Expressionistic Themes in The Good Soldier

August 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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