The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (“Beati Immaculati”), Vintage Paperback, 1989, 278 pp., with an introduction (“An Interpretation”) by Mark Schorer, and the author’s dedicatory letter to his wife Stella Ford (January 9, 1927). The novel was first published in 1915.

 SERIES: LOOKING BACK AT GREAT WORKS OF LITERARY FICTION

The blurb on the front cover is from Graham Greene: “One of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our [20th] century.” Blurbs usually exaggerate. So too does this one, but it exaggerates in the wrong direction. The first time I read this book I thought, “This is the great American novel.” In rereading it again for this review, I have not changed my opinion.

Of course, it’s not exactly an American novel. It is set in Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century and describes people who move in cosmopolitan circles. Despite its American narrator, the style seems purely British; the narrator uses British locutions and spellings consistently (‘colour’ for ‘color’, etc.). In his letter of 1927, Ford reports the words of a “fervent young admirer” who once exclaimed, “By Jove, The Good Soldier is the finest novel in the English language.” Whereupon, Ford’s friend John Rodker replied, “Ah yes. It is, but you have left out a word. It is the finest French novel in the English language!”

Forty years after the great Vladimir Nabokov’s death, some of his books are already beginning to age. Recently, I tried rereading one of his best Russian-language novels, The Gift, in English. It failed to hold my attention. Same goes for The Defense. Other novels, such as Bend Sinister, written in English, were never that good to begin with. Still brilliant, however, are works such as the magnificent Despair, a book in which Nabokov does totally novel and creative things with the form of the novel. As for Ford Madox Ford, his century-old Good Soldier has not aged in the least.

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The first amazing line of the book is one of the great bravura beginnings of all time: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” In fact, the original title was The Saddest Story, and in commenting on the book twelve years later, Ford still regrets that his publisher convinced him to change it.

What is so amazing about the first line? Is it not a sad story? At the end of the whole pathetic/bathetic mess, will not the reader conclude that he has seldom read anything sadder? Well, yes, but the comic irony that suffuses the book begins right here at the start. In the first place, our narrator, an American named Dowell—probably the most bizarre narrator in all of twentieth-century fiction—has not heard this story. Rather he has lived it, he is in it, and is still living the consequences of all its events at the end. This notwithstanding how persistently he tries to distance himself from the incessant melodrama.

The careful reader discovers early on that this novel’s teller is a textbook case of the unreliable narrator. “I swear to you that they [the Ashburnhams] were the model couple.” The narrator makes this assertion—which he knows to be patently false—on page 11, then spends the rest of the book, beginning with a description of Leonora’s despair on that same page, proving it nonsense. As Dowell tells the story, his method involves incessant self-contradiction. Things were like this; no, wait: they were like that.

Quote from the first paragraph: “My wife [Florence Hurlbird] and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.”

So a man sits down to narrate a story—one in which he has played a central part—and informs the reader at the outset that he really understands nothing about the story he is telling. John Dowell—we learn that his name is John only midway through the book, p. 90—must have a middle name as well. Most befitting of all would be “I know nothing”: John Know-Nothing Dowell.

The central leitmotif of “hearts” also shows up right at the beginning. The book is about “sounding the depths of English hearts,” while remaining in the shallows as far as his own heart is concerned. There is the thing of “heart trouble.” Naïve American Dowell informs us that his wife, “poor Florence,” suffers from “a heart,” as does Captain Ashburnham, the good soldier of the title. By the time he sits down to narrate the story—after the central events are over and two of the main characters are dead—Dowell knows perfectly well that both of these characters suffered not from physical heart trouble, but from a predilection for romantic adventurism. An ancillary character, Florence’s Uncle John, is another man with heart trouble who turns out to have a perfectly healthy heart.

For a goodly portion of the book Dowell—along with his creator, Ford, the Narrative Presence pulling all the puppet strings—conceals much from the reader, and even from himself. In a typical blurted-out revelation (on p. 53) Dowell reveals the following: “You understand that there was nothing the matter with Edward Ashburnham’s heart—that he had thrown up his commission and had left India and come half the world over in order to follow a woman [Maisie Maidan] who really had a ‘heart’ to Nauheim. That was the sort of sentimental ass he was.”

