The Good Soldier
Expressionistic Themes in The Good Soldier
According to Murray Baumgarten, “the narrator of the expressionist novel no longer worries about the ‘real’ world (422).” Instead, the narrator of the expressionist novel is concerned with the creation of a new, almost illusionary, and composite world where the creator, in this case, Ford’s John Dowell, has authority to view the world, or tell his story, from the perspective of his own unique and personal experience. As Dowell is in the position of power in terms of the relationship between the narrator and his audience, the audience is forced to succumb to the expressionist idea that the inner workings of the narrator’s mind influence and continue to exist in the workings of what is deemed to be the “real” world in the novel. In other words, Dowell’s “silent listener” does not receive a universal account of the sad story presented in the novel (Ford 120). On the contrary, the audience receives an account that is entirely dependent on the unique perspective of the narrator and how his personality shapes his reactions to the events that occur throughout the story. Analyzing Ford’s The Good Soldier through the perspective of expressionism, Dowell’s narrative is a piece that emphasizes the collision of the “real” world, a world taken for granted by its occupants, and illusion, the creation of a world based on an individual’s psychology; Ford’s use of this artistic style creates a new expressionistic world that the narrator utilizes in order to convey his story and stay as true as possible to his singular perspective. Expressionism exists for the time and place where reality is distorted in order to “express emotional state” (Dellolio 240). The Good Soldier contains a narrative, a reality, which is heavily influenced by one man’s emotion, angst, and inner conflict.Expressionist works rely on the idea that “the subjective or the emotional can reshape materiality, that the world as we know it and perceive it can be distorted by the idiosyncrasies of point of view and psychology” (Dellolio 240). This major aspect of expressionism (that reality is shaped by emotional perspective and subconscious thought) is seen in The Good Soldier through John Dowell, an unfortunate man who is forever destined to be an ignored “nurse-attendant” (Ford 151). While Dowell is an unreliable narrator for his false accounts of facts and for his emotional reactions to significant events, the story presented in the novel is Dowell’s own and he is entirely authorized to relay the story according to his personal experience. Dowell asserts this authority to distort reality to suit his subjective by firmly stating to his listener the reasons for telling the story non-chronologically and in a “rambling” fashion (Ford 119):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 the 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 the proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. (Ford 120)Dowell is not using his role as narrator to simply tell a story; Dowell is telling a specific story, his story, based on his personal perceptions of reality. The narrative itself is the manifestation of Dowell’s inner thoughts both conscious and subconscious. The narrator does not present the events that occurred in the novel as they happened and in the order that they happened. Instead, he presents them as if he is directly transferring them from his mind to his pen to the paper. Dowell does not distinguish between or separate the two zones that make up expressionism—the basic reality of the world that he and his friends live in and the world seen through his subjective eyes. Dowell merges these two worlds in true expressionistic fashion and presents to his audience reality that has been influenced by the human psyche resulting in a confusing and maze-like story. As Dowell states, “real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real” (Ford 120). The narrator of The Good Soldier is indirectly telling his audience that the story that he has constructed has elements of expressionism for its reliance on perception. In fact, Dowell is even demanding that his listener view him and his act of story-telling in the way that his mind has thought of it: the listener is to stay silent and patient while he, the narrator, speaks amidst the calm yet majestic natural forces outside the window of his quaint cottage. Dowell is taking control and distorting reality to fit his emotional and psychological state.The narrative and narrative style being expressed to the audience is unique to the character of Dowell. What is true for Dowell’s experience would not be entirely true for Leonora’s experience, for example. This difference in realities is consequent of the fact that Dowell presents to the audience a world that is real to him but significantly disfigured as he is far too emotionally involved to give an objective rendering of events. The audience sees him directly placing the state of his emotions onto the taken-for-granted world. Consequently, he is distorting reality for the audience. The taken-for-granted world is a concept explained by Dowell as an “atmosphere” that “characterized [his] relationship [with the Ashburnhams]” (Ford 