(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Good Soldier is a novel about the differences between appearance and reality—and about human willingness to see events in a light that best suits the viewer, regardless of how accurate that vision may be. John Dowell calls his narrative “the saddest story I have ever heard”; perhaps the saddest aspect of the story is Dowell’s own unwillingness to see through the fine veneer covering the faults of his wife and friends.

The narrator sets his story up as a fireside conversation, a confession delivered in private to the reader. As the novel opens, Dowell is trying to come to terms with new and disturbing discoveries about his wife and Edward Ashburnham, both now dead, and about how thoroughly he had been deceived by appearances when they were alive. The story of the nine-year relationship of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams is revealed in fragments, and this is not surprising, considering that the import of the events of that relationship is only now becoming clear to the narrator, who was a part of the relationship from the beginning. The reader gets pieces of the puzzle, not in chronological order, but as Dowell remembers them and as their significance becomes apparent to him. Reading The Good Soldier becomes a process of discovery, along with the narrator, and it is not until the very end of the novel that one seems to have all the facts.

John and Florence Dowell first meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham at the health resort in Nauheim, Germany. They are seated together for dinner one evening, and that is the beginning of their long, and seemingly idyllic, relationship. To John Dowell, the Ashburnhams are quintessential English gentry: Edward is a captain in his army regiment, a landowner, a philanthropist, and a gentleman of refinement; Leonora is a woman of beauty and accomplishment, the perfect partner for her husband. Edward has returned with Leonora from army duty in India...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

The Good Soldier Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Good Soldier is several novels at once. It is a romantic comedy of manners that turns sour; it is a social satire that offers no normative way of life; it is a true confession by a consummate liar; it is a profound psychological study of people one can never quite understand; it is a modernist tour de force. Most tellingly, it is Ford’s masterwork.

The image one must keep in mind when reading The Good Soldier is the onion. It is composed of layer upon layer; cutting into it at any point brings tears to one’s eyes, and when one has peeled away the final layer there is absolutely nothing left for one’s efforts—no kernel, no pith, no ultimate moral. Ford wanted to call it “The Saddest Story,” and only his publisher’s insistence that no one would buy a book with such a depressing title in the middle of the Great War led him to change it.

The novel is a first-person narrative, covering a little more than ten years in the life of John Dowell. Dowell is a member of that privileged class whose names echo through history. His “farm,” as he calls it, occupies several blocks of downtown Philadelphia. In 1901, drifting through a life of gentlemanly idleness, he meets and marries Florence Hurlbird of Stamford, Connecticut; they sail to Europe for their honeymoon, only to discover that Florence has a heart ailment that prevents her from ever returning to America. Thus they drift from one resort to the next, following the social calendar; in one of these resorts, Bad Nauheim, they meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, whose lives will intertwine with theirs in disastrous fashion.

For nine years life seems perfect; the two couples meet at Nauheim, spend an idyllic summer, and part the best of friends. Underneath that immaculate surface, however, deadly currents seethe—lust and greed disguised as sentiment and prudence....

(The entire section is 767 words.)

The Good Soldier Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham are dead, both having committed suicide, and Nancy, the Ashburnhams’ charge, is insane. Leonora remarries, and John Dowell, caring for Nancy, is now the owner of the Ashburnham estate in England. He is in love with Nancy, but her mental state prohibits him from marrying her. He considers the tragic history of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, which led to the unhappy situation in which he found himself.

It had begun innocently enough with the meeting several years before of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams at the German spa town of Nauheim, where Dowell had taken Florence directly after their marriage in America. Florence was suffering from a heart condition, and they came to the spa for her to rest. Edward was supposedly there for the same reason. The two couples got along and spent most of their time together. Leonora came from a penniless, Irish Roman Catholic family; Edward owned an estate in England and a substantial fortune. So it seemed at the outset of their association. Both couples were in their thirties, and they remained in close association over a period of several years. Then the disaster struck.

What Dowell learns, after the deaths of his wife and Edward, is that his own peculiar relationship with his wife had a part in the sudden tragedy. Dowell, a decent, naïve gentleman, had married Florence, who came from a socially prominent family, without knowing much about her, except that she had a serious heart condition. He took her for an innocent girl, determined to get away from a stifling family, but she was, in fact, a problem to herself and especially to young men, given her enthusiasm for very questionable liaisons. She was not a virgin, as Dowell believed (he, however, was), and she was not particularly attracted to Dowell, although he was besotted with her. As a result of her illness, there was no chance of consummating their marriage, and she informed him that her doctors had forbidden her to chance a further sea voyage, once they reached Europe. They were, therefore, to remain in the pricy European hotels and spas permanently. Dowell was to care for his wife without any hope of a normal married life.