The leitmotif of “bad hearts”—including three deaths, two of romantic love, and one of an actual heart attack—comes neatly to a head near the end of the novel, in the comic episode of what to do with the money Uncle John Hurlbird has left in his will. This money comes to Dowell, since Hurlbird has died just five days before Florence. The old man, who thought he had heart trouble, but did not, wished to make a charitable donation to some institution in aid of heart sufferers. Dowell—true to his usual bizarre instincts—decides that it is appropriate for the money to go to heart patients. After all, Uncle John had thought he had heart problems. “Moreover, Florence had certainly died of her heart [i.e., of her romantic predilections], as I saw it.” A page later: “This may strike you, silent listeners, as being funny.” You’re right, it does. The Good Soldier is a comic novel.

We learn on the second page that the action takes place, in large part, in 1904, nine years before the time of the writing, when Dowell was 36, Florence 30, Captain Edward Ashburnham 42, and his wife Leonora 31. Now, in 1913, older but not much wiser, Dowell is 45 and living in England, a country he had never even set foot in until six months before he began writing.

The central place of action is the famous German spa of Bad Nauheim, where rich people from all over the world come to take the waters. Rich Americans, far from being aristocrats, but possessing enough money to live the high-class life, Dowell and Florence have spent their married years in Paris. Every year, from July through September, they come to Nauheim, where ailing Florence nurses her ostensibly bad heart. There in Nauheim they make the acquaintance of the Ashburnhams, whom Dowell describes as “good people,” the kind who know how to behave according to accepted rules of the aristocratic class.

The narrative details how the lives of four people, all “quite good people” of the spa-visiting class, goes along for nine stable years of “stepping a lovely minuet,” and then suddenly “vanishes in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks.” But wait, says Dowell, it was not really a minuet at all; it was “a prison full of screaming hysterics,” but wait, no: “I swear by the sacred name of the creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true plash of the fountains from the mouth of stone dolphins . . . If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn’t it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?”

Such is the world of Dowell, who has spent his entire life pretending to himself that the good apples are not rotten inside. He concludes his expatiation on apples with this: “I know nothing—nothing in the world—of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone—horribly alone.” One is reminded of the teller of the tale of Job in the bible: “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow.” The messengers who come to Job, to tell him of all the hideous tribulations that Satan—with the permission of the Lord—has visited upon him, always end their reports with this: “and I only have escaped alone to tell thee.”

Much changed and chagrined unto death, Dowell is the only escapee from the torture chambers of the four central characters at Nauheim, and although most of these characters place their faith in God, the god of this story seems mostly like the otiose god of the Job story, He who turns Satan lose, to do as he wishes with the life of the good man Job.

The central narrative of The Good Soldier is basically melodramatic, relating the story of Captain Edward Ashburnham, whose life is ruined because, essentially, he cannot keep his penis—or at least his romantic sentiments—in his pants pocket. What is “the good soldier,” Ashburnham, really like? Over the course of the book Dowell tells us repeatedly, constantly contradicting himself. Here is a typical assertion early on: “Edward Ashburnham was the cleanest-looking sort of chap, an excellent magistrate, a first-class soldier, one of the best landlords, so they said, in Hampshire, England.” Later on: The “splendid fellow that he was—the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinary kind, careful, and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, etc.” And again, “I liked him so much—so infinitely much.”

Dowell gives numerous examples of this aristocrat-landlord’s kindnesses to the soldiers serving under him in India, and to the tenants on his landed estate of Branshaw Teleragh. With his way of jerking back and forth between love and hatred for all of the other characters, Dowell dwells at times on Ashburnham’s foibles; he is, above all, “a sentimentalist,” a man with a “intense, optimistic belief that the woman he was making love to at the moment was the one he was destined, at last, to be eternally constant to.” And this: “he was just exactly the sort of chap you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine—and it was madness.” Is “the good soldier” really much of a soldier? Well, after all, “all good soldiers are sentimentalists,” and Captain Ashburnham of the 14th Hussars has never seen action in battle. His eyes: “they were perfectly honest, perfectly straitforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid.”

Over the course of the narrative Ashburnham runs through affairs with four different women—and practically ruins himself and his whole family on an adventure with one of them, “a cosmopolitan harpy” who is little more than a prostitute. This is a femme fatale character out of pulp fiction, the mistress of a Russian Grand Duke. Edward also gets involved with blackmailers, more lowlife figures from the cheap, lurid world of melodrama. Dowell paints him as something of a dunce, and the reader sometimes wonders if this is not exaggerated. Halfway through the narrative Dowell himself gets dubious about what he has told us.

