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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

“The Good Soldier”—A Bad Novel

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 08/15/07 at 11:45 AM

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is considered a classic of sorts from the early modernist period. W.H. Auden thought Ford was a great novelist (he had particularly strong praise for Parade’s End, which deals with World War I), and so did Graham Greene. From what I can tell, The Good Soldier, which is not a war novel, but a novel about adultery in the British aristocracy, is still widely taught in college classes on British modernism (see here, here, and here); it’s also widely cited in the scholarly literature. But it shouldn’t be—this thing is a mess. (Or more politely, “perhaps it’s time for a reassessment”?)

One of the oft-repeated chestnuts about The Good Soldier stems from Ford’s early relationship as an editor and collaborator of Joseph Conrad. Ford, it is said, aims to use a version of Joseph Conrad’s nested narrators with their various, idiosyncratic approaches to the “truth.” But if Ford is aiming for a Conradian effect, it’s poorly done, to the point of unrecognizability. The Good Soldier has only one narrator, and the multiple points of view that emerge in the text are never fully explained (in Conrad, by contrast, the different narrators are usually in dialogue with one, primary narrator). The narrator in Ford’s novel at once knows implausibly much about what his friends and family were thinking at various moments, and far too little—it seems unthinkable that he could be such a poor judge of character (more on that below). Moreover, instead of creating a sense of suspense for the reader, the unraveling of the story merely creates confusion, as the story slides back and forth chronologically without leading to new insights on why the characters do what they do in the end.

I won’t do a detailed plot summary (see Sparknotes for a refresher), but suffice it to say the novel is about two couples, the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, and the narrator is one of the husbands, John Dowell. Florence Dowell has an affair with Edward Ashburnham that goes on for several years, which John Dowell fails to notice for most of that time. (He also fails to notice that his and his wife’s flatmate in Paris is his wife’s former lover. For two years.) Leonora Ashburnham, on the other hand, notices it right away—in fact, Edward is a serial philanderer, who is constantly getting himself into trouble over his various entanglements with women of both high and low classes. Leonora hopes (more implausibility) that her husband will reform and come back to her, and Ford keeps insisting that she loves him despite everything. Florence commits suicide, not when she’s discovered by her husband, but once she realizes that Edward has fallen in love with some new floozy. And Edward himself also eventually commits suicide, for reasons that never really make sense.

There are numerous things in the plot and characterization of The Good Soldier that defy logic, and there are some major flaws I haven’t even mentioned, but what really bothers me about this book is the way it stacks the decks to make its own narrator unreflectively passive—to the point where he might as well vanish altogether. What Ford really wants to do is celebrate Edward Ashburnham, whose treatment of women by both Edwardian and our own standards ought to make him a clear villain. It might be understandable if Ford had some kind of point to make about sexual addiction, or some kind of Freudian explanation for Ashburnham’s behavior. But in fact, he doesn’t—there’s strikingly little psychological reflection in this novel, especially if you consider that both Conrad and Woolf were contemporaries, and many of the writers and artists in Ford’s circle were by 1915 smelling Freud. In effect, while the The Good Soldier is often read as an expos&#233 of Victorian Aristocratic mores (with their inherent misogyny), it actually celebrates them by making Ashburnham’s suicide the “true” tragedy in the story.

What The Good Soldier does have is moments of “brilliant” writing, paragraphs that clearly suggest Ford was, at least temporarily, in control of things after all. Take the following, which comes near the end of the story:

“I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way, so that it may be difficult for any one 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 gust 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. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story, and that, after all, real stories are best told in the way that a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real."

(Incidentally, Google reveals that Theodore Dreiser quoted the same paragraph near the end of his hostile review of the novel, back in the day.)

When I read the above paragraph, I thought, “yes, rambling—that’s exactly what this damn novel is.” At the start the above paragraph seems like a kind of apology; if it seems like I’m doing a bad job, well that’s just part of the reality of talking about one’s romantic history (or in this case, one’s wife’s lover’s romantic history, since John Dowell has the libido of a bump on a log). While there may be some truth in the idea that memory is rarely truly linear, if this is how the novelist is explaining his method, it falls flat. The reader doesn’t want the raw, uncooked reality, but art. It need not be a matter of a conventional beginning, middle, and end—this is modernism, after all—but would it be too much to ask for a sense of direction, or perhaps a point? It’s entirely possible for a story to be carefully constructed (or crafted) and still “seem most real.” Ford Madox Ford doesn’t seem to have understood that.