29). According to Dowell, it was taken for granted that both couples were “good people” (Ford 30). It was also taken for granted that they all preferred their “beef underdone”, “that both men preferred a good liqueur brandy after lunch” and “that both women drank a very light Rhine wine” (Ford 30). From Dowell’s explanation of the nature of the foursome’s relationship with one another, the inference can be drawn that Dowell was initially only allowed into the “real” world, the shallow world that barely exists for its lack of apparent human connection and psychological influence. Baumgarten calls this world the “ontological zone”, a zone that emphasizes the “narrator’s unquestioned acceptance of the natural attitude”, or of the mundane (416). For a significant amount of time, Dowell connected ordinary traits (like preferences in wine or beef) with that of being a “good” person. It did not occur to Dowell to question those mundane qualities; he did not see an issue with connecting small, virtually insignificant similarities between himself and other people with moral judgments. Expressionism plays a significant part in this novel as it forces Dowell to realize that the taken-for-granted world is not reality. Dowell, Edward, Florence, and Leonora are not just “good people” who like the same things; they are people with dramatic, controversial, and fatal lives. This realization leads to frustration, confusion, and anxiety for Dowell.According to Peter J. Dellolio, “the essential expressionist credo is that stylistic exaggerations and manipulations are commensurate with a protagonist’s extraordinary anxiety and inner conflicts” (241). Ford’s narrator’s anxiety and inner conflict can be seen directly through a stylistic analysis of Dowell’s narrative. As Dowell is leading his listener through an introduction of his relationship with the Ashburnhams and his narrative in general, his inner conflict is evident as he is unable to fully come to terms with the fact that his “minuet de la cour” of a friendship is now torn apart and gone forever (Ford 11). Dowell laments this loss: “Permanence? Stability! I can’t believe it’s gone. I can’t believe that that long tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks” (Ford 11). Dowell’s anxiety is successfully transposed from his mind to a new reality that the audience is just beginning to understand. Just a few lines after, however, Dowell exclaims, “No indeed, it can’t be gone. You can’t kill a minuet de la cour” (Ford 11). Two bold opposing exclamations appear in the same paragraph of Dowell’s narrative. The inner self of Dowell is struggling to accept what expressionism is forcing him to. It is not just that Dowell is sad over the loss of his easy-going friendship; to be more precise to the story and to the movement of expressionism, Dowell is experiencing immense frustration over trying to accept and understand his “alienation…from what was formerly incontrovertible and familiar” (Dellolio 243). As a “fundamental concern of modern art”, the theme of “tension between order and chaos” is key to this part of the story (Dellolio 243). Dowell is desperate to regain order. However, now that the truth behind Edward and Leonora’s marriage and the infidelities of his wife are out and ever-present, Dowell’s emotions have come into play and changed the world that he thought was “real” rendering Dowell’s wish for familiar order impossible.In an attempt to thoroughly analyze expressionistic themes in Hitchcock’s movie Strangers on a Train (1951), Peter J. Dellolio points out how the inner wishes and thoughts of Guy Haines are actualized and manifested in a more hands-on state through the character of Bruno Anthony. Guy wishes to marry his girlfriend, Ann Morton, but is unable to do so because he is already married and unable to secure a divorce from his wife, Miriam Haines. On the other hand, Bruno would like to live his own life without his father’s influence. As a way to fix their problems and fulfill their inner desires, the men devise a plan where they would each murder the other’s enemy. The problem (and the expressionist theme) arises, however, when Guy finds himself unable to actually murder another human being. It is important to note, though, that Guy does have a desire to murder his wife for the restrictions she is placing on his life. Guy even exclaims aloud to his girlfriend, “I could strangle her!” (Dellolio 246). Like Ford’s John Dowell, however, there is something that is keeping him from fulfilling his desires. In The Good Soldier, Dowell has perhaps his most pitiful moment when he resignedly states, “Well, it is all over. Not one of us has got what he really wanted…what I wanted mostly was to cease being a nurse-attendant. Well, I am a nurse attendant” (Ford 151). Both Dowell and Guy clearly and vocally state what their minds desire. Although these two men are unable to fulfill their desires on their own, their subjective thoughts are manifested into reality through the character’s counterparts, Edward Ashburnham and Bruno Anthony. Dellolio argues, “if the internal premise of Guy’s entire being is his wish to kill his unfaithful wife so he will be free to marry Ann Morton…Bruno’s obsessive dedication to