“It is very difficult to give an all-round impression of any man. I wonder how far I have succeeded with Edward Ashburnham. I dare say I haven’t succeeded at all.” It is easier to believe Dowell when he describes Ashburnham as “a luckless devil . . . tormented by blind and inscrutable destiny.” But when it comes to the inscrutable destiny, it wreaks its merciless havoc on each of the main characters of the book. At one point, while asserting that Ashburnham “was my wife’s lover . . . that he killed her,” Dowell goes on to ask pity for Ashburnham on the part of “the silent listener” to the tale Dowell is telling. The apparently neutral-sexed Dowell admires Ashburnham with what at times seems almost a homosexual attachment. He doesn’t much admire any of the women in the book, is, in fact, at heart a misogynist.

Like Dowell, and, in fact, like most of the book’s central characters, Ashburnham seems to be, essentially, an innocent, unaware of his deepest emotions, of why he does one thing or another—preferring to keep true feelings repressed. He tells Dowell that at the moment of one of the book’s climactic scenes—his declaration of his deepest feelings for “the girl,” his ward Nancy, while eavesdropping Florence lurks behind a tree—that he had no idea that his feelings for the girl were romantically inclined. But after that he knew that he was hopelessly in love with her. Something similar occurs after Florence’s sudden death by suicide—a direct result of what she has just heard behind the tree—when the first words that come blurting out of Dowell from deep within are these: “Now I can marry the girl.”

What was Florence like? Through Dowell’s eyes we view her as a flighty creature, hyper-romantic, given to making a pretense of her book-learning, but really utterly shallow, mendacious and vulgar. Of all the characters, Florence receives the heaviest dose of Dowell’s opprobrium. Early on he tells us that “She was bright, and she danced.” But then again, she is a graduate of Vassar, she knows things; she likes to talk, way too much, but she can speak with authority on “William the Silent and Gustave the Loquacious, about Paris frocks, about how the poor dressed in 1337.”

One of the climactic episodes in the book describes a day trip to Marburg, where Florence leads a little tour for the others, expatiating on Martin Luther’s document of protest, the foundation of the Protestant Religion. In an act of spite directed at Leonora, an Irish Catholic by birth, Florence extolls the Protestant religion, while excoriating lowlife Italian and Irish Catholics. At this point Leonora rushes out of the room with Dowell, upset by the direct insult to her religion, but even more by Florence’s obvious moves on her husband Edward. She asks Dowell, “Can’t you see what’s happening.” Of course, he cannot, nor does he wish to.

Dowell sees his own job as follows: “My function in life was to keep that bright thing [Florence] in existence . . . and the task lasted for years.” Again: “In the retaining of her in this world I had my occupation, my career, my ambition.” Later on, he still has an intense desire to comfort dead Florence, be the nursemaid to her that he was for twelve years, while admitting, “I hate Florence. I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness.”

The story of how Florence and Dowell came to marry is another bizarre tale, in a book teeming with bizarreness: “I just drifted in and wanted Florence.” Drifted in how and why? Drifted in from exactly where? Dowell spends the whole novel revealing to the baffled reader very little about himself. What about his parents? Not a single word about them, or practically any other relatives. Where was he educated? Despite deferring to Florence when it comes to reading and books, Dowell appears to be well read. He throws into his narrative classical references and French words; he manipulates a large vocabulary: words like “propinquity,” “affaissement,” “pococurantism.”

How did he come into the money that allows him to lead a life of luxury and leisure, mixing with the upper classes at a European spa? Don’t know. All we know about his past is that he is a Quaker from Philadelphia. But how in the world did he come to be the weird, dispassionate cipher of a person that he is—all wrapped up in self-deception? Who knows? A thunderbolt of a sentence appears midway in the book, when Dowell asserts, “I don’t know that analysis of my own psychology matters at all to this story.”

Dowell decides to marry Florence for reasons never explained. “I determined with all the obstinacy of a possibly weak nature, if not to make her mine, at least to marry her. I had no occupation—I had no business affairs . . . . . . I was like a chicken that determined to get across the road in front of an automobile.” As for Florence, she marries him for his money, and because he can take her back to Europe, where she will reunite with an old lover, Jimmy. She makes it clear from the start that “she did not want much [read ‘any’] physical passion in the affair,” then makes sure her new husband will stay out of her boudoir by faking a weak heart. Just as Edward Ashburnham, another of Florence’s lovers, will stay with them in Paris from time to time, reaping the pleasures of that boudoir, so too does the reprobate Jimmy live with them in their Paris flat, “whether we were there or not.”