* * *

One final bit of wrongness. This blogger has a quote from one of Ford’s many critical essays:

To him, you will address your picture, your poem, your prose story, or your argument. You will seek to capture his interest; you will seek to hold his interest. You will do this by methods of surprise, of fatigue, by passages of sweetness in your language, by passages suggesting the sudden and brutal shock of suicide. You will give him passages of dullness, so that your bright effects may seem more bright; you will alternate, you will dwell for a long time upon an intimate point; you will seek to exasperate so that you may the better enchant. You will, in short, employ all the devices of the prostitute. If you are too proud for this you may be the better gentleman or the better lady, but you will be the worse artist....[T]he artist is, quite rightly, regarded with suspicion by people who desire to live in tranquil and ordered society.

While Ford perhaps starts out with some valid points about the necessity for contour, he goes wrong—I think, fatally—when he compares writing a novel to a sort of prostitution. That’s just a really sad bit of very bad advice to give an aspiring writer. (Sorry, Peking Duck!)


I agree with just about everything that you’ve written in this review.  The book is indeed a complete mess—the narrator is passive beyond believability, the two women involved are manipulative to the point of misogynistic caricature, and Edward is tossed into a passive role by this combination which really doesn’t seem to fit his character well.  I got the impression from it that Ford started with a theory about narrativity and was forced to use a narrative character that permitted the theory.  (Who could tell this story in this kind of rambling way?  Only the pathological narrator that Ford uses.)

The question is why the book still has the reputation that it has.  I suspect that people want to preserve one of Ford’s books because of his historical reputation, and that this one at least has a lot of sex happening offstage, which as you write above allows readers to pretend that the unbelievability of the characters is some kind of Victorian reaction.  It flatters the contemporary reader to imagine that “Victorians” reacted to sex by being as screwed up as Ford’s characters are—it’s an easy way of assuming superiority.

By on 08/15/07 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Rich—it’s been awhile.

There are maybe three reasons I can think of. One might be the occasional “brilliant” passages, where Ford either goes lyrical or self-reflexive. There aren’t enough of them, but all you need are two or three good pull quotes to keep getting mentioned.

The second occurred to me as I was reading the introduction to the old paperback edition I have—there’s just enough psychic complexity here to point at two or three things, and ask readers (here, students) to try and put them together on their own. It might be a terrible novel in general, but in a certain way it might be an acceptable novel for an English class, if you can convince your students that the ambiguities in play are in fact part of a master plan they haven’t understood yet, not simply direct contradictions or underdeveloped characterization. 

The third is sheer canonical inertia.

By Amardeep Singh on 08/15/07 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Amardeep. Ford’s place in the canon is secure. He will always be on the list of great novelists I plan never to read, and I will always say of him “Ford is a great, underrated writer, and I hope to read him someday.”

“Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair”.

By John Emerson on 08/15/07 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to ask FMF to be Conrad. Their real mutual interest wasn’t narration but “impressionism” which I would have more to say about if I had ever been told in a straightforward way what it was. Anyway, I think Ford’s prose/lyricism make up for what is admittedly a plot that requires a great suspension of disbelief.

By on 08/15/07 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought the novel was hilarious, from the first sentence to “Shuttlecock”, and always imagined that that was the intention.

By on 08/15/07 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, isn’t it possibly fair given that Ford, in “Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance,” has long sections in the second person plural? (i.e., “This is what Conrad and I do when we write") There at least he seems to think that he and Conrad are novelistic soul-mates.

But your point about “impressionism” vs. the play of narration is a good one. I was just flipping through that essay, and he seems much more preoccupied with Conrad’s first sentences than with the effect I was referring to earlier.

By Amardeep Singh on 08/15/07 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not really equipped to defend The Good Soldier in this forum, but it is available at Gutenberg, and I have just reread parts of it, particularly the end. I think it is a very great novel, one of the best of the century, as good as Lolita. Most of what you claim as its flaws are what I consider its virtues.

The narrator is so unreliable that I have always imagined the telegram actually said:"Having a bloody good time.” instead of “rattling.” But Nancy’s intent is the same in any case.

Edward’s suicide is a grand Romantic sentimental perfomance, and a final spiteful trump intended to confound his wife and destroy Nancy. Edward hates women, knows it, and expresses his hate ironically in satyriasis and Romance.

And after twenty years from the last reading, while the narrator swoons in admiration at Edward, I am thinking:"What an incredible asshole.” and again, laughing out loud. If you can’t laugh at the suicides and madness, you won’t like the book.

The book is not pretty and moral like Conrad. Ford is the anti-Conrad. Maybe the nastiest book ever written.