the removal of Miriam Haines becomes the externalization of that premise” (244). Since Bruno, unlike Guy, is capable of murdering Miriam, he does so all the while proving the existence of expressionism in the film: “Bruno is another version of Guy: his alter ego, a doppelganger, his subconscious come to life, his suppressed will, and so forth” (Dellolio 244). The expressionistic idea of the subconscious manifesting itself into real life is mirrored with Dowell’s “suppressed will” living through Edward: “I can’t conceal from myself…that I love [Edward] because he was just myself. If I had the courage…I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out…and did many dashing things whilst I just watched…from a distance” (Ford 161). More specifically, Edward had a significantly more intimate relationship with Dowell’s wife than Dowell had himself. Just as Hitchcock’s Bruno is living out the subconscious of Guy, Edward is living out the desires that are being suppressed in Dowell relating to the true expressionistic theme of manifestations of the mind. While Ford’s narrator, John Dowell, has the capacity to recognize the two different and distinct realms of psychology and what is deemed to be the “real” world, neither of them can truly exist by themselves (Baumgarten 416). If Dowell’s psychological emotional state can survive by itself, it survives as “pure fantasy” (Baumgarten 416). On the other hand, if reality exists on its own without the influence of perception and the subjective, it is a “photographic realism” depicting everyday things that hold no definition or meaning in the human state (Baumgarten 416). Consequently, the expressionistic element of The Good Soldier aims to appeal to the human experience in its most genuine form—a collision of two zones, a real world experience perceived by thought and emotion. As Baumgarten argues, expressionism is a “question of inside and outside, reality, and illusion, mind and surface, a matter of where the novelist begins and what he explores” (415). Dowell’s narrative presents itself as an example of true human experience as the narrator navigates through sad events while, at the same time, places meaning and subjective thought onto them.
The Good Soldier as a Modernist Work
During the Modern period, writers were concerned with discarding Victorian literary traditions, addressing new topics and using new forms. Many of them had become disillusioned by the devastation of the First World War, and they were fed up with the hypocrisy of Victorian society. People’s way of looking at themselves and society had changed; they wanted to address the issues that Victorians had ignored, and begin to ameliorate society. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier exemplifies the ways that content and form of Modernist literature differ from that of Victorian times.The Good Soldier’s content exemplifies key themes of the Modernist novel. First, Ford presents a series of loveless marriages and affairs. To the Victorians, marriage was sacred; it was supposed to consist of unconditional love and constancy. When Florence dies, Dowell has “no sorrow, no desire for action, no inclination to go upstairs and fall upon the body of [his] wife (128).” Their marriage had been full of secrets, from Florence’s affairs, to her lack of heart problems, and the poison she kept with her, calling it medicine. Theirs was not the typical honest Victorian marriage. The marriage of the Ashburnhams was no better: “Edward did not love Leonora and… Leonora hated Edward (253).” Edward says to his wife: “By Jove, you’re the finest woman in the world. I wish we could be better friends (206).” By saying this, he is acknowledging that they are not friends, and perhaps it would be impossible for them to be friends. Dowell mentions several times that Edward hated Leonora. He did not like how she managed all his affairs, monetary and sexual. Leonora “hated also his deeds of heroism (199).” Leonora tells Florence: “You want to tell me that your Edward’s mistress. You can be. I have no use for him (222).” This is not the type of thing that went on in Victorian literature. Men did not have affairs, and women certainly did not know it was possible that they might. Yet, in this novel, almost all of the women are ‘harlots.’ These are the type of things Victorians liked to pretend did not exist. The fact that they are being exposed in this novel shows that it is a Modern one.Another element of Modernism that is prominent in this novel is the exposition of hypocrisy, tearing down false fronts and exposing “the show” for what it really was. Victorians maintained the illusion that if you did not acknowledge a problem, it did not exist. Ford exposes the ugly aspects of society that people did not want to admit, let alone confront. Mostly all of the characters in this novel are hypocritical in one way or another. John Dowell, the narrator presents the outward appearance of Florence and the Ashburnham’s lives in which they seem like “quite good people (8.).” As he gets farther in his narrative, however, he exposes the true inner nature of the couple and the reality of their lives. Edward Ashburnham is a soldier, and Dowell explains: “All good soldiers