Dowell’s “elopement” with Florence, featuring his securing a minister for a hasty marriage in the middle of the night—along with a rope ladder, on which he climbs up and down to Florence’s window—is one of the great comic scenes in the novel, which features comic irony on all different levels. On his first climb up the ladder Florence greets him with a warm embrace, the first and last of his life. But then, warm embraces are not really his thing, and he seems content to cohabit a sexless marriage. He informs the reader at one point that he never had any peace with Florence, and that “I hardly believe that I cared for her in the way of love after a year or two of it.”

What is his reaction to her sudden death, a suicide that he takes for a heart attack? He blurts out to Leonora, “Now I can marry the girl.” Later he says, “From that day to this I have never given her [Florence] another thought; I have not bestowed upon her so much as a sigh.” He once refers to the years with Florence as “twelve years of playing the trained poodle.”

Dowell sees his main function as that of nursemaid to the sick. Very early on (p. 10), he describes himself as a “sedulous strained nurse,” and he still is playing the role of nurse and companion to the ill at the very end of the book. But upon their first meeting Leonora discerns that it is he who really needs nursing: “By God, she looked at me as if I were an invalid—as any kind woman may look at a poor chap in a bath chair. And, yes, from that day forward she always treated me and not Florence as if I were the invalid.”

“There is about this story none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny.” So it’s not a tragedy; it’s a farce. Although Dowell mentions the word ‘melodrama’ only once in the course of the narrative, the action of The Good Soldier runs on melodrama. The God of Farce, who is in charge of the scenario, puts eavesdropping Florence behind a tree, where she can overhear Edward’s declaration of love to Nancy. Distraught Florence returns running to the hotel, where that same god—gleefully rubbing his hands together—has placed the ludicrous character of Bagshawe in confabulation with Dowell.

This is Bagshawe’s only appearance in the novel. So it turns out, he is the landowner whose English estate Florence and the notorious Jimmy, along with Uncle John, once visited. As soon as he lays eyes on her, Bagshawe blurts out to Dowell—The Good Soldier is replete with blurtings: “By Jove! Flory Hurlbird. . . . . The last time I saw that girl she was coming out of the bedroom of a young man called Jimmy at five o’clock in the morning. In my house at Ledbury.” According to what Dowell later says, Florence may have survived the revelation of Edward’s love for Nancy, but she could not survive the Bagshawe mortification, the unmasking of her deep sordid secret, the affair with scapegrace Jimmy.

More sheer melodrama is the tale of Maisie Maidan, with more comic irony ascendant. Of all the characters in the book with bad hearts, Maisie is the only one who actually has heart trouble. Melodrama depends on certain worn tropes to advance the action, such as that of eavesdropping. As Florence is to die by suicide after overhearing Edward’s declaration of love to “the girl,” Nancy, so Maisie dies of a heart attack after overhearing Edward speak disparagingly of her to Florence, revealing that Leonora has paid her passage to Nauheim from the Far East. Leonora comes upon the dead body of poor Maisie, collapsed in a trunk, with its small feet sticking out. “She had died so grotesquely that her little body had fallen forward into the trunk, and it had closed upon her, like the jaws of a gigantic alligator.”

Of all the main characters, Florence seems the only manipulator, and the only one not totally steeped in naivety. She has hopes of becoming a British landowner, making her way with Edward back to the landed estates where her ancestors once lived. Edward Ashburnham is a romantic idealist, who, so we are told, at the time of his marriage to Leonora still did not know where babies come from. Leonora herself, educated in a Catholic convent, has led a cloistered life even later, cut off from the world and accompanied by a bevy of sisters, in an Irish landed estate. Bound to her marriage by Catholic law, Leonora spends her life trying to steer Edward through his affairs and bring him back to her—while also taking control of his financial affairs, in order to keep him from ruining the family. “Leonora loved Edward with a passion that was yet like an agony of hatred. And she had lived with him for years and years without addressing to him one word of tenderness.”

Then there is “the girl,” Nancy Rufford, whose name is first revealed only on p. 103. Fleeing from a disreputable mother and a gruff military man of a father, Nancy has lived as a ward of the Ashburnhams from age thirteen. Also educated in a convent, she has little understanding of how the world works. In the final melodrama of the book—when Edward falls hopelessly in love with her and she begins to realize that she is in love with him—we learn that Nancy, at age 22, has no idea what adultery is.  She knows that it is bad, “probably something like catching salmon out of season . . . it had something to do with kissing.” Nancy “began thinking about love, she who had never before considered it as anything other than a rather humorous, rather nonsensical matter.”