By on 08/15/07 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The only conradian aspect of the novel that is salient is, it seems to me, Dowell’s remark, in the beginning, that the breakup of the foursome of the Dowells and Ashburnams is a small story implying a larger story of decay - he compares it to a mouse dying of cancer in Rome, I believe, with the implication that similarly, the Romans were infected with a whole body disease. Beyond that, I think this is not about Victorian aristocrats - this is a nineteen fourteen book - but about Edwardian ones, about whom the raffish air of the Marlborough house set was always a permanent fixture. It is the stress of, on the one hand, a very sophisticated way of dealing with adultery in the upper class, and, on the other hand, a very barbaric way of dealing with adultery in the courts, that is one of the shapers of the book, making the elements that now seem implausible less implausible at the time. And of course the prejudice there was the era’s curious prejudice against Catholics, while at the same time belief, or the higher rituals of Protestantism, ceased to have any hold on the British upper classes. As far as confusion goes, I don’t find it a confusing book, but one that amply used the method of instilling into side remarks in the beginning of the narrative an importance that isn’t highlighted for the reader - thus, one goes back to them later. That’s why novelists have learned a lot from the way The Good Soldier is constructed. I think reading it for what it is not - looking for hints of Freud, for instance - is looking for the wrong thing in the novel. It is like looking for Bacon’s scientific method in the plays of Shakespeare. A much more interesting reference is to the ethos laid down in Moore’s Principia Ethica. That permissiveness went against Ford’s grain, yet he was an integral part of the movement that dissolved and made laughable the whole notion of the gentleman.

By roger on 08/15/07 at 04:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t agree with your reading, bob.  In order to laugh at suicides and madness, one has to first be emotionally affected by them.  People can laugh at Humbert Humbert, or at the events in Pale Fire.  The people in The Good Soldier always seemed to me to be too tedious for laughter, and a suicide as final spiteful trump seems to me to be extremely trite.  And laughing that someone is supposedly reduced to being able to say only “Shuttlecock”?  I can’t think of any medium in which that would really be funny.

By on 08/15/07 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From the novel:

“I seem to see poor Edward, naked and reclining amidst darkness, upon cold rocks, like one of the ancient Greek damned, in Tartarus or wherever it was.

And as for Nancy . . . Well, yesterday at lunch she said suddenly:


And she repeated the word “shuttlecocks” three times. I know what was passing in her mind, if she can be said to have a mind, for Leonora has told me that, once, the poor girl said she felt like a shuttlecock being tossed backwards and forwards between the violent personalities of Edward and his wife. Leonora, she said, was always trying to deliver her over to Edward, and Edward tacitly and silently forced her back again. And the odd thing was that Edward himself considered that those two women used him like a shuttlecock. Or, rather, he said that they sent him backwards and forwards like a blooming parcel that someone didn’t want to pay the postage on. And Leonora also imagined that Edward and Nancy picked her up and threw her down as suited their purely vagrant moods. So there you have the pretty picture. Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness. But I guess that I myself, in my fainter way, come into the category of the passionate, of the headstrong, and the too-truthful”

It’s funny. Maybe only the narrator & his narration is intended to be funny, and events and characters described horrific & tragic. But if you aren’t laughing at this guy, you will find the book difficult & tedious.

Unlike toward the narrator of Doctor Fautus, it won’t be an affectionate and forgiving laughter. I sometimes go so far as to think the narrator of Soldier is putting us on, that he knows about the affair from the beginning, and is pimping his wife to Edward. And that the oblivious innocence is as much an ironic pose as Edward’s romanticism.

There may be a smirk in the narration.

By on 08/15/07 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And, if I ever penetrated into his private room it would be to see him standing, with his coat and waistcoat off and the immensely long line of his perfectly elegant trousers from waist to boot heel. And he would have a slightly reflective air and he would be just opening one kind of case and just closing another.

Good God, what did they all see in him?”
“You see, I suppose he regarded me not so much as a man. I had to be regarded as a woman or a solicitor. Anyhow, it burst out of him on that horrible night. And then, next morning, he took me over to the Assizes and I saw how, in a perfectly calm and business-like way, he set to work to secure a verdict of not guilty for a poor girl, the daughter of one of his tenants, who had been accused of murdering her baby. He spent two hundred pounds on her defence . . . Well, that was Edward Ashburnham.”

Every single page, every paragraph is wicked or horrific in reality, but hilarious in the narration.

I don’t know if I like these characters, or am sympathetic to them, or would find them interesting. I try to remove those kinds of judgements from my reading. There is a Catholicism that can look a like misanthropy to unbelievers, and Ford’s Catholicism is all over the book.

By on 08/15/07 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to admit that I’m half wondering if this is a put-on--that you’re pretending not to like the novel in imitation of Dowell’s obtuseness.  Surely you can’t think the book celebrates Ashburnham?  Surely you can’t think Dowell’s passiveness is unintentional?  Surely you’re pretending to be the kind of naive reader who identifies the narrator with the author?  Surely you’re mimicking the kind of reader that the modernists mocked?  If I’m wrong, I’d suggest a brief spell reading through the most basic criticism on the novel--most of which is precisely about the ironic use of the narrator.

By on 08/15/07 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow. That was harsh. And, to be honest, this sort of reaction is exactly why I resist teaching the novel to undergraduates.

