Modernism’s Saddest Story

THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford’s THE GOOD SOLDIER is a fantastic book.  I read it as a prelude to modernism, my favorite literary period, and found myself fascinated with both the story, and, like any good piece of modernism, the form.  Concerning form, THE GOOD SOLDIER is told through the narration of Dowell, an American living abroad.  We do not know it at the beginning of the book, but Dowell’s narration is not entirely trustworthy, as he has suffered a nervous breakdown as the result of the events of the book.  Therefore, the book takes on a desultory, disjointed tone.  However, due to the apparent structure of the book’s “Parts”–each ends in a death–we know that some semblance of order and reliability remains in Dowell.

In terms of plot, THE GOOD SOLDIER is the story of two well-bred couples who meet and become friends at a spa in Nauheim.  On the surface, they make perfect society.  Both couples come from respectable upbringings and are well enough off that they can spend months at a time at a European spa for individuals with heart conditions.  Purportedly, Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham are victims of the condition.  However, as Dowell’s story unfolds, the reader learns that nothing is as it seems.  Among the deceptions is an affair that begins between Florence and Edward, the pretense of the couples’ relationship (Florence catches Leonora Ashburnham abusing Maisie Maidan and Leonara latches onto the Dowells in order to save face), and possibly least of which, the fact that neither Florence nor Edward actually has a heart condition.

Dowell reminds the reader throughout that this is the saddest story he has ever heard.  Dowell believes this not only because he is cuckolded by his friend and emotionally mistreated by his wife, but because he realizes that in the end, society has been arranged so that mediocre, emotionless and deceitful people triumph and the brave, sentimental and endlessly honest are doomed to fail.  He reasons his point by noting that Leonora, who is cold and manipulative, becomes on the surface, the story’s hero, and Nancy Rufford and Edward, whose passions violate the rules of society, are perceived as villains.  The experience has turned Dowell’s world view on its head, which is why I would argue that THE GOOD SOLDIER is a preliminary study of modernism.  The old way of life has passed and one cannot trust his impressions as he used to.

Overall, THE GOOD SOLDIER was a fantastic book that I plan to recommend to others.  It is a book that does not leave one quickly and certainly worthy of re-reading.

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