Of course, the central character in the book is our dubious narrator, Dowell himself, although he would be shocked to learn this truth. A creature of utter naivety, a man with a flair for self-deception and not much of anything else, this vacant man creeps his way through the book, feeling sorry for himself. How could Florence and Edward have so deceived him, he a man who can “vouch for the cleanness of my thoughts and the absolute chastity of my life? . . . Am I no better than a eunuch?” Actually, he is a kind of eunuch, utterly sexless, apparently not even interested in sex. “Of the question of the sex instinct I know very little and I do not think that it counts for very much in a really great passion.”

Florence’s aunts call him lazy, but Dowell is, rather, inert. “The first thing they asked me was not how I did but what did I do? And I did nothing. I suppose I ought to have done something, but I didn’t see any call to do it. Why does one do things?”

Another prominent irony is the fact that the cipher Dowell, who apparently has never had much happiness in his life, experiences sheer happiness amidst the nine years of his life with Florence and the Ashburnhams. “What chance did I have against those three hardened gamblers? . . . They were three to one and they made me happy. Oh, God, they made me so happy that I doubt if even paradise, that shall smooth out all temporal wrongs, shall ever give me the like.” Nine years of happiness, while being deceived and diligently deceiving himself—the story of Dowell’s years with Florence and the Ashburnhams.

After Florence’s death Dowell gets the news from Leonora that he had concealed for years from himself:  that his wife had been Edward’s mistress. When Leonora informs him about the suicide of Florence, he says, “Did Florence commit suicide? I didn’t know.” He who knows perfectly well that Florence does not have heart problems convinces himself that she died of a heart attack. Then again, the ingenuous Edward believes that as well.

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The Writing/Telling of the Narrative

Ford Madox Ford began working on this novel on his fortieth birthday, Dec. 17, 1913. It is, as he has asserted, “his best book technically.” Mark Schorer remarks that “it has perfect clarity of surface and nearly mathematical poise . . . it is like some structure all of glass and brilliantly illuminated, from which one looks out upon a sable jungle and ragged darkness.” Ford himself has also stated that “I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing . . . but I have always been mad about writing—about the way writing should be done—and, partly alone, partly with the companionship of Conrad, I had even at that date made exhaustive studies into how words should be handled and novels constructed. So on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted.”

The impressionistic structuring of the novel is beyond brilliant, and it is this artistic structure that takes narrative based on gross incidence of melodrama and transforms the melodrama into pathos. Much of the novel’s effect, of course, is based on its dispassionate, weird narrator, Dowell, a man who is so empty of purpose that he entertains himself at the Nauheim spa by counting his footsteps as he ambles about.

Dowell begins as follows (p. 7): “You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.”

Only much later, near the end of the book, do we realize the circumstances involved in Dowell’s decision to tell the Ashburnham story. Having left for the U.S. after the death of Florence, he receives telegrams from both Edward and Leonora. They invite him to come visit them in England on an urgent matter. When he arrives—unsuspecting and naïve as always—he blunders into the last tumultuous melodrama—this this one involving Edward’s love for his ward Nancy. He imagines that they want him to come back and marry Nancy.

Dowell witnesses the final scenes of hysteria. Leonora insists to Nancy that she must “belong to Edward,” who is dying of love for the girl. Although he knows it will kill him, Edward insists on separating Nancy from his life. The hapless Dowell drifts about aimlessly in the midst of this turmoil, wondering “why they always turn to me to be serviceable . . . I have never been the least good.”

After the suicide of Edward, Nancy, who has gone abroad, to rejoin her father, goes mad. Leonora soon makes a new life for herself in a marriage to a neighboring landowner, but Dowell sets off for Asia to find Nancy. He brings her back to Branshaw Teleragh, the Ashburnham estate, which he has purchased. So at the novel’s end Dowell has, in effect, taken the place of Edward Ashburnham, but he continues to play his old role, not as deranged Nancy’s lover, but as her nursemaid. Once again, he is the invalid caring for an invalid.

Early on Dowell remarks that “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down” [to tell the story]. “So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.” This early citation hints to the reader what Dowell himself does not know, and what becomes ever more apparent to that reader as the tale progresses: that he is a fine writer.

Here is another example, his description of Nancy, whom he loves: “She was all in white, and so tall and fragile; and she had only just put her hair up, so that the carriage of her neck had that charming touch of youth and of unfamiliarity. Over her throat there played the reflection from a little pool of water, left by a thunderstorm of the night before, and all the rest of her features were in the diffused and luminous shade of her white parasol . . . And there was a little colour in her cheeks and light in her deep blue eyes.”