But I think it’s a brilliant novel, like some other novels from the period, about novelistic dysfunction itself - what is mandated by the form and what, for one reason or another, it’s become “impossible” to do in that regard. It starts us off as if it’s going to head in a conventional direction, that it will properly deploy the skills of characterization, plot construction, only to pull back into something else entirely.

Another way to put it is that it’s a novel about impersonality - not simply as mode of narrative construction, but as a way of life.

I’m being very vague and hand-wavy here. But I do think you’re underreading by a wide margin, Amardeep…

By CR on 08/15/07 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But fordist, don’t you see . . . it must celebrate Ashburnham!  The title calls him “Good”! Surely you and bob aren’t suggesting that one needs to understand Ford’s attitude toward Protestantism, or Schadenfreude, or absurdist humor, or the psychology of women with Leonora’s upbringing, or why an author like Ford might have different artistic values than Dreiser, to write an entry on the novel at The Valve, for heaven’s sake.  It’s just blogging.

By on 08/16/07 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment


What a completely charming post. Ford was such an imposter. The ballyhooed impressionism of the novel is, more often than not, merely an absence of clarity.

The weakness of the novel emerges clearly in comparison to The Great Gatsby, particularly in the contrast between Nick and Dowell. Whereas Nick is believable as a temporarily seduced moralist with lasting respect for Gatsby, Dowell is an utter contradiction, and one that the author somehow manages to take seriously. Sure, it’s possible to alienate yourself from the whiny, homosocial fuming that fills Ford’s pages, and then to suddenly find it all quite hilarious, but that’s not a thrill unique to this novel. You can do the same thing with Cosmopolitan magazine or with the Jerry Springer show.

I should add, regretfully, that the novel has some fits of successful lyricism, including the opening hymns and the scene of Ashburnham taking his (final) leave. However, since even these moments bear the mark of a very strained, sex and taboo-mad sensibility, they are a pain to read and a disappointment to re-read.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/16/07 at 02:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It will be difficult to respond to all the comments in the few minutes that I have.

Let me start with CR and underreading—this is something that it’s very difficult to prove either way. My sense that the novel is loose (in a bad way) and disorganized is, admittedly, subjective. A convincing reading by someone else can sometimes change one’s mind, and I suppose this could happen at some point in the case of “The Good Soldier.”

To Fordist, I do seriously think the novel is celebrating Ashburnham, and not just because of the title. I read the “saddest story” in Ford’s first line as referring Ashburnham’s suicide, rather than the failure of love or romance. I have a feeling you’ll disagree with me, so I suppose the question to ask you here might be: why do you think Ashburnham commits suicide?

To Roger, thanks for the pointer on Moore. I am long overdue for a look at Principia Ethica… On the Catholic/Protestant stuff, I certainly did notice the strangeness about Catholicism: Leonora and Edward, as you remember, actually have their first big fight not over Edward’s philandering, but over whether to raise their children Catholic or Protestant.

But even this theme, which must have been important for Ford personally given his own conversion, feels underdeveloped and implausible. One wonders how the two could ever have gotten married given Leonora’s strong religious attachment. Wasn’t this also a factor for her parents? Why would they ever arrange such a marriage? And on the sex/marriage question, is Ford suggesting that Protestants are bigoted adulterous hypocrites, while Catholics understand loyalty? (Strange, because as I understand it, Ford wrote this novel not long after getting divorced—following his own affairs.)

I got much more out of Waugh’s approach to similar themes in “Brideshead Revisited” (not that the novels have much else in common).

By Amardeep Singh on 08/16/07 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

fordist and Josh, if you can get over being nasty for a moment, perhaps you should better explain what you think the genius of this book is rather than constructing strawmen about e.g. “Surely you’re pretending to be the kind of naive reader who identifies the narrator with the author?” Ford appears to have created this narrator for a particular purpose, and that purpose appears to me to lead to an artistic failure.  Bob’s reading is at least coherent, and in it the book celebrates Ashburnham as making “a grand Romantic sentimental perfomance”.  I don’t understand a reading of the book in which one can not care about Ashburnham and still find the narrator to be a great absurdist joke rather then merely tedious.

CR, I think, comes closer when he describes it as being a novel about novelistic dysfunction.  Well, it’s difficult to distinguish purposeful, illustrative dysfunction from simple failure.  If Ford was really aiming for a Conradian effect, the book does not succeed.  Saying that he succeeding in making it a novel about dysfunction is possible, but it would be helpful to describe some evidence—without specific reasons, any book which one likes can have its flaws explained away by a complex theory about how those flaws are the point of the work.