are sentimentalists… their profession is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy (33).” Set before WWI, Edward represents the typical English Victorian soldier, blinded by parades. As we find out later on, Edward has been anything but constant and loyal, having had affairs with at least four different women. “Constancy was the finest of virtues (33-34)” he would say. Yet to him, constancy was the belief that whichever “woman he was making love to at the moment was the one he was destined at last, to be eternally constant to… (34).” Leonora, on the other hand, is not totally innocent either. She knew all about Edward’s behaviour, yet she did not confront him or try to stop it. “There could not be a better man on the earth (111-112)” she told Dowell. In fact, she encouraged Edward’s behaviour, in the end telling Nancy that she must belong to Edward (293). When Edward finally decides to send Nancy away for their own good, Leonora tells him that it “is the most atrocious thing you have ever done in your atrocious life (244).” Florence too “came to [Leonora] right out of [Edward’s] bed to tell [her] it was [her] proper place (83).” Meanwhile Dowell believes she has been faithful to him. Calling out this blatant hypocrisy sets this novel apart from earlier periods.One of the other obvious elements of Modernism in The Good Soldier is the sense of alienation. This is one of the main features of Modernism; prior to this time, people felt that it was a bad thing to be out of sync with society. Each of the main characters in this novel has an immense sense of loneliness, despite being surrounded by other people. “I only know that I am alone- horribly alone (11)” Dowell tells the reader. In the end of the novel, he is sitting alone in Edward’s gun-room, “no one visits [him] for [he] visits no one. No one is interested in [him]. (292)” This pain of alienation, the Modernists felt, was inevitable. The Victorians did their best to conform, but the Modernists believed that loneliness was just part of life that everyone had to deal with. Dowell also sees that “it is Florence that is alone… (82),” which may be why she had affairs with other men. She did not have a real connection with her unaffectionate husband, so she went to other men to try to cure her loneliness. This is also perhaps why Edward went to other women. He could not connect with Leonora; their views on religion, wealth, ostentation and generosity were too conflicting. Leonora too has an immense feeling of alienation: “She craved madly for communication with another human soul (235.)” She cannot talk to anyone, because that would be acknowledging a problem and demand action, which would diminish her pride – for “Leonora [was] the proudest creature on God’s earth (62)”). For the individualist of the Modern age, alienation is inevitable.Imperfect structure and narration is another element that places this novel in the Modern period. Dowell speaks in first person, with a reflective voice looking back at the past. Since he is looking back on the past, he uses both past and present tense in his narrative. Dowell is an unreliable narrator, leaving out details, contradicting himself, and manipulating readers into believing what Ford wants them to believe. “I have unintentionally misled you (103)” he admits multiple times throughout the novel. Dowell’s narration may seem inconsistent, but it is realistic. Because he himself has witnessed much of the events of this novel, and been privy to many of the Ashburnham’s secrets, Dowell is able to tell the story from multiple points of view – but they are often completely contradictory, whereas the typical Victorian narrator was omniscient and objective. Mixed in to his narrative are Dowell’s own comments and thoughts, another signal of Modernist literature.The novel’s non-linearity is also consistent with Modernism. Since Dowell is telling us this tale by memory, the events are not presented in the same order in which they occurred. “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 (213).” Dowell’s tale has no real structure to it; but it is rare that our speech in real life is perfectly structured, so the format makes the narrative more realistic. Dowell is telling the story from multiple points of view at the same time. He will present an event from one point of view, and have to go back and tell us the same thing through someone else’s eyes. In Victorian literature, by contrast, writers would compose a story from start to finish with no jumping around.Although there are various remarks made regarding religion in this novel, Dowell himself is not religious, and many of the remarks made are actually making fun of the church. It is only in Modern times that God and religion become “dead.” Dowell remarks early on in the novel that “there is nothing to guide us… it is all a darkness (16).” In previous periods, that statement would have said that God would guide them; by the Modernist period, many people have lost their faith. Dowell states: “I would grumble like a stockbroker whose conversations over the telephone are incommoded by the ringing of the bells from a city church (57),” showing the tendency of secular society to only think of church as an