The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The narrator, while detailing the moral weakness of Edward Ashburnham, is careful to point out that the man has the noble qualities that make him “the good soldier.” He is, in fact, a benevolent administrator of his large estate. Branshaw Teleragh has a number of tenants, families who have lived under the protection of the Ashburnhams for centuries. Edward is sincerely concerned with their welfare; against his wife’s objections, he remits their rent during difficult years and sees that they have the things they need and want. When Edward’s concern for a visibly distressed young servant girl on a train leads him to provide comfort with an embrace and a kiss, he discovers, perhaps unwittingly at the time, a source of closeness and concern that his increasing estrangement from Leonora is denying him. A series of affairs (including the one with Florence) that both he and his wife find humiliating saps him of self-respect and of money. When he falls in love with his ward, Nancy Rufford, his disgust and self-hatred finally lead him to cut his own throat.

During the course of his deterioration, Edward always maintains the facade of the country squire; he is the perfect officer in his regiment, the perfect host, the perfect friend. The facade, however, hides the soul of a tortured man within. The strain of trying to live his life as he believes it should be lived—as lord of his estate and of his tenants—coupled with the refusal of his wife to support him in his life’s role, destroys Edward Ashburnham, both morally and physically.

Though Edward must bear responsibility for his actions, Leonora is not without blame in this tragedy that is “the saddest story.” She is the third of seven daughters of an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family that has fallen into financial difficulties. Her marriage to Edward was arranged, primarily by the two mothers, who were anxious to see that their children married well.

From the beginning, it is a marriage strained by conflicts. Having been reared in a home where the budget was very tight, Leonora is horrified at Edward’s cavalier way with money. Moreover, Edward is a member of the Church of England, and Leonora is crushed when she learns that no agreement was struck before the marriage to ensure that her children would be reared as Catholics. The thought that her babies might be damned without the blessing of the Church weighs heavily on Leonora’s mind. Her increasing interference in Edward’s management of Branshaw Teleragh, and to a lesser extent her religious concerns, make Leonora a distant and cold wife and Edward a puzzled and resentful husband....

(The entire section is 1079 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Dowell

John Dowell, an independently wealthy American who has spent most of his adult life in Europe taking his weak wife from spa to spa. Dowell is so intellectually confused and morally obtuse that for nine years he has been unaware of the duplicity of his closest friends, the Ashburnhams, and his wife. Without passion himself, he fails to realize its power in the lives of others. Dowell assumes surface manners to be the defining characteristics of people; whenever anybody behaves erratically, Dowell is mystified. Not until after the deaths of his wife and Leonora’s husband, when Leonora Ashburnham tells him of their adulteries and the accompanying deceits, does Dowell have any inkling of the truths of their relationships.

Edward Ashburnham

Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier of the title, an English gentleman who inherited large estates. On the surface, Ashburnham is the model of the English officer and administrator, meticulous in his manners and kind to his tenants. He is, however, unable to control either his financial or his sexual affairs. In public, he and his wife behave so well together that they appear to have a perfect marriage; in private, they rarely speak to each other. Although initiated with the best of intentions, his sexual affairs have drastic consequences for the women involved. This series of failures of the code of the gentleman culminates in his passion for his ward, Nancy Rufford, and...

(The entire section is 514 words.)