By on 08/16/07 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1) I don’t think I said the book celebrates A’s final gesture, tho Dowell might. I am of a mind that Leonora is the actual protagonist and only possibly admirable character in the book. Remember we are only Dowell’s description of her & her acts, sometimes 2nd hand.
If I may be permitted another quotation, this is from one of my favorite sections, when the foursome views the signed document of the Protest and Florence crosses some line:

“[Dowell]I was horribly frightened. It came to me for a moment, though I hadn’t time to think it, that she must be a madly jealous woman--jealous of Florence and Captain Ashburnham, of all people in the world! And it was a panic in which we fled! We went right down the winding stairs, across the immense Rittersaal to a little terrace that overlooks the Lahn, the broad valley and the immense plain into which it opens out.

“Don’t you see?” she[Leonora] said, “don’t you see what’s going on?” The panic again stopped my heart. I muttered, I stuttered--I don’t know how I got the words out:

“No! What’s the matter? Whatever’s the matter?”

She looked me straight in the eyes; and for a moment I had the feeling that those two blue discs were immense, were overwhelming, were like a wall of blue that shut me off from the rest of the world. I know it sounds absurd; but that is what it did feel like.

“Don’t you see,” she said, with a really horrible bitterness, with a really horrible lamentation in her voice, “Don’t you see that that’s the cause of the whole miserable affair; of the whole sorrow of the world? And of the eternal damnation of you and me and them. . . .”

I don’t remember how she went on; I was too frightened; I was too amazed...”
Note the absurd narrative shifts to lyrical description in the 1st & 4th paragraphs and the failure of memory at the end. These are not failures of Ford, but the way Ford reveals Dowell, or how Dowell reveals himself, to the reader. It is the consistent pattern and method of the book, you look for what is not said, or what is said instead of something else. Whether Dowell is avoiding, repressing, deliberately attempting to deceive, or whatever is another question.

Another point of the section, mentioned with trepidation, is that the reader is led to believe here that Leonora is really upset by the adultery, and covering it with religious mumbo-jumbo that Dowell can’t be bother to transcribe. But I think the religious dimension is what is most important to Leonora, and important to the book.

Finally, why is Dowell in such a panic? I think the adultery allows him to remain close to Edward, and a confrontation would end the party.

There also may be reasons involving inheritances and money for sustaining the game, but I don’t remember the details.

Dowell is a very wicked man, not an absurdist joke. Ford’s technique is coherent & purposeful. Ford, on the other hand, as Kugelmass said above, may ultimately be unattractive to modern readers.

By on 08/16/07 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bob, thanks for continuing to try to explain your reading, but I’m still not quite getting it.  Imagine that Dowell was telling the passage that you quote above to you in person—I’d guess that most people would think that he’s an appalling, self-dramatizing bore, and his absurd shifts into lyrical description wouldn’t seem so amusing.  Now of course these aren’t “failures of Ford” directly, and of course Ford is coherent and purposeful, but Ford is after all the one who thought that this character had something interesting to say, and that the reader should be interested in decoding his evasions.  But why should the reader be interested?  Because of adultery among four people whose unversal degree of manipulativeness stretches one’s credulity?  Because of the religious dimension?  I can understand why the members of the First Council of Nicaea fought so hard over the exact wording of the Nicene Creed, so I would expect that a novel depicting these events would feature characters who thought that it was important, and probably be written by an author who thought that it was important.  But it takes more than that to make the reader believe that it’s important.

And what is Dowell supposed to be trying to hide?  You write above that “I sometimes go so far as to think the narrator of Soldier is putting us on, that he knows about the affair from the beginning, and is pimping his wife to Edward.” But why would this tale of hidden unrequited homosexual attraction (or, as Joseph perhaps more accurately puts it above, “whiny, homosocial fuming") be any more interesting?  It might make Dowell a very wicked man, but really, who is he hurting who we should care about?

By on 08/16/07 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does the technique match the subject-matter? Well, if the book is an attempt to show the demonic, perhaps. Dowell covets, Dowell envies, Dowell hates. You have a little devil captured under a bell-jar, attempting to talk his way out from under. I am reminded of Kierkeggaard’s “Diary of an Adulterer” or “The Screwtape Letters”, maybe “Wuthering Heights” if narrated by an unredeemed Heathciff on a bad day.

What is the demonic to a Roman Catholic? Confusion, distraction, deception, pandaemonium? How can a writer reveal transcendental evil to a non-believer? In parable, by exercising the faculty of reason despite obstacles.

EA may be Faust to Dowell’s Mephistopheles, and may achieve some small measure of redemption at the end, by refusing to be a tool. Or perhaps it is that the reader finally gains some compassion and forgiveness for this very wicked lustful man.

But compassion must be earned, and it must for be for the real man, not a Romantic image or a lie.

PS:I am not religious, let alone the homophobe that Ford likely was. I just believe in a strenuous effort toward sympathetic readings.

By on 08/16/07 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It might make Dowell a very wicked man, but really, who is he hurting who we should care about?”

Rich, I am not religious, but there is a part of me that still thinks everyone is “worth caring about”, even the dull, wicked, unattractive bores.
Maybe even Dowell. Maybe even Ford.

