Two couples – the Dowells and the Ashburnhams – live a life of luxury and idleness in pre-World War I Europe. To narrator John Dowell, they represent the height of civilization. Spa treatments, educational tours of nearby landmarks, dressing for dinner, and accepting the deference of servants and hoteliers are all the ‘nice’ things that ‘nice’ people do. But Dowell gradually exposes the reality behind the façade – the self-appointed superiority of British Protestants; the desperate economies that prop up vanished family fortunes; the seduction, infidelity, madness, and suicide that these ‘nice’ people are capable of.
The Good Soldier broke new ground in storytelling by giving the narrator late and incomplete understanding of the events he has witnessed, and by retelling the key episodes with the subtle differences that come with dawning comprehension. At the beginning, Dowell informs the reader that he is going to tell the story as if he is sitting by the fire with a sympathetic listener, and that is what he does – flashing forward, making side comments about the other characters and about himself, lightly touching on asonishing revelations, but at all times keeping as his focus the detailed destruction of the five people involved.
Ford’s sure hand guides Dowell in his narration, turning him from a passive, chaste innocent into an embittered man barely suppressing his rage even as he upholds the noblesse oblige that traps him. Like an jeweler shaping a stone, Ford holds each character, save one, to the light of his examination. The work he does polishing each facet is not to reveal beauty in the individual, but to show the complexity of each character and the rottenness at the heart of each one. As a psychological examination, this is a masterwork.
As you might imagine, this is not the stuff of pageturners. Dowell is frequently more interested in the motives of the Ashburnhams than in what they do. His nonlinear narration makes it difficult to keep precise track of events in order. He himself is filled with self-pity, self-deception, class and religious bigotry, and a willful blindness towards the faults of those ‘nice’ people. But the growing sense of disaster and gathering doom that portends not only the destruction of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams but of their entire way of life becomes a compelling reason to continue reading.
It is difficult to imagine much of 20th Century British and American literature without Ford as a major influence. I’m not a literary historian (and I didn’t stay at Holiday Inn Express), but I think Ford led the way in breaking the narrator free of omniscience, in breaking the rigid storyline from it’s A-B-C requirements, and in prying into the depths of human psychology without judging or moralizing. As an editor, sponsor, and collaborator, his work with Conrad, Hemingway, and Lawrence maintained the continuum from the late 19th Century into the explosively creative 1920’s. As an author, The Good Soldier stands easily with the best in modern writing, and deserves consideration by any reader.
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