Graham Greene has called The Good Soldier the finest French novel ever written in English, and it has often been considered one of the best novels written in English in the twentieth century. What Greene probably meant is that Ford Madox Ford’s novel is remarkable for the subtlety with which it expresses the nuance and detail of male-female relations. What saves the novel from being simply a tale of sexual obsession is John Dowell. He is the key to understanding the work. Most narrators are, at best, only part of a story. He is, despite his inaction, the most interesting person in it.
Dowell is telling the story some time after it has happened, but seems uncertain how to absorb it. Modest, decent, and in all things a gentleman, he cannot imagine his wife’s and others’ conduct, particularly in society as he thinks he knows it. The novel is, therefore, more than simply a telling of the tale. Dowell is using the narration to attempt to understand what happened, and that attempt is severely hampered by his character. He is not a man prone to sexual passion, and he takes people as he finds them. He is, for instance, telling this story as if he is speaking to a gentleman, someone like himself, and he is trying to tell it fairly, delicately, and with concern for all involved. He often does not see things that a reader sees immediately. Occasionally, however, his placid, patient manner is breached by odd phrases that suggest a hidden, deeper turmoil behind his blandness. His description, for instance,...
(The entire section is 622 words.)