“The Good Soldier” a Novel by Ford Madox Ford

On the DVD, Jeremy Brett plays Edward Ashburnham–who is considered the main character, rather than the narrator.  — Ashburnham is described as being tall, handsome and blond.  Brett is rather handsome, but I can’t tell if he is tall, and obviously he’s not blond.

I’m currently re-reading, on-line, this novel, as mentioned above, because I find it so fascinating.  Not only the story, but it’s writing technique.  The narrator of the story could be considered this novel’s main character, and an unbelievable one.  The narrator is married to this upper-class, Connecticut woman, with whom he has never had conjugal relations.  She told him when they married that she couldn’t sleep with him because she has a bad heart and the excitement could kill her.  However, she has affairs with other men, and her husband, the narrator, doesn’t suspect, can’t imagine it even.  He spends 9 years of his life taking care of this woman with a bad heart, by shielding her from anything that might be disturbing, and accompanying her to health spas, when there is nothing wrong with her heart.  It was just all a story.  What amazes me is how people in life live in their own little bubbles and don’t know what is going on around them, and then when they wake up, if they ever do, it’s really a traumatic experience.  The narrator of this story, can’t wake up and see the truth, because it would destroy him, but what is also remarkable is that there is another woman in this story who is sympathetic enough to understand that and protect him from the truth.

I think there’s a big difference between people who have to work for a living and those who don’t.  That aspect of life puts another quantity into the equation, which gives a different result after the equal sign.   People who work complain that they haven’t enough time for themselves, but people who have all the time in the world for themselves complain, too.  People I’ve known who work wished that they didn’t have to, and the people who don’t work wished they had a job.  In this novel no one has to work for a living, but Ashburnham does somewhat by acting as an administrator of his properties.

I just reached this line in the story– the narrator says:

“I don’t know that analysis of my own psychology matters at all to this story.”

The irony is that his psychology is probably the primary point of the story. This aspect of novel writing, in which the narrator is so much of the story, was an early 20th century characteristic of fiction.  One doesn’t find that in 19th century novels.  In 19th century novels, the narrator is usually impersonal.

“The Good Soldier” was made into a film for TV that appeared on PBS, which you might be able to get a copy of on Amazon or at your library.  It’s good, but not nearly as good as the book, because the film is just the plot with no psychology–the essence of the novel.  A man married to a woman for 9 years, for whom he was only a nursemaid.  The most interesting aspect of this is that this man is the narrator of the story.  You miss that from watching the film about these very proper, good, British people.  The story also shows how one can’t tell anything from appearances.

I found this website called DailyLit where they send by email a few pages a day from the novel of your choice.  I think it’s a great way to go through a novel, if you haven’t much time to spare for reading.

The Good Soldier is considered Ford Madox Ford‘s one masterpiece.  Ford was a contemporary of Joseph Conrad, with whom he was friends and collaborated with on some literary projects.  Madox also had

Jean Rhys

an affair with the writer Jean Rhys, who wrote a novel about their affair called “Quartet.”  I started reading Quartet, but didn’t really find the characters very interesting.    I read her novel “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie” which was okay, but again, I don’t find her characters all that deep or interesting like I did in The Good Soldier.  Both After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie and Quartet take place in Paris.  As I read these books, I kept thinking about my own Paris experience, which made me feel frustrated because I want to go back to Paris so much, but can’t.

Paris, 1923. From left to right: Ford Madox Ford, publisher of the Transatlantic Review, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and John Quinn, the New York lawyer who defended the Little Review when they were prosecuted for publishing Ulysses in 1921.

Following are a couple of excerpts from The Good Soldier that I thought really outstanding.  Both excerpts concern being in love, which is mostly what this novel is about.  This quality of writing is what makes this novel so great, and one totally misses that from watching the film.

_________________

He wants to hear that voice applying itself to every possible proposition, to every possible topic; he wants to see those characteristic gestures against every possible background. 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. It can be aroused by such nothings–by an untied shoelace, by a glance of the eye in passing– that I think it might be left out of the calculation. I don’t mean to say that any great passion can exist without a desire for consummation. That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all. It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.

But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist. So, for a time, if such a passion come to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth.

But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows pass across sundials. It is sad, but it is so. The pages of the book will become familiar; the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story. And yet I do believe that for every man there comes at last a woman–or no, that is the wrong way of formulating it. For every man there comes at last a time of life when the woman who then sets her seal upon his imagination has set her seal for good. He will travel over no more horizons; he will never again set the knapsack over his shoulders; he will retire from those scenes. He will have gone out of the business. That at any rate was the case with Edward and the poor girl. It was quite literally the case.

______________________

In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor –a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses. It is really death to do so–that is why so many marriages turn out unhappily.

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2 thoughts on ““The Good Soldier” a Novel by Ford Madox Ford

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this wonderful novel. I’ve just read it for the first time and have been deeply moved by it. For a book written in 1913, just before the world was plunged into the horrors of mechanical warfare, the writing feels unbelievably fresh. I read The Good Soldier because I’ve been studying the English Modernists and heard how influential Ford Madox Hueffer (as he was before he anglicised his name) was in promoting the work of other experimenting artists.

    One thing you nearly but don’t quite stress about the novel is the fact that the narrator is unreliable. The clever thing about The Good Soldier is that you cannot trust the perspective of the protagonist, Dowell, relating events. In fact, there are two stories going on – the real chain of events, and Dowell’s take on them. It was Ford’s experiment in perspective that made his novel truly innovative.

    Like

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