By on 08/16/07 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and I said above, I think the person to care about is Leonora.

She loves Edward, and is battling Florence and Dowell for his immortal soul. The last section with Nancy is pretty tough, tho described to us by the Devil in desperation, and possibly even hallucinatory. But if interpreted in faith & love, Leonora is not trying to get Edward to screw Nancy, but trying to push Edward to his limit so Edward will say:"Bad, but not that bad.”

But in the end, Edward still wants Nancy to want him.

Leonora comes out ok in the end. Only looks like hell to a demon.

(Have I overstayed my welcome? Last one.)

By on 08/16/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bob: “but there is a part of me that still thinks everyone is “worth caring about”, even the dull, wicked, unattractive bores.”

Sure, if these were people.  But they are only characters, after all.

But I don’t think that you really believe that these are dull, wicked, unattractive bores.  You’ve described Edward as making grand Romantic performances, Dowell as Mephistopheles, and Leonora as battling for Edward’s immortal soul.  Surely your description is one of great, enjoyeable evil, similar to Amardeep’s contention that what Ford really wants to do is celebrate Edward.

And I finally just don’t believe the characterization that you’ve convinced yourself of.  “Dowell covets, Dowell envies, Dowell hates.”?  Covets, envies, and hates what and who?  It seems to me like Ford has created a Chauncey Gardiner narrator who you are inventing a really dramatic story for, but your story sounds a lot more interesting than Ford’s.

By on 08/16/07 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"No better novel in the realist mode has appeared in this century in any language.”

(Martin Seymour-Smith, ‘Guide to Modern World Literature’)

By on 08/17/07 at 06:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll start by apologizing for the tenor of my original post. 

A couple of thoughts . . .

1.  Any discussion of whether a book is good/bad or interesting/dull strikes me as fairly pointless if intellectual discussion or debate is the point.  How are such terms to be decided?  What kind of proof can make a person say, yes, this is interesting?  Is adultery an interesting topic in novels?  Thousands of novelists have thought so, but not all readers will.  Who is right?  Words like good, bad, interesting, dull are useful words for having conversations with people at parties and other similar events because what they do is reveal common tastes and that commonality might make us like someone else a bit more or feel more secure in our taste.  That leads to one bad way to defend the merit of a book, namely pointing out all the smart people who have liked it.  In the case of The Good Soldier that would give us people like Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, Mark Schorer, Samuel Hynes, Frank Kermode, Michael Levenson, Graham Greene, William Gass, A. S. Byatt, and Julian Barnes. Or, if someone questions our taste, it might piss us off (see my first post).  My point is that providing evidence for Ford’s genius or for the book’s badness is, well, pointless, since those aren’t useful terms for critical discussion.

2.  Success and failure could be more useful terms, if they can be separated from taste.  Doing so would seem to require an appreciation of the author’s intention and asking whether the author succeeded at realizing it.  So, a movie like Dogville might be really off-putting to a lot of people (talk about no characters to care about!) but you can still hate it and say it succeeded at what it is doing.  The trick, of course, is to figure out what Ford’s intention was in the book, and the main evidence we have is the novel itself, which makes the task hard by making it hard not only to figure out the novelist’s intention but the narrator’s.

3.  So, here’s my shot at saying how the book succeeds in portraying the collapse of the models of gender, class, nationality, and religion that shaped polite discourse and interaction in the world Ashburnham was born into.  It succeeds by giving us Dowell, whose failure to embody any of those values (he’s American, he’s a cuckold, his attraction to Ashburnham is in part erotic, he’s irreligious, he’s ridiculously passive, the first time a woman touches him is his wedding night [he’s in his 30s] and he runs away when she hugs him, although he comes from colonial American roots, that’s not the same as English gentry and his $ is largely from Florence) makes him all the more invested in trying to keep them alive in his narrative.  His utter failure revels the degree to which they have collapsed.  He has to engage in all kinds of self-deception in order to make the story fit into the model of the tragic fall of a great man.  The key here, of course, is that Ashburnham is no more the embodiment of Victorian masculinity and military virtue than Dowell is.  He’s incontinent to the point of putting his entire career and large portions of his fortune at risk on repeated occasions. His military prowess is most on display on the polo field. He is preparing to molest his adopted daughter by novel’s end, which is why he commits suicide.  He’s come face to face with his own depravity.  I think that Dowell’s story is the disastrous mess that it is because he’s working overtime to keep the same realization at bay.  Keep in mind that the last portion of the novel is narrated from the gunroom at Branshaw Teleragh, where Dowell might be working up the nerve to blow his own head off. 