The truth, which Dowell learns only after her death, is that Florence had lied to him not only about her sexual state but also about her health. She was not ill and was perfectly able to have sex, but she had no desire to do so with Dowell, who was a pleasant, normal young man, but without sex appeal. Florence began an affair with Edward. He and his wife, who seemed happy with each other, were living a lie as well. The Ashburnhams were also not sexually compatible. This state had perhaps been caused in part...

(The entire section is 1101 words.)

The Good Soldier Chapter Summaries

The Good Soldier Part 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary

Ford Madox Ford, known for his Imagist poetry from the turn of the twentieth century, was also an essayist and writer most remembered for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, which he described as his best book.

Told through flashbacks that slowly unravel events from differing perspectives of the story's main characters, The Good Soldier is a study in irony and tragedy. The setting is Europe, just before England and France enter World War I. The main characters are two married couples. John Dowell, the narrator, is unreliable as he is blinded by his naivety to many critical circumstances. Not until the end does Dowell learn the true characters of his wife, Florence, and his friends Leonora and Edward Ashburnham. Captain Edward Ashburnham is "the good soldier." However, since the narrator is unreliable, the assessment of Captain Ashburnham is under suspicion throughout.

Dowell relates that this story is the saddest he has heard, priming readers for a great tragedy. Although the tale is filled with tragedies, one of the greatest is the narrator's inability to become emotionally involved in his own life. Dowell is mostly an observer in this story, which details a nine-year relationship between Dowell, Florence, and the Ashburnhams. Providing the irony, Dowell's observations often lack critical details. For instance, Dowell first describes Captain Ashburnham as a gentleman with whom one could trust his wife. This description will be far from the truth.

Likewise, Dowell also is blind to the true nature of Florence. She does prove very talkative with a wide range of interests, as Dowell described her. She also appears somewhat sickly, as Dowell believes her to be. Her family told him Florence suffers from a heart ailment and must not be aroused emotionally, as that could cause her death. Dowell appears to be the perfect husband, as he has a large income without need of work. This allows the couple to travel year round. Dowell also seems devoid of emotional expression. His calm, controlled nature was just what the doctor ordered for Florence's health. Dowell's believed his job as husband was to make sure every conversation, which Florence often initiated, stayed unemotional. Though Dowell believed he was successful in controlling his wife's social environment, readers are informed that Florence has died.

Time has passed. Dowell receives a note from the Ashburnhams requesting that he visit them in England. He does, and he senses something terribly wrong with the captain.

The Good Soldier Part 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary

It is 1904; Florence is still alive. They are at a German health resort, "taking the baths" to make Florence stronger. Here they meet the Ashburnhams.

Dowell is very impressed with Captain Ashburnham. He approves of the captain's neat dress, handsome looks, and manners. Observing him even before the Ashburnhams join them at the table, Dowell equally is affected by Ashburnham's ability to show no emotion. The captain's facial expression is not blank but rather perfectly balanced amid a range of emotions.

Dowell is not impressed with the captain's conversation topics, although he believes the captain's sensitivity and focus on personal care must appeal to women. Dowell does not fathom any other reason why...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary

Dowell hints at Florence and Leonora's duplicity. At first Dowell believed he and Leonora shared an important duty caring for heart patients. Dowell states that Florence was a very good actress. When Dowell fretted about making train connections in Belgium on their way to the spa, he witnessed how quickly Florence could run and was surprised to see his ill wife so agile and energetic, although she did feign exhaustion afterwards.

Leonora was also a good actress, making it appear she and Dowell shared a good friendship. Leonora also went along with Captain Ashburnham's pretense of a heart ailment. Dowell later learned Ashburnham merely used the suggestion of a heart defect to avoid further army assignments.


(The entire section is 402 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 2, Chapters 1-2 Summary

In his courtship of Florence, Dowell describes himself as a chicken attempting to cross a street with a car coming. Dowell learned that he fit Florence's definition of the perfect husband, one who did not work but could afford to take her to Europe, and one who would not demand physical contact. Dowell was determined to marry Florence, despite her demands. When her family hinted they might be against the marriage, Dowell snuck into Florence's room and persuaded her to elope. Before Florence left with Dowell, she told him something was wrong with her heart. This was the first time Dowell heard she was ill. Florence would later use her suggested illness to keep Dowell from her bedroom and their marriage unconsummated.


(The entire section is 396 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary

Dowell is with Leonora. A week earlier, Captain Ashburnham died. Florence is also dead. As Dowell sits in Leonora's study, she tells him very calmly that Florence and her husband had an affair. Leonora also tells him that Florence committed suicide, another surprise to Dowell, who thought she had died from a heart attack.

