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.

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