4.  How do we know that the messiness of the narrative, the errors made in it, the inconsistency and the dubiousness of it belong to Dowell and not to Ford?  Here I think the composition history of the novel helps.  The first portion of the book appeared in the first issue of Blast, where it was still called The Saddest Story and where there appears nowhere “August 4.” Ford changed the name for book publication, it is always claimed, at the behest of his publisher who thought it would be too glum a name for a novel at a time of war.  I also suspect that Ford feared that the irony might be missed--that people might think it’s sincerely sad--and that the new title would make that irony patently clear since Ashburnham does absolutely no soldiering at all in the book, and that this kind of soldier would not receive any approbation when thousands of soldiers were heading off to the western front.  More important, I think the addition of August 4 as the date Dowell gives for at least 5 major events in the book, pausing not once (if memory serves) to note the coincidence was his way to signal that this was too much to be believed, that he (Ford) was doing this on purpose and that we should be careful with the narrator.  August 4--the day WWI began, of course--would stand out even more the audience at the time, so they would be unlikely to miss the ridiculous coincidence and know that it and the accompanying messiness of the narrative couldn’t merely be carelessness on Ford’s part.

5.  One last thing to say about the narration is that it’s pretty much been the main source of debate, because it stages so well much of what narratologists are interested in--levels of disourse, possibilites for irony, the relation between narrative and disaster.  Take the first sentence for instance, which, in response to Amardeep’s point, I would say tells us little about how we should regard Ashburnham but tells us a lot about how we should regard Dowell--but only after we’ve read the novel, only after, that is, we’ve been through it all just like Dowell has. Here’s the opening sentence:  “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” (9).  This declaration achieves several effects.  First, it places Dowell at a distance from his narrative, as if he is telling himself the story in order to create some kind of subjectivity that he can inhabit.  He actually has no audience for the story, so he is telling himself it as if he wasn’t there.  Second, it gets at the distance he occupied throughout the occurrence of the events he will recount in this saddest story, for it is accurate to say that Dowell has heard, mainly from Leonora and Edward, what happened over the space of the nine years rather than having actually experienced the events himself.  Third, and most significant, the strange past tense of the sentence’s final verb suggests that we are going to be present for a second telling of the story, that Dowell has already told it to himself. He has already heard this story at least once before, the verb suggests, and now he’s telling it himself.  The Good Soldier is one of those novels, particularly common in the modernist era, that demands a second reading, but its opening sentence suggests that we begin at the point of a rereading.  The novel later confirms that Dowell rereads his narrative as he writes it.  When he picks up the story after returning from Ceylon with Nancy, he mentions “the words ‘until my arrival’, which I see end that paragraph” he wrote before his departure (149).  The first sentence of the novel, then, tmay well be the last sentence actually written by Dowell, tacked onto the start of the story after it was finished and he had reread it all.  It’s these kinds of displays of the writer’s craft that makes this book a work of genius, but then again that’s really just a matter of taste, my taste.  I also really like spanish goat cheeses and think Zinfandel is fairly lame.

6.  Last point--I swear--Vincent Cheng’s “A Chronology of TGS,” ELN 24 (sept 1986) does a great job of untangling the narrative and makes life much easier for reading the book the first time, which helps a class a lot.

By on 08/17/07 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting comment, fordist.  I make reply more later, but briefly, “How do we know that the messiness of the narrative, the errors made in it, the inconsistency and the dubiousness of it belong to Dowell and not to Ford?” seems to me to be asking a question that no one has asked.  I think that everyone is willing to say that Ford wrote a messy narrative because he thought that a messy narrative was a good idea, not because he was incapable of doing otherwise.  So the question is, was it really a good idea—does the book “succeed”.  People seem to agree that if Ford was aiming for a Conradian nested narrator effect, he didn’t succeed, and that he didn’t succeed at impressionism.

Readings that focus on Dowell’s unreliability as narrator, like yours and Bob’s, still seem to me to run aground on those facts that Dowell doesn’t seem to be hiding.  You write: “[his] failure to embody any of those values [...] makes him all the more invested in trying to keep them alive in his narrative.” But Dowell doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could really be invested in anything except a determined submissiveness.  If he’s twisting the story because he’s invested in preserving these values, why would he depict himself as such an abject failure according to them?

By on 08/17/07 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment


First of all, I’m interested that your name is “fordist.” Does that mean that you’ve been seriously pursuing academic work on Ford? On The Good Soldier, or on other Ford texts, or all of the above? Certainly you have a helpful grasp of some of the circumstances surrounding the novel (for example, it was interesting to read about the publication history).

Rich, there’s a certain amount of danger in discussing literary characters as though they were real people, with real psyches. That said, we can understand Dowell’s abject portrayal of himself as a fairly straightforward case of a man who doesn’t live up to his own ideals. Plenty of people, particularly those inclined to idealism, think of themselves as failures and tell their stories that way. A good example is Camus’s The Fall, in part because it demonstrates how likely such people are to start judging everyone around them as failures or disappointments too.

