Ford Madox Ford World Literature Analysis - Essay

Ford Madox Hueffer

Ford Madox Ford World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ford is best known for his leadership of the modernist movement in literature, a movement famous for its experiments in form and style but equally important for its revolution in subject matter. The Victorians, for example, had turned to fantasy as a way of escaping the evils of urbanization and industrialization; the modernists, in contrast, used the fantastic as a way of confronting human beings’ deepest psychological reactions to extreme situations. These writers thought of themselves as discovering new planes of existence, or (in a famous image invented by the novelist Virginia Woolf) exposing the buried connections among the isolated, alienated inhabitants of the times. Such efforts were underscored by the scientific discoveries of the time, such as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, Henri Bergson’s theory of temporality, and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, all of which were published between 1895 and 1905.

Throughout his career, Ford insisted that literature must confront the main issues of contemporary life, even though its outward subject might be a tale five centuries old (the Fifth Queen Trilogy) or might involve actions considered physically impossible (Henry for Hugh, 1934). Ford even wrote a series of satires on contemporary life—The Simple Life Limited (1911), The New Humpty-Dumpty (1912), and Mr. Fleight (1913)—though he lacked sufficient courage to publish them under his own name, using the pseudonym Daniel Chaucer for the first two titles. The Parade’s End novels contain the most vivid re-creation of wartime experience in the history of English literature.

Most of Ford’s serious analysis of the social and political changes that characterized the early twentieth century remains unacknowledged by contemporary readers, however, because of Ford’s striking stylistic experimentation. Ford often used a point of view that is mistakenly called the “interior monologue,” but he was one of the first to recognize that people do not, as a rule, make speeches to themselves. In place of the unrealistic “monologue,” Ford offered a succession of fragments, each one arising into consciousness but quickly succeeded by other, seemingly unrelated, fragments. His work can thus be called the first truly realistic work in literary history.

Ford’s technique offered a second advantage as well. Since Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded as a series of letters in 1740-1741, writers have striven to record action that takes place in the immediate present accurately yet effectively, but all that they have created is a series of acceptable conventions for interpreting retellings of past events as if they were happening in the present. James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and Ford in novels from The Fifth Queen to The Last Post (1928) created a sense that what was taking place for the character was being immediately transcribed for the reader. Ford’s name for this new technique was “impressionism,” a term he borrowed from the painters among whom he had grown up during the 1890’s.

The method of literary impressionism has not proven to be as historically important as pictorial Impressionism was. Both techniques seemed unnatural and chaotic at first, demanding a wholesale reeducation of the audience. Yet where Impressionism in art ultimately allowed audiences to appreciate the beauty of painted surfaces as well as the beauty of pictured scenes, literary impressionism could not offer an equivalent alternative form of satisfaction. Works written in this style remain notoriously difficult to read; for full understanding, they must be enacted, not merely scanned. Those who are willing to give the work this extra attention, however, will find that they have enlarged their experience along with their understanding.

The primacy of memories and impressions is the greatest strength of Ford’s fiction, but it is simultaneously the gravest weakness in his nonfiction. To be plain about it, Ford was a liar—but a liar out of art, not malice. Each time Ford wrote a fictitious anecdote about one of his more famous contemporaries, he would convince himself that the incident was true in every detail; each time such an anecdote was called into question, the entire memoir became suspect. Soon, no one believed anything Ford wrote. The real culprit was, in fact, Ford’s commitment to literary impressionism. At the time he wrote the lie he thought it was true; the lie had first appeared, and subsequently taken shape, in his mind, and therefore it must be thought of as a truthful image, if not an image of the truth. If only Ford could be granted his stylistic premise, the lapses from factuality of his books would no longer be grounds for condemnation.

Nevertheless, Ford’s made-up memories caused him to alienate one old friend after another. As an example, when Joseph Conrad died in 1924, Ford published a long appreciation of his old friend, receiving high praise for the way in which he had brought a literary giant to vibrant, breathing life—that is, until those who had known Conrad best began to protest over the “vast differences,” as Conrad’s widow put it, between the incidents they had witnessed and those which Ford now described. In turn, Ford defended his approach, calling the book “a novel, not a monograph; a portrait, not a narration.”

The Good Soldier

First published: 1915

Type of work: Novel

A widower reveals the corruption and depravity hidden beneath the polite surface of a longtime relationship.

The Good Soldier is several novels at once. It is a romantic comedy of manners that turns sour;...

(The entire section is 2354 words.)