annoyance, if they think of it at all. Leonora is the exception, but her Roman Catholic faith is not presented in a positive light: “She would have spied upon his banking account in secret. She was not a Roman Catholic for nothing (225).” Leonora’s unethical behavior – encouraging affairs and then getting angry at the women later on – shows that religion does not make one happy or ethical. Only when Leonora loses her religion, in fact, does she become truly happy: “Having been cut off from the restraints of her religion for the first time in her life, she acted along the lines of her instinctive desires (234).” Dowell/ Ford do not favour the Protestant religion either. He states: “The Reformer (Martin Luther) and his friends met for the first time under the protection of the gentleman that had three wives at once and formed an alliance with the gentleman that had six wives, one after the other (52).” About these facts, Dowell makes sure to mention that “I’m not really interested in these facts but they have a bearing on my story (52).” The lack of respect for God and the Church goes along with the lack of respect for authority. This novel is set before World War I but Ford was writing after it, and one could see all the false fronts the war destroyed. At the end of the novel, Dowell wants to say “God Bless You (294)” to Edward, but he either cannot or will not do so, and says nothing. Again, characters’ lack of faith and trust in God distinguish it from the Victorian era.By addressing the previously taboo content of extramarital affairs and unhappy marriages, hypocrisy, individualism and alienation, and loss of faith, and by using unreliable narration and variable but realistic structure, The Good Soldier distinguishes itself clearly from Victorian literature and places it firmly within the Modernist canon.Work CitedFord, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier: a tale of passion. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Parallels Between Dowell’s Relationships and Narrative Style
Narration is a critical aspect of Ford’s The Good Soldier. Since the narrator also serves as one of the main characters, his narrative perspective becomes even more interesting to the reader. One of the most fascinating aspects of Dowell’s narration is that it is inconsistent, often incorrect, and at times somewhat passive. His perspectives and the way he views himself in his relationships create parallels to his narrative style, and indeed become shaping factors in his narration. John Dowell’s relationships with women lack passion or sexual desire. He “has displayed not even the mildest tremors of sexual desire” (Levenson 378). His relationships with Florence and Nancy, which should have had the potential to be conventionally categorized as “romantic,” are anything but. To even begin to interpret Dowell’s relationships, it becomes necessary to first look at his overall view on love. He makes it clear that he does not believe in the “permanence of man’s or woman’s love… [or] permanence of any early passion” (Ford 96). He also states that “there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage” (Ford 97) and that this, not a sexual passion, causes a man’s desire for a woman. Dowell’s views, applied to his own life, show that the entire idea of his relationship to Florence comes undone. Florence in no way renews his courage; if anything, she aids in making him weaker and more oblivious as time progresses. Dowell’s role in his relationship with Florence is, like his narration, full of “inconsistency… passivity… [and] sexual abstention” (Levenson 378). The reader is still left somewhat in the dark in regards to Dowell’s relationship with his wife Florence, even after a near three hundred pages of text. Love and passion aside, Dowell and Florence lack even a steady line of communication. He doesn’t come to realize the true essence of their relationship until it doesn’t even matter anymore after Florence’s death. Dowell makes it clear that he doesn’t know his own story and is essentially inactive in his own relationships, just complying with whatever decisions his wife makes. He shows awareness of the fact that his inability to view situations and people clearly is negative, saying “the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is… you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued” (Ford 37). Dowell’s ignorance is perhaps the most prominent manifestation of his innocence. In fact, Dowell’s narration is guided more by his perceptions than by “the evidence around him” (Hoffman 45). If the loss of innocence is the realization that one has a choice, then Dowell remains innocent throughout the novel. Yes, he hints at the fact that he remains with Florence to serve as her nurse, perhaps subconsciously implying that there remains another option by mentioning that he remains only to serve a specific purpose, but it does not seem that he ever actually realizes that he can divorce her. What is made clear to the reader, however, is that Dowell does not love or even like his wife. Early on there is no evidence of any fondness toward Florence. In fact, his disdain for her shows subtly when he observes that during conversation “Leonora would