Summary

(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.)

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.)