The Good Soldier
Ford Madox Ford, 1915
Yet that's the pleasure. The Good Soldier is a story of two couples: the wife of one having an affair with the husband of the other, and a narrator—the cuckholded husband—completely in the dark.
Americans John and Florence Dowell first meet Britons Edward and Leonora Ashburnham at a German health spa in 1904. Years later, John Dowell recounts the story of the couples' nine-year friendship and of his obliviousness to the betrayal going on under his nose.
We're drawn in, fascinated, not only because of what happens (which is a lot), but also because of how Dowell interprets events. As he tells his story, the lovers reveal their passion through subtle gestures and remarks. We know what's going on, but Dowell almost willfully ignores or misinterprets all. He's a poster child for Unreliable Narrator (equaled only by the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day).
Ford paints rich, ironic portraits of his characters. There is Edward, the "good soldier," whose outward grace covers up his moral failings, which in turn cover up a basic decency and longing. Edward's wife, Leonora, appears cold and controlling, yet these qualities, too, mask a deeper despair. Florence, Dowell's wife, is stunningly, wonderfully treacherous. Then, of course, there is Dowell, the narrator.
The novel's distinctive structure, its disjointed plot and chronology, was innovative for its time. Soldier is considered both Ford's masterpiece and a forerunner of literary modernism (think James Joyce and Virginia Woolf).
Thematically, The Good Soldier serves up a delicious critique of Edwardian British social codes, especially the snobby adherence to propriety as proof of moral worth. No one, it turns out, is what he or she seems.
While this sounds like the stuff of melodrama, Soldier is a penetrating study of character, morals, and perspective versus reality. It has layers of complexity and is a wonderful read.
See our Reading Guide for The Good Soldier.
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