The possibility for vast discrepancies between form and content, between reality and appearance, is the major theme in Ford’s novel. The story is set among the upper class of Europe: the places they frequent, the things they do, the very tenor of their lives. It is an idealized setting, the picture of perfection. Ford, however, exposes a seamy undercurrent to this beautiful life. Beneath the carefully fashioned exterior of Edwardian society, real people live, people with desires and prejudices, people who hate and are cruel. The “good soldier,” for all of his kindness and good manners, is, after all, an adulterer and something of a wastrel. Florence, for all of her show of gentility, is but a scheming social climber with no morals. Leonora is longsuffering and gallant, but she is also cold and unfeeling as she slowly destroys her husband’s sense of self. And the narrator, though kind and trusting, is ineffectual and unwilling to face reality.
John Dowell is thus the author’s vehicle for illustrating the folly of seeing things as one wants them to be, rather than as they really are. In this, he is representative not merely of a particular character-type or of a particular social class but rather of Europe itself: decadent, complacent, oblivious to impending catastrophe. Ford would have readers know that refusal to deal with things as they are, however painful that reckoning may be, can only lead to greater suffering. That is why John Dowell’s is “the saddest story.”