“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
It has been a long, long time since a book has made me angry, yet A Good Soldier has managed to disturb my normally cheerful and placid demeanour. It was part of a buddy read yet most of the participants dropped out after reading the beginning of the book. Sadly, I persevered and I don’t think I’m the better for it.
I read classics because I want to read books that function of different levels, books that are deep, that communicate the universal complexities of life yet in a way that can be edifying and that I can learn from. This does not mean the book needs to be pleasant. I remember reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a rather dark work by Oscar Wilde; I intensely disliked the book through the first half until I realized that Wilde was making positive comments on society through people’s twisted and, at times, deviant actions. It was effective. I learned much by reading it and it became one of my favourite classics. We can learn from negative behaviour and outcomes. However, the point is to LEARN FROM and not to revel in or sympathize with corrupted and destructive behaviour. So, no, The Good Soldier was not the saddest story I’d ever heard; it was the most appalling.
The Good Soldier basically revolves around two couples, one American and one English (I will give away some spoilers here, but they are technically not spoilers because the narrator basically tells you what happens right at the beginning of the book). Dowell, the American husband is the narrator of this “sad” tale of how he and his wife, Florence, meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora, at a spa in Nauheim, Germany and, in fact, meet there regularly for nine years until the fateful events. At their last meeting, Leonora realizes that her husband will have an affair with Florence, and in fact, has been having affairs with women for years, but only because he has such a caring heart and is a “sentimentalist”, so somehow that makes it okay, as Dowell often praises Edward’s philanthropic and sensitive qualities:
“… though they said he was a good soldier. Yet, Leonora adored him with a passion that was like an agony, and hated him with an agony that was as bitter as the sea. How could he arouse anything like a sentiment, in anybody? ….. suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists —- all good soldiers of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy.”
Leonora, aware of his affairs and of his mismanagement of his wealth through supporting his mistresses and his good deeds towards others, spends all her time trying to manage him and, financially at least, she seems to succeed. She is convinced that one day she will “get him back”, however one fateful evening on a walk with Leonora’s ward, Nancy, a young and innocent girl, he falls madly in love with her. This epiphany precipitates a suicide by Florence who realizes that she has lost him (and that her affair with a boy named, Jimmy, might be exposed), a destruction of the innocent girl and a “dying” of Edward himself. He is dying for love of the girl and Leonora, in a desperate bid to save his life (at lease, I think), tries to convince Nancy to marry her husband. The innocent girl, unaware of the swirling perverse adult emotions and behaviour, gradually begins to grasp the implications and the result is her descent into madness.
Now, I must say, my summary, while exposing the soulless and dissolute gist of the story, does not do justice to Ford’s writing. He is a good writer. But his subject content is so cynical, his outlook on human nature so bleak that as a reader you leave his work with an oppressive heaviness that doesn’t quickly dissipate. One wonders how much of the narrator Dowell’s views echo Ford’s own, as his life seemed a tumultuous mess. Perhaps this quote gives a slight indication of how lost he was:
“I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And 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? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.”
With such a lack of moral certainty and confusion of values that should not only benefit the individual but the society, Ford almost supports the vigorously moralistic Victorian/Edwardian regime that he appears to be critiquing. He proves that if we cannot govern ourselves, chaos and damage ensues; and if we cannot govern ourselves we must be governed by something else.
There are contradictions all through the book, some adding structure to the story but just as often adding confusion. Ford poses some good questions with regard to human behaviour and societal expectations yet he doesn’t appear to try to answer them or add any insight. As the narrator says, “it is all darkness”.
If I allowed myself to spend any more time musing about this book, I wonder at Ford’s choice of a narrator. He is removed by his very essence in so many ways. Even the first sentence of the book is puzzling: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The verb “heard” separates him from his part in the tale and indicates a deliberate detachment. However, practically not only is he the husband who was ignorantly unaware of his wife’s affairs, he is an idle man of wealth whose very idleness causes him to participate less in life. By his very nature he appears to want to escape reality, from his gullibility in many areas, to his expectation of marrying a rather sweet but vapid girl who would not challenge him one wit, either intellectually or by action. Why choose a narrator who has so little engagement with life and people, whose actions appear to only skim the surface of an interaction with humanity? Why choose him to delve into the psychological implications and behaviours of humans who perpetrate such complex yet convoluted actions?
Do you still want to read this book? I’ll leave you with some quotes to further illustrate what you’re up against:
“I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone.”
“You are to understand that Lenora loved Edward with a passion that was yet like an agony of hatred. And she had lived with him for years and years without addressing to him one word of tenderness. I don’t know how she could do it.”
“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.”
“No, by God, it is false! It wasn’t a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison – a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along the shaded avenues of the Taunus Wald.”
“For I (the narrator, her husband) hate Florence. I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of lonliness.”
“Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness.”
In any case, I can only feel it’s a waste of time putting any more thought into this read. After reading C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and presently reading The Art of Love, all the stupidity of these people stood out in stark relief and I wanted to shake some sense into them. There was little benefit to reading this novel and given that Ford’s ability at writing is obviously exceptional, it’s truly a shame he produced such senseless and meaningless tripe. Honestly, Ford, you could have done much better.