The narrator, John Dowell of Philadelphia, begins what he calls “the saddest story I have ever heard” by comparing the breakup of the nine-year friendship between himself, his wife, Florence, and a wealthy English couple, the Ashburnhams, to events as unthinkable as the sacking of Rome.
Their friendship begins at a German health spa which the Dowells visit yearly because of Florence’s heart problem. During these annual visits, the four spend all their time together, until Florence’s sudden death on August 4, 1913. After Dowell returns to America to settle her estate, he receives two urgent request to visit the Ashburnhams’ estate.
The visit to England changes life for everyone, especially John Dowell, who learns facts that shatter his beliefs and happiness. He finds himself and his world in chaotic darkness with no clear moral certitudes.
On one level, this is the subtly told story of two marriages and of the problems, passions, and misunderstandings that beset such relationships. On another level, it is a microcosm of Western civilization, gradually revealing the hollowness and sickness of its surface conventions and institutions. John Dowell, the passive, naive American, learns of the true sickness of the human heart almost simultaneously with England’s plunge into the evil of World War I.
An acknowledged masterpiece, this fascinating story leaves the reader thinking, feeling, and seeing more clearly the complexities of human nature and society.
Hoffmann, Charles G. Ford Madox Ford. Boston: Twayne, 1967. Short, concise, for students, with sensible analysis of The Good Soldier.
Lid, R. W. Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Definitive study, with emphasis placed on technique.
MacShane, Frank, ed. Ford Madox Ford: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Collection of essays by several Ford scholars on several topics, including The Good Soldier.
Mizener, Arthur. The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford. New York: World Publishing, 1971. There is a close relationship between Ford’s personal life and the themes in his novels, and this is the best critical biography. There is substantial discussion of The Good Soldier.
Stang, Sondra J. Ford Madox Ford. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. One of Ford’s best critics discusses the novel in terms of method of construction, point of view, and experimentation.