just nod her head in a way that quite pleasantly rattled my poor wife” (Ford 38). Although Dowell could not convincingly be described as a malicious man, he clearly gets at least a small amount of pleasure from his wife’s annoyance and discomfort. One of the most important aspects of Dowell’s relationship with Florence is the distance between the two of them that is maintained by both characters. Florence betrays and lies to Dowell, and Dowell always remains detached from Florence. He has no desire to even change the dynamics of his relationship, which is apparent when Florence’s doctor says that the couple should “refrain from manifestations of affection” (Ford 74) and Dowell inwardly responds with “I was ready enough” (Ford 74). There is no talk of his sexuality any further, in terms of women, men, or himself. He remains ambiguous not only in his narration, but also in his sexuality. His descriptions of the women around him are more telling of his own personality than about the reality of his perceptions of the women. That is to say, his interactions and reactions with the women around him show his personality and thoughts more than they show the truth of the women that surround him, in part because he is such an unreliable narrator and the reader is almost forced to discount many of the things he says. He describes women as he sees fit, in terms of his relationship with them and how they fit into the structure of gender in the society he regards as good. Dowell “tries to preserve his idea of proper womanhood by constructing women such as Maisie Maiden and Nancy as ‘submissive’ and innocent” (Hoffman 42). The aforementioned description is in tension with his description of “Leonora as transgressive and threatening” (Hoffman 42) when he feels fear or inadequacy toward her. Although Leonora has many differences with Nancy and Maisie, the true differences lie in the different ways Dowell represents them within his narrative.This sexual ambiguity leads to the discussion of Dowell’s relationship with Edward. Dowell regards Edward as the epitome of an English man and a societal norm. In other words, “Dowell focuses on Edward as the pinnacle of stability” (Hoffman 35) amidst his gender confusion. In fact, Dowell even uses his narration as “the autobiographical act to identify himself fully with Edward… […] narration becomes for Dowell a means for enacting imperialistic crossings of identity borders” (Hoffman 46). His introspection regarding masculinity shows through at its fullest when his narration is about Edward, because Dowell uses Edward as a basis for comparison and definition of gender. In both subtle and explicit ways, Dowell implies that he regards Edward as the definitive male. In describing Edward, Dowell states that the brick pink of his complexion, running perfectly level to the brick pink of his inner eyelids, gave them a curious, sinister expression… And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjuror pockets billiard balls. It was most amazing (Ford 30-31).This description, one of many, implies a certain perfection within Edward that Dowell regards as being epitomical of a male. Dowell’s perceived role in his relationships with the people around him and with himself shapes his narration. Furthermore, Dowell’s roles in his relationships are parallel to his narrative style. His relationships are full of doubts, fallacies and distance. These three qualities are rampant in Dowell’s narration, right from the beginning. Dowell begins his tale by stating “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” (Ford 13) instead of stating it is the saddest story he has ever been involved in, perhaps, since he is one of the main characters in it. He chooses to distance himself from the people in his life in relationships and consequently chooses to distance himself from the story in the way he narrates it. In her article, Karen Hoffman writes that “Ford [emphasizes] narrative as a means of negotiating anxiety and ambivalence about identity” (Hoffman 31). He explores his masculinity through narration by exploring his relation to Edward’s masculinity, and his “anxiety about these positions propels him to utilize his autobiographical act to redefine himself in more masculine terms” (Hoffman 39). Not only does Dowell use narration as a means of conveying others, but he uses his perception of others and his relation to them to shape his own understanding of his identity, or at least that which he would like to show the reader. The fact that Dowell’s narration is full of “inversions, postponements, repetitions, reversals” (Levenson 374) is symbolic of his gender and identity crisis, and thus symbolic of the role he takes in relationships. He constantly sizes people up by comparing them to what he views as social norms or oddities, and in turn relates himself to the other characters to define himself. This tactic often proves inefficient for the simple fact that the reality of the situation and what Dowell reveals to the reader are often very different things. The same detachment present in his relationships is seen in the way he narrates the story, constantly correcting himself and admitting to the reader that he does not know all the details.
