Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novella The Good Soldier famously begins with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” (Part I, Chapter I*). It is a truly tragic tale. All the characters are caught between their own personality flaws and the expectations society holds for what are considered “good people.” Good people just don’t have affairs or get divorced or blackmail each other. But real people fall in love with people they’re not supposed to. Real people want revenge. Above all, people (at least the people in this novella) want others to think well of them.
John Dowell, a well-to-do Philadelphian is our narrator for the duration of The Good Soldier. As he tells the story, imagining that he is talking to a “silent listener,” wanders around and around a period of nine years. The Dowells, John and Florence, meet the Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora, in the early 1900s at a health spa at Nauheim. They did not meet by chance. Leonora arranged their meeting at lunch after an ugly scene with her husband’s mistress. As Dowell continues to tell the story, we learn that Edward has a predilection for melancholy women. He likes to be a caretaker. Unfortunately, he’s so bad with money that Leonora has taken control of the finances. We learn that she has also been assisting her husband in his infidelities, believing that he’ll come back to her once he gets tired of other women. It might have worked, Dowell later reflects, if it hadn’t been for Florence.
When Dowell first introduces his wife to us, he paints her as an invalid who suffers from a hereditary heart condition. He cares for her for twelve years, fending off overly exciting conversation and preventing her from doing anything too strenuous. Florence, however, is far from the sickly creature Dowell paints in those opening chapters. Like the Ashburnhams, the Dowells married for mercenary reasons. Florence is a flirt. Almost as soon as she meets Edward, she sets out to have an affair with him.
Of course, The Good Soldier being a tragedy, nothing ends well. There are suicides. One character goes mad. Another suffers a nervous breakdown. Dowell himself seems to weather the storms, but then, he’s telling story and isn’t telling us the whole truth. Some readers don’t enjoy the unreliable narrator; I do. I love reading the words of lying narrators because I enjoy teasing out what really happened versus what the narrator wants you to think. You get two stories for the price of one. Plus, if an author is really good, I get to see the whole story turned on its head.
The Good Soldier is not a book that you can just dive into. It’s told in modernist style. The first chapters in particular are almost a pure stream of consciousness from John Dowell. As Dowell explains at the beginning of Part IV:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone 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 gusts 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 probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.
Stream of conscious narration is not for every read. I usually avoid it like a cliché. Unless you enjoy the company of the character doing the narrating, listening to their every thought can be a chore. What redeemed the narrative style for me was the fact that Dowell lies to his listener for most of the book. As he circles back around to the key events in the story, he reveals a little be more about what happened right before the event. Your opinion of characters will change as Dowell changes his story. The character you thought might have been a hero becomes a villain and vice versa. In the end, there are no innocent people in The Good Soldier.
* All quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition. This edition is not paginated, so I’ve given approximate locations of the quoted material.