Fordist, it seems to me that the heart of your list of numerals (in terms of a reading of the novel, rather than another discussion about the role of valuation in criticism) is No. 3. There you set up what is, you must agree, a fairly conventional moral system: once noble values have collapsed, Ashburnham is a depraved parody of those values, and when he recognizes his depravity he punishes himself by committing suicide.

The question is whether Dowell is trying to make moral judgements stick, or whether Ashburnham is the one trying to be a moralizing author. Ashburnham may be less valorous than the young men leaving England to go die, but since their deaths are basically meaningless, Ashburnham is the one soldier whose shows of valor have any meaning—they at least have a sexual meaning. That being the case, Ashburnham turns into the Soldier in the Village People. He is a sexual archetype pretending to be a professional archetype. He has to arouse the interest of his adopted daughter, and he has to let himself be drawn into an affair with her, because in the psychosexual dream of this sort of drag performance it is his duty as a soldier.

In other words, the whole society is implicated in his depravity, because everybody’s hot for him. Naturally, this wears him out, and he finally announces that a fellow has to get some rest and goes off and slits his throat.

In other words, Ashburnham’s suicide is designed to prove to us that something real is actually at stake—that somehow, in the midst of all these infidelities, there is a question of duty and whether one is up to it or not. We ought, we feel, to take all this quite seriously, either because we feel that masculinity really is a heavy burden, or because we suddenly think of the teeming, uncorrupted, brave boys of England, who unlike Ashburnham are facing the enemy with shining hair and rosy cheeks. Either way, whether we are “sympathetic” to Ashburnham or not, we end up more depressed than giddy. A giddy writer like Max Beerbohm (in Zuleika Dobson) is better at the sex farce, and a writer like Jean Genet (in Funeral Rites) is better at the serious silliness of military drag.

However, since all of this makes me like a novel somewhat more than formerly, I have decided to call myself a “Huefferist.” Then I will clear myself of imagined suspicion by accusing D. H. and Frieda Lawrence of spying for Germany.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/17/07 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, there is a danger in discussing characters as if they were people, but as long as this is supposed to be a realist novel, the characters have to behave in ways that the reader can understand.  I like your reading of Ashburnham.  However, I can’t see your reading of Dowell as “a man who doesn’t live up to his own ideals.” Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the text with me, but what I remember of Dowell is that he presents his servile relationships with Florence, Leonora, and Nancy as a positive good—that he’s someone who must take care of someone.  That seems frankly odd from someone who is supposed to be so invested in “the models of gender, class, nationality, and religion that shaped polite discourse and interaction in the world Ashburnham was born into” that he’s trying to preserve them in his narrative.  The values that Dowell seems to be invested in are a kind of “why can’t everyone get along?” that camouflages his desire to abase/attach himself, and that isn’t in any way consistent with the stereotypical values of the time, but that is consistent with Ford’s apparent decision to pacify his narrator so that he could try out some kind of unusual narrative strategy.

By on 08/17/07 at 04:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, those strike me as very insightful takes on Dowell’s character, and ones that could complement my own reading of Ashburnham.

Asking whether or not a character is realistic depends very much on each person’s notion of what kinds of psychological states are possible. Dowell could be a masochist who simultaneously wants characters to escape him (so he can worship them and abase himself) and those same people to end up dependent on him (so he can re-assert himself). I’ve certainly known some fans of The Good Soldier who identified heavily with Dowell, at least in terms of his more overt characteristics.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/22/07 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I wasn’t so much opining on whether the character was realistic as asserting that the novel itself was in the genre “realist”.  People in realist novels may or may not behave realistically, according to the range of psychological states that actually exist, but they do tend to behave within the range of depicted behaviors that are associated with the realist genre.  Or if they don’t, there is some indication why they don’t.  I think that this goes all the way back to the top of the thread, with Amardeep feeling Freudianism as a lack within the novel—Dowell behaves very oddly, and absent any kind of coherent authorial guidance for why he’s behaving oddly, it feels like an unsuccessful authorial experiment.  (Or, as CR would perhaps have it, a deliberate authorial failure.)

By on 08/22/07 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I take your point to be that a) The Good Soldier is not a “realist” novel, and b) it’s not very good at being anything else.

Absolutely. My guess is that it’s a tragedy of manners, and that’s as silly as it sounds.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/22/07 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s possible that I only thought that it was supposed to be read as a realist novel, and that this thought is standing in the way of a better reading for me.  So this could be my mistake rather than a problem with the work as such.  But I agree that it doesn’t work as a realist novel. 

Calling it a tragedy of manners does seem to get at its highly dated quality.  fordist, upthread, writes: “Is adultery an interesting topic in novels?  Thousands of novelists have thought so, but not all readers will.” But what strikes me as interesting in novels that center on adultery is its effect on the characters.  That doesn’t seem to be what Ford was intending.

By on 08/22/07 at 10:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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