Ford Madox Ford Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From his association with Conrad, his study of Henry James and of the rise of the English novel, and his knowledge of French literature, Ford Madox Ford developed his notion of literary impressionism, which is central to an understanding of his masterpiece, The Good Soldier. Ford’s clearest statement of his theory of literary impressionism is found in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, where Ford describes literary impressionism as a revolt against the commonplace nineteenth century novel, or “nuvvle,” as he calls it. The impressionist novel should not be a narration or report, but a rendering of impressions. Rather than following a linear plot, giving one event after another as they occur, the impressionist novel enters the mind of a storyteller and follows his or her associated ideas in a tangled stream of consciousness, so that vivid image becomes juxtaposed to vivid image, skipping across space and time in a collage of memory and imagination. The impressionist novel takes as its subject an affair, some shocking event that has already happened, and proceeds in concentric rings of growing complication as the storyteller cogitates. The focus of the novel is internal rather than external. The reader must focus on the storyteller’s mental processes rather than on the events themselves.

The impressionist novel is limited to the mind of the storyteller, and so is finally solipsistic. The novel refers to itself, so that the reader can never “get out of” the storyteller’s limited mentality and judge whether the storyteller is reliable or unreliable, perhaps merely a crazy person telling a tale that has no connection whatever to reality. Limited and unreliable narration, time shifts, fragmentation of details torn from the contexts in which they occur, verbal collages of such fragments in configurations produced by the narrator’s association of ideas, defamiliarization of the commonplace—all these are characteristics of Ford’s best work.

The traditional nineteenth century English novel depended on the convention of the linear plot. The process of reading from page one to the end of the text was generally assumed to correspond to the passage of time as one event followed another in the story, so that the hero might be born on page one, go to school on page fifty, commit adultery or consider committing adultery on page one hundred, and meet his just reward in the concluding pages of the book. In The Good Soldier, Ford rejected this linear structure and substituted for it the “affair”: A shocking set of events has already occurred before the book begins, and the narrator weaves back and forth in his memories related to the affair. Gradually, in concentric circles of understanding, the reader learns the complicated situation underlying the superficial first impressions he or she may have formed. The drama of the story shifts from the events of the tale to the process of the telling; such stories necessarily contrast first appearances with deeper “realities” revealed in the narration.

The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier concerns two married couples: Arthur Dowell (the narrator) and his wife, Florence (Hurlbird) Dowell, and Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora (Powys) Ashburnham. The events of the story take place between August, 1904, and August, 1913, a nine-year period throughout most of which the two couples are the best of friends, living the life of the leisured rich at European spas, in elegant, cultivated idleness. There is an elegiac tone to this work, reflecting the autumn sunshine of the Edwardian era and a way of life that would be brutally wiped out with the outbreak of World War I.

The texture of the novel invites the reader to consider the conflict between appearance and reality. For most of the nine-year period of the action, Arthur Dowell believes that his wife is suffering from a heart ailment that confines her travels and requires her to be shut in her room under peculiar circumstances from time to time. He subsequently learns, however, that her heart is sound and that these arrangements are necessary to allow her to commit adultery, first with a young man named Jimmy and later with Edward Ashburnham. Dowell imagines Ashburnham to be a model husband, only gradually learning that he has engaged in a series of affairs and that his wife does not speak to him except when required to do so in public. This novel is like a hall of mirrors, and any statement by the narrator must be doubted.

Because readers are accustomed to novels with linear plots, a summary of the novel is more easily understood if the plot is rearranged into the customary linear sequence of events. Edward Ashburnham is from an ancient Anglican landholding family who owns the estate Branshaw Teleragh. As the novel opens, he has recently returned from serving as a military officer in India and arrives at the health spa, Bad Nauheim, in Germany, where he meets the Dowells for the first time. Although he appears to be brave, sentimental, and heroic, like the knights in ancient romances, the reader learns that he has been involved in a series of unfortunate affairs with women. His parents arranged his marriage to Leonora Powys, a convent-educated Catholic girl, whose impoverished family had an estate in Ireland. Religious and temperamental differences soon cause their marriage to cool. While riding in a third-class carriage, Edward tries in a blundering way to comfort a servant girl and is arrested for sexual misbehavior in what is called the Kilsyte case. This misadventure leads him for the first time in his life to consider himself capable of bad conduct. His next affair involves a short-lived passion for a Spanish dancer, La Dolciquita, who demands cash for spending a week with him at Antibes. Reckless...

(The entire section is 2379 words.)