Dowell recalls the events as they unfolded on the day of his wife's death, details he either experienced for himself or learned from other people. The captain was going to a concert with a young woman, Nancy Rufford, who became the Ashburnhams' ward after her parents abandoned her as a child. Until recently, Nancy had been raised by nuns in a convent school. She often went home to the Ashburnham estate...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 3, Chapters 2-3 Summary

Dowell describes Nancy in this section. Her background was marred by a passionately angry father and a mother whom Dowell suspects was alcoholic. During an argument, Nancy's father punched her mother in the face, knocking her unconscious. A similar incident occurred with Nancy, and she lay unconscious for three days. Despite this, Nancy appeared to love her father, even more than her mother, who disappeared after Nancy was sent to a convent. Nancy was told that her mother died, although Dowell was not able to confirm this.

Nancy often acted in contrary ways. She could be very patient but also intolerant. Sometimes she was mature and sophisticated, but other times she would roll down the lawn with one of Leonora's dogs....

(The entire section is 400 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary

Dowell reflects on the character and life of Edward Ashburnham. Ashburnham continues to appear as a gentleman and good soldier, no matter what he has done. Dowell tends to excuse Ashburnham's foibles, stating that the captain was merely a sentimentalist, overly emotional. This is how Dowell justifies the captain's frequent affairs with other women.

Ashburnham somewhat contradicts Dowell's positive description of him, however, by admitting to Dowell that after his first indiscretion, in which he was caught kissing a young girl, he was surprised to discover that his sexual desires were aroused. At first, Ashburnham had said that he merely kissed this young girl to soothe her nerves. He had found her crying and claimed he...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 3, Chapter 5 Summary

Ashburnham's troubles with women did not end with La Dolciquita. At first repentant, he grew to dislike Leonora. Leonora forgave her husband but not without first punishing him. Leonora insisted he give her management of their financial affairs; he agreed. Leonora now had power over her husband. She paid off all his debts by selling family possessions, mortgaging some real estate holdings, and renting their estate. She insisted they leave England and live in the Far East, where he would join his fellow soldiers. They would budget severely, living only on what Ashburnham made from the army. In this way, Leonora planned to earn back the money her husband had lost to gambling, loan sharks, or women. She attained this goal, at the cost...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 4, Chapter 1 Summary

Dowell admits that his assessment of Florence here might appear harsh, but he feels he must blame Florence for Leonora's mental anguish and deterioration. Dowell claims Florence was an incorrigible flirt who talked too much and had few morals. Until Florence arrived, Leonora thought she might still be successful in winning back her husband. It might also be true her marriage was doomed to fail. Dowell surmises it might only have been some other woman who lured the captain away from his wife.

However, Dowell believes that until Florence came into their lives, Leonora was close to regaining her husband's attention, love, and constancy. Leonora's having tolerated and even encouraging Maisie to live with them had worked out...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 4, Chapter 2 Summary

After they returned from Nauheim, Leonora and Edward both suffered from depression. Leonora's depression arose when she realized Edward was in love with Nancy, a love different even from that for Florence. Leonora desperately wanted to know why Fate never gave her a chance to win her husband's heart. Leonora also knew Nancy was in love with Edward. Nancy and Edward, however, sensed their relationship would never be consummated. Nancy had too much respect for Leonora. Edward, after declaring his love, forced himself to stay away from her. Although his feelings for Nancy were of the purest form, he would wait for Nancy to make the first move.

The differences between Nancy's and Leonora's impressions of Edward become clear...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 4, Chapters 3-4 Summary

Dowell takes this time to provide more details about Nancy, apologizing for mixing up the chronology.

First, Dowell relates how sheltered Nancy's life has been. Raised in a convent, Nancy knows little about the secular world or romance and emotions. In her Catholic mind, once a couple is married, they will remain together for the rest of their lives. She has deduced from the people around her that after awhile, affection disappears. Even so, Nancy believes all married couples stay together.

However, after reading a story about a woman she knows, Nancy was confused when she heard the woman had won a court case and was legally divorced. Leonora explained the difference between secular law and Church law. The...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

The Good Soldier Part 4, Chapters 5-6 Summary

Nancy was on a boat to India when she heard of Ashburnham's death. By the time her father came to the dock, Nancy no longer would communicate. Her eyes were blank and she could only repeat a Latin phrase.

Leonora received a telegram from Nancy's father, appealing to her to come to India to save his daughter. Doctors had told him that if Nancy saw something familiar, she might come back to her senses. Leonora refused. Instead she asked Dowell, who traveled with the nursemaid who had helped raise Nancy. However, there was nothing they could do other than see that each day Nancy was cleaned, dressed, and fed. Though Dowell still loved Nancy and wanted to marry her, doctors and lawyers told him no one could marry Nancy yet....

(The entire section is 403 words.)