Where to begin with The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford? For some reason I was surprised by the complexity of the book. It seemed like it was going to be a straightforward story, but it isn’t. The narrator, John Dowell, sucks you in from the very beginning. John appears to be a charming man who tells us that he’s going to tell this sad story, the saddest story he has ever “heard” as though we were siting in a comfortable chair by the fireside with a glass of brandy in one had and a cigarette in the other. It quickly becomes evident that the story is not one he heard but one he participated in.
The story is about John and his wife Florence, both Americans, and their friendship with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, both British. Florence and Edward both have bad hearts and both couples are staying at Nauheim when they meet. The course of the story takes place over twelve years, but John doesn’t tell it in order. He digresses, jumps forward and backward, hints, keeps secrets, drops surprises and is, generally an unreliable fellow when it comes down to it. Both couples are rather well to do, “good people,” with the “good” part turning out to be rather ironic. We learn fairly early in the book that Florence and Edward are having an affair. It is not Edward’s first affair, nor it turns out, is it Florence’s.
Leonora knows immediately that Edward and Florence are having an affair. She has put up with Edward’s affairs; she is the classic long-suffering wife. She is Catholic and Edward is not. Divorce is not an option for her. She loves Edward and wants him to love only her but fails time and time again. She is portrayed by John as being heartless while Edward (the good soldier) has a generous heart. John blames Leonora for what eventually happens to Edward. He also blames her for not telling him that Florence was having an affair. The affair went on for years and I wonder how John was so stupid not to notice anything. He is lost in his own little world, isn’t even upset when Florence dies, and he calls Leonora heartless. John is the one with the real bad heart.
John expresses surprise early in the story about not be able to truly know anyone: “After forty-five years of mixing with one’s kind, one ought to have acquired the habit of being able to know something about one’s fellow beings. But one doesn’t.” Then toward the end of the story he asks, “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart–or his own?” But consider the source. John is so emotionally disconnected from everyone, including himself, that he would not be able to know anyone. One must make the effort to be at least somewhat engaged with life and people on more than a surface appearance level to be able to know anything. And since John isn’t, he blames others for what he doesn’t understand and takes some hefty swipes at women and Catholics.
John is right, it is a sad story. It is sad because when John has opportunities to change outcomes, he doesn’t. He made me angry with his passivity. By the end of the book I was actively cursing him. I wonder though, how much of John’s ignorance is real and how much feigned? There is no way to know for certain and it infuriates me in a delightful, bookish way.