Of all the crazy ironies in The Good Soldier this—Dowell’s obvious talent as a writer—may be the craziest of all, but passage after well-written passage demonstrates its truth. The only way to make this gibe with everything else we know about Dowell is to assume that a certain jokey God of Melodramatic Farce is behind the whole business, and this joker, who can write, guides the pen of Dowell as he proceeds.

Dowell has no confidence in his ability to make sense of what he is telling. He once addresses his imaginary collocutor as follows: “You, the listener, sit opposite me. But you are so silent. You don’t tell me anything.” As if to say, “Please make some sense of this hysterical mess I’m describing to you. Tell me what it’s all about.” Nor does he have confidence in his narrative skills: “I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way” (p. 201). Ostensibly fumbling about in his efforts to give coherence to his narrative, Dowell puts the story together by skipping back and forth in time and presenting a series of scenes. The technique, unbeknownst to its teller, is reminiscent of French impressionist painting.

After a long description of the sites in Europe that he and Florence have once visited—and never returned to—Dowell hints at the impressionistic technique: “Not one of them did we see more than once, so that the whole world for me is like spots of colour in an immense canvas. Perhaps if it weren’t so I should have something to catch hold of now.” Over the course of the book Dowell paints an impressionist painting, but when he finishes it and steps back to look at it, he ends up too close to the spots on the canvas; he cannot make anything of the whole: “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.”

We, the readers, however, aided by the creative skill of Ford Madox Ford, can discern the pattern, can put together the blotches of color that fit together to make a brilliant work of art of the whole.

The artistic structure of the whole artifact is built upon the magical date of August 4: (1) August 4 is Florence’s birthday; (2) On Aug. 4, 1899, she sets out with her Uncle John and a young man named Jimmy on a world tour; (3) On Aug. 4, 1900, “she yielded to an action that certainly coloured her whole life—as well as mine.” This was her decision to begin an affair with Jimmy, the morning that Bagshawe caught her coming out of Jimmy’s bedroom; (4) On Aug. 4, 1901, “she married me, and set sail for Europe in a great gale of wind—the gale that affected her heart.” Dowell knows this business about the heart trouble to be untrue, but propagates the lie anyway, something he frequently does; (5) Aug. 4, 1904, is the date of the fateful daytrip to Marburg, and the day Maisie Maidan died of a heart attack; (6) Aug. 4, 1913, is “the last day of my absolute ignorance, and, I assure you, or my perfect happiness.” Of course, Dowell was only partially ignorant of the situation before this, and his “perfect happiness” was always tempered with grief. This Aug. 4, 1913, is the day Bagshawe steps into the action, and the day of Florence’s suicide.

Dowell concludes his tale with a smear of sarcasm: “Well, that is the end of the story. And when I come to look at it, I see that it is a happy ending, with wedding bells and all.” Truer to the spirit of the book are some of his little asides edging their way into the narrative. This: “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart—or of his own?” Or this one, for example, a plaint asking why people can’t have what they want: “Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people—like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords—broken, punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?”

Here is Nancy speaking, puzzling over her life, ruined, apparently, by the Joker God of Chaos, who has manipulated the melodrama: “The blessed saints. You would think they would spare you such things. I don’t believe all the sinning in the world could make one deserve them.” Or this, Dowell again, the lines that end the film of The Good Soldier (1981): “Here were two noble natures—for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures—here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind, and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness.”

Such are the phrases that—put together with a masterful creative structure—help turn melodrama into deeply felt art, bathos into a pathos that elevates this novel to a position high in the pantheon of American literature.

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A Note on the Subtitles

The first of these, “A Tale of Passion,” is, obviously, ironic. Yes, The Good Soldier is a tale of passion, but the narrative is suffused with the dispassion of the teller, Dowell, a man incapable of even conceiving what passion is.

The second, “Beati Immaculati,” appears to be ironic as well. All of the characters, including even Dowell, are believers in the Christian God of mercy, but there are constant suggestions that the god in control of human lives—at least the lives of the main characters in this novel—is, most frequently, merciless, an Evil Joker of a god. Here is the source of the Latin phrase:

Beginning of Psalm 119 (King James): 1-8

“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord [Beati immaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini]. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways. Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently. O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes! Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments. I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments. I will keep thy statutes. O forsake me not utterly.”

U.R. Bowie, author of Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times: A Spy Novel (forthcoming)

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