Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford's modernist novel The Good Solider begins with the line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." And so the reader is thrown into a difficult, twisting narrative. Our unreliable narrator is the American expatriate John Dowell. (Extra points if you actually know this, as his name is mentioned only once or twice in the text.) Dowell lives in Europe with his wife, Florence, who has a bad heart, and thus they summer in Nauheim in Germany. It is there that they meet Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, in the summer of 1904. The Ashburnhams are English; Edward is a member of the landed gentry. Soon Edward and Florence begin an affair, under the nose of the seemingly oblivious John.

The novel is not so much about the story, as it is about storytelling, and the way the story is told. It's very ahead of it's time in that regard, more post-modern than modern. Dowell jumps backwards and forwards in time, few things happen chronologically, and everything is colored by his own scattershot memories. At times he seems to have been aware of the affair from the beginning, at other times he seems blissfully unaware. (Or not so blissfully, as no one is really happy in this novel.) Dowell will lavish praise on Edward, and how he is a good person, and then he will turn around and excoriate him. He says on page 17, "I don't want you to think that I am writing Teddy Ashburnham down a brute. I don't believe he was." On page 31 he says, "Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear there was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier...How could he arouse anything like a sentiment, in anybody?" Dowell clearly has a love/hate relationship with Edward. It's a difficult book to negotiate because of the constantly shifting chronology. It's difficult to tell if Dowell actually knows something, or if he is going back and revising his own memories, to make himself seem less clueless.

There's very little dialogue in The Good Soldier, as most of it is Dowell's recounting of events, which cuts us off from knowing the characters better. It blocks us, which could well be the point, as we only see characters through the eyes of the narrator. We only know what the narrator chooses to tell us. Which is true of every story, no matter how it's told, but it's taken to an extreme here. It's particularly frustrating in regards to Edward, as I still don't have any feeling for who he was. He seems boring to me, dull and ordinary, not the dashing figure that the narrator wants us to believe he was. There must have been something besides his looks that drew Florence in to him, but we don't get to see it.

Dowell also never comes across as American to me. I know that Americans spoke differently in 1915, the year the book came out, than they do now, but Dowell's sentence construction is extremely British. Which fits, of course, because Ford Madox Ford was British. Here's a typical sentence: "But the inconvenient-well, hang it all, I will say it-the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is, that with all the taking for granted, you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued." That just sounds British to me. "Hang it all," "damnable nuisance," those are so British! And the stereotype of Americans, more so in 1915 than now, was that they were brash, loud, more open than the stuffy British. Yet the narrator is none of these things. If anything, he is even MORE stuffy than the British. I think that part of the reason Dowell admires Edward, or professes to, anyway, is because Edward is British, and that makes him different, and therefore interesting. If Dowell were British, he would know within 15 minutes of meeting Edward all about him, exactly where he fit into the class system, what school he went to, and if he made 5,000 pounds a year or 10,000.

As the novel progresses, and the characters move inexorably along on their tragic trajectories, Ford shows us the cracks in the mirror of Edwardian society. No one is really honest with anyone else, and in the end, no one gets what they truly wanted. It is indeed, a sad story.


Holly A Hughes said...

I know that the narrative technique etc is what they talk about in college English classes and all. But really, what makes this one of my favorite novels is just how deadly the human betrayal is. You start to care about these people so much that you just can't stand what they're doing to each other. Sure, the way he tells it brings us to the horrible center of the story so slowly, we leave all our defenses behind, so that we're devastated when we finally figure out what's going on. (In that way, it's a perfect example of technique serving content.) But when it comes right down to it -- it's just such a tawdry tale. It devastates me every time. And toward the end of the book, you can see where it's going, but you just can't stop them form hurting each other. If Ford weren't so hauntingly wise about the human capacity for cruelty, all the technique in the world wouldn't make this a great book.

Excellent post, I love to think about this book.

Mark said...

Thanks Holly, it's definitely a book where you need to stop and think about it when you've finished reading it. I agree with you about Ford's insights into the capacity people have for cruelty. It's really a heartbreaking little book. It's also a book that sticks with you.

I haven't read any other Ford books, have you? I've heard that "Parade's End" is supposed to be excellent.

What did you think about the narrator's relationship with Leonora? I was interested by their relationship, clearly there were some deep feelings here, whether or not the narrator realized it. (Or wanted to admit it.)