as an exposé of Victorian Aristocratic mores (with their inherent misogyny), it actually celebrates them by making Ashburnham's suicide the "true" tragedy in the story.

What The Good Soldier does have is moments of "brilliant" writing, paragraphs that clearly suggest Ford was, at least temporarily, in control of things after all. Take the following, which comes near the end of the story:

"I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way, so that it may be difficult for any one to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gust of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten, and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places, and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story, and that, after all, real stories are best told in the way that a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real."

(Incidentally, Google reveals that Theodore Dreiser quoted the same paragraph near the end of his hostile review of the novel, back in the day.)

When I read the above paragraph, I thought, "yes, rambling -- that's exactly what this damn novel is." At the start the above paragraph seems like a kind of apology; if it seems like I'm doing a bad job, well that's just part of the reality of talking about one's romantic history (or in this case, one's wife's lover's romantic history, since John Dowell has the libido of a bump on a log). While there may be some truth in the idea that memory is rarely truly linear, if this is how the novelist is explaining his method, it falls flat. The reader doesn't want the raw, uncooked reality, but art. It need not be a matter of a conventional beginning, middle, and end -- this is modernism, after all -- but would it be too much to ask for a sense of direction, or perhaps a point? It's entirely possible for a story to be carefully constructed (or crafted) and still "seem most real." Ford Madox Ford doesn't seem to have understood that.

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One final bit of wrongness. This blogger has a quote from one of Ford's many critical essays:

To him, you will address your picture, your poem, your prose story, or your argument. You will seek to capture his interest; you will seek to hold his interest. You will do this by methods of surprise, of fatigue, by passages of sweetness in your language, by passages suggesting the sudden and brutal shock of suicide. You will give him passages of dullness, so that your bright effects may seem more bright; you will alternate, you will dwell for a long time upon an intimate point; you will seek to exasperate so that you may the better enchant. You will, in short, employ all the devices of the prostitute. If you are too proud for this you may be the better gentleman or the better lady, but you will be the worse artist....[T]he artist is, quite rightly, regarded with suspicion by people who desire to live in tranquil and ordered society.

While Ford perhaps starts out with some valid points about the necessity for contour, he goes wrong -- I think, fatally -- when he compares writing a novel to a sort of prostitution. That's just a really sad bit of very bad advice to give an aspiring writer. (Sorry, Peking Duck!)