Oh! My!! It is not too often that I find myself at a loss for words after reading a book, but I must admit this one has left me quite
speechless. Everything about it is unusual, the plot, the setting, the method of relating the story—there is something odd, yet stunning about it. And
tragic, very tragic, though at first you have no idea of the course this river of words will flow. Thinking logically about the scheme of events, it seems
quite contrived, yet perhaps because of its uniqueness, it becomes very real.
One of the reasons it is so effectively persuasive is the manner in which we are exposed to the terrible events. The narrator is surprised, and so, therefore, are we. The narrator is John Dowell, the fourth member of two couples whose lives are a complete façade, one other person, of course, being his wife. John is a completely innocent observer who doesn't understand until the end the sequence of events going on behind his back. He stands alone and silently watches the other three people self-destruct.
When he begins his story, the catastrophe is mostly over, and he pretends that he is sitting in a cozy room with a friend, telling them the tale that took place over a period of about thirteen years:
"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."
The events are revealed as flashbacks, and not in chronological order, but as a normal person would talk about something
horrible in their life. His personal perspective is what makes this story so jolting, so real, because, like a person in a relationship that goes bad,
mistakes in judgment are plentiful, and Dowell acknowledges his errors as he discovers them, and this includes his naiveté about the deceit, the game being
played by the other characters. Yet, in the end, it is not he who is hurt or damaged. He is simply tired of being the nursemaid to other people's emotional
About two-thirds of the way through the book, Dowell reiterates his method of telling the story, with some clarifications:
"I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair—a long, sad affair—one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression."
In spite of this, the story is really not confusing, once the situation has been established because Dowell keeps returning to fill in the blanks, providing more information, strengthening the clarity. But it is of extreme complexity, because the characters themselves are complex, except for Dowell who is simple and plain. And because of this, I am going to break with my usual pattern of writing these reviews, because I don't want to spoil the shocks for those of you who decide to read this book. And the shocks and revelations just keep coming. So, I will provide a brief synopsis.
Though Ford was British, the story begins in America, because Dowell and his wife, Florence, are American; he from
Philadelphia, and she a New Englander. He tells of their strange marriage, barely knowing each other, and how he learns she has heart problems. On the
boat to Europe, she gives him complete instructions on how to keep her healthy. One rule was that he is not to touch her. On the boat, she has an "attack," and
it is determined that they should not return to America, so they make their home in Paris. They begin to spend their summers at the healing baths at
Nauheim, Germany, for Florence's health, and it is here, after three years, that they meet the Ashburnhams, Captain Edward and Leonora, an English couple.
On the surface, they are all "good people," so it is only expected that they would strike up an intimate friendship. Also on the surface, both couples appear to
be in proper and successful marriages, but nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned above, Dowell really doesn't know Florence, and it takes
him nine years to understand her deceit and wickedness. She and Edward begin an affair that lasts nine years, and it ends with death and destruction of the
At the beginning, it is easy to point fingers and condemn Captain Ashburnham, but as the story unrolls, that opinion will change, making this one of the most fascinating character studies I have ever read.
Ford Madox Ford was born in 1873 and died in 1939. His name was originally Ford Hermann Hueffer, but he went by Ford Madox Hueffer until after the war in 1919, when he changed his surname to Ford because Hueffer was too German. The Good Soldier was first published in 1915. It is number 30 in Modern Library's Top 100 English-Language Novels of the Twentieth-Century. It is an easy read but not a quick one—the Dover Thrift Edition is 151 pages, but the pages are compacted—equal to about two pages in a regular paperback.. So be prepared to put some time into it. Strongly recommend reading!
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