The Good Solder: An Analysis of Ignorance and Growth
In The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford makes it difficult to distinguish the differences between appearance and reality. By using Dowell’s detached and inaccurate narrative and characterizations throughout the book, Ford forces the reader to construct his or her own assumptions about the true intentions of the characters who made this such a tragic story. However, this proves to be a difficult task due to Dowell’s seemingly inherent incapability of understanding the reality of another’s temperament, as well as how the actions of his acquaintances affect his own life. This is exhibited most clearly with Dowell’s interpretation of his wife, Florence. Despite the fact that Dowell’s oblivious subjectivity presents a different portrayal of his wife each time she is mentioned throughout the novel, the reader is eventually able to render a clear impression of her cold-hearted arrogance.
Florence as superficial and simple. He says that: “she was bright; and she danced… and my function in life was to keep that bright thing in existence” (8). Rather pathetically, Dowell admits that his life’s only purpose was to appease Florence’s deceitful illusions by providing her with whatever she desired in order to maintain their illustrious appearance. However, this superficiality also applies to how Dowell managed his own life. Dowell’s financial security has allowed him to live a leisurely life in which he is not required to work. As a result, his life is repetitively spanned by a succession of teas, luncheons, and dinners, which only serve to provide him with the appearance of living a normal, modest upper-class lifestyle. For instance, his marriage to Florence acts as another fulfillment of societal expectations for a man in Dowell’s position. He describes their meeting as rather trivial: “I just drifted in and wanted Florence. First I had drifted in on Florence at a Browning tea, or something of the sort…. I don’t know why I had gone to the tea” (8). The seemingly random and sporadic way in which Dowell met his wife demonstrates that he is no more driven by purpose than a leaf in the wind. His reaction to her death was equally inconsequential. After his initial shock, “she went completely out of existence, like yesterday’s paper” (69) and any recollection of her being was “simply a matter of study, not remembrance” (69). This revelation demonstrates that his marriage to Florence was not based upon love, but utility – as a way to construct himself as a complete and conventional man. “She became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet–the trophy of an athlete’s achievement… Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me” (52). To Dowell, life is solely about appearances, making him just as simple-minded and superficial as his wife. Although Dowell views his wife as somewhat unsophisticated and uncultured, she proves to have a much higher interest in intellectual matters than her husband.
Dowell downplays Florence’s desire “to leave the world a little more elevated than she found it” (8) as arrogance and a need to increase her image in the eyes of others. While this may be the case, it shows that Florence places a value on being enlightened in culture and history – which can be seen as she prepares for an excursion to M– by reading an assortment of history books. Even though Dowell compares Florence and Leonora as “a retriever… dashing after a greyhound” (23), implying that Florence will never be able to reach Leonora’s level of cultural sophistication, his perception of why she feels the need to flex her intellectuality evades him. Dowell may perceive Florence’s pursuit of knowledge as purely a method to elevate herself in the eyes of others, for he naïvely perceives her extensive conversations with Edward as an attempt to educate him, when, in reality, her intentions are flirtatious in nature. His inability to interpret this slightly more profound side of Florence demonstrates his ignorance and lack of interest in anything outside of his bubble of shallowness. Florence’s affair with Edward is meant to serve a singular purpose of granting her a higher status in society. Florence’s desire to become “a county lady in the home of her ancestors,” (51) which is currently owned by the Ashburnhams is one that is fueled by a rapacity for aggrandizement. Although she would never be able to fully possess Bramshaw Manor, for Edward would never divorce Leonora, Florence could have arranged herself close enough to the manor so that she could still feel like she had attained the status of a “county lady” – an elevation of status that she sought above all else. However, Florence’s wish to attain even this compromised version of her dream is thwarted by her own brilliant manipulation of Dowell. Dowell was so thoroughly convinced of Florence’s inability to travel that he forbids her to cross the channel to go to Fordingbridge. While this is the only instance in which Dowell takes the initiative to hinder his wife’s actions, it “fixed her beautifully” (51), for she was unable to contest his commands without risking the revelation of her deception. In his obliviousness, Dowell acted through the best of intentions in order to uphold his duties as a conventional husband in what appeared to be a conventional marriage. As a result, although inadvertently, he was able to take away “the only main idea of her heart” (51), that being any dreams of becoming Edwards mistress in Bramshaw manor.
Florence’s death acts as a catalyst that forces Dowell to perceive past the shallow appearance of his life and open his eyes to the reality of deceit and manipulation that he had suffered at the hands of his wife and closest friends. Dowell does not object to how Florence’s infidelity effected their own marriage, because their marriage was not united by love. However, he draws the line in how her actions disrupted Edward and Leonora’s relationship, even though it was already in an instable and fragile state. With Florence gone, Dowell is finally granted the ability to reflect upon her role within the Ashburnham’s relationship and how that changed his perception of the two of them. He says: “the longer I think about them the more certain I become that Florence was a contaminating influence–she depressed and deteriorated poor Edward; she deteriorated, hopelessly, the miserable Leonora” (105). Prior to the deaths of Florence, Dowell’s life reflected the paragon of conventional leisure that he dreamed of. However, this shallow perception of his life is shattered following Florence’s death. He realizes the Ashburnham’s are no longer the “model couple,” and that he can no longer reflect upon the “glowing accounts of [Florence’s] virtue and constancy” (52). Although there are many instances in which Dowell’s ignorance to his wife’s actions seems unimaginable, one must understand that he was living his ideal life, and anything that could potentially take that away from him was processed as nonsense. As a method of controlling the damage that has already been done, he begins to view Florence as the singular cause of all of the Ashburnham’s problems, and thus, the destroyer of his blissful ignorance.
Following this revelation, Dowell begins to express a distaste for Florence. However, while his anger is hidden under the facade of her destruction of the Ashburnham’s “happy” marriage, the reality of Dowell’s distaste for his wife is that she shattered his illusion of a perfect and stable life – the only thing that Dowell truly cares about. “Permanence? Stability? …I can’t believe that that long, tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks” (3). Feelings of such immense emotion is something that is rather foreign to Dowell. His comparison of his life to a minuet denotes the structure, predictability, and fragility of his life before Florence’s death. Emotions such as fiery passion and blinding anger did not have a place in ideal 20th Century English high society, and thus, Dowell is incapable of understanding them as they infiltrate his ignorant depiction of life. For example, he says: “if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities” (6). Dowell claims that he understands something as “elementary” as passion, yet cannot understand that some emotions are so powerful that they break free from the confines of accepted social standards. He is no longer able to believe in the stability of his own life and now that he has become aware of the financial problems and rampant adultery that has prevented the Ashburnham’s from ever having a particularly stable life themselves, he is unable to handle the realization of reality’s complexity. The abrupt disappearance of predictability in Dowell’s life is truly mind-altering for him, because he had previously based his life on conforming to societal norms. With such a shallow and superficial level of understanding of love and passion, it is no wonder that Dowell is so ignorant to his wife’s abnormal spousal behaviour, such as their nonexistent sex life, as well as the clear tension between Edward and Leonora Ashburnham.
Dowell is neither insightful nor perceptive, so that it becomes very difficult to determine the true disposition of certain characters before the novel ends. While Florence and Dowell both behave in order to achieve what they desire, neither of them were able to attain them. “Florence wanted Branshaw, and it is I who have bought it from Leonora. I didn’t really want it; what I wanted mostly was to cease being a nurse-attendant” (137). This wish never comes true for Dowell either, for he ends in the same place that he started – in a relationship with a woman who will never truly care for him, maintaining a similarly shallow appearance of an ideal life, only now Dowell recognizes the folly behind his ignorance and shallowness. Although Dowell may not be consciously responsible for how his life ended up, had it not been for his painful obliviousness he may have never found himself in such a pleasureless situation.