The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford“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.

Boys playing soldiers

Boys Playing Soldiers (1779) Francisco Goya
~ source Wikiart

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.

Nauheim historisches Rathaus ~ source Wikimedia Commons

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.

lamia and the soldier

Lamia and the Soldier (1905) John William Waterhouse
~ source Wikiart

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.


18 thoughts on “The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

  1. I don’t even understand why The Good Soldier is considered classic. There are some books that I think, OK, I don’t like that, but I get why it’s considered important or great or a classic. The Good Soldier is not like that for me…

    • I do like Ford’s writing but the structure is inconsistent and the content is terrible. So for me, it’s not a classic. Perhaps someone can convince me otherwise one day, but I doubt it. 😝

  2. His philosophy of life is obviously hopeless and empty and dark. He can produce nothing else. Sad. Well, I’ve never heard of him or the title, but thanks for the heads up. I trust that you have given a thorough review, and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to delve into myself.

    • I think this novel would be hard for you to read but you’d have lots to say about it. But it’s really not worth your time when there are so many other good books out there. I’m not usually so hard on a book. And it wasn’t just the content, it was as if the people involved in the adultery were being praised and it was explained away. But then again, you do see the damage so perhaps it was the narrator’s view not lining up with reality.

  3. I heard this book discussed on a podcast (Bookfight Episode 293) recently where they were discussing this book and positing that Ashburnham is an unreliable narrator. It almost made me want to go back and re-read the book with this perspective…but no, I can’t. I with you and reese above. I really disliked the story. I didn’t find it sad, I found it pathetic. But my sister loved it. I still have to read Ford’s Parade’s End. Hopefully I will like it better! 😀

    • I honestly think they overdo the unreliable narrator nowadays. They might be able to extrapolate it to the unreliable author. I found it pathetic also. I think I’ll give Parade’s End a try but if it’s similar, there will be no more Madox Ford for me! Thanks for your comments, Ruthiella!

    • Hardy’s different. Even though he related such tragedy, he relates it as tragedy or something bad. I felt Ford was relating immoral actions in a positive way, kind of inverting reality. That does not work for me in any way. I’m moving on …

  4. I know for sure that I won’t like it.

    I also lost a long comment. I was saying that I agree with the way you view Dorian Gray. I also “like” Madame Bovary. No matter that there’s no character to like, the book doesn’t indulge in the bad, but it shows the consequences. Anyway, the quotes made my stomach churn.
    However, I can understand that some may appreciate it.

  5. it looks like i’ve missed about five of your posts… the place i usually look for them didn’t list them… sorry about that. i only discovered the new ones by accidently opening another part of the computer… it’s all so confusing; if it wasn’t for mrs. m’s help, i’d never find anything…

  6. i’ve been trying to get the comment gizmo to work… i missed out on the five posts because i was at the wrong site… i don’t know how that happened; computers have a mind of their own… Ford was a good friend of Henry James: they took walks together… i’ve read some of his novels and liked them; this sounds like a horse of a different color, tho…

    • Well, that’s interesting. I’ll have to give Ford one more try. Have you read Parade’s End perhaps?

      I still have to read James. I don’t think he’ll be my cup of tea but I know other bloggers who love him so hopefully they’ll infuse their appreciation into my experience.

      • i read a trilogy by him of which PE might have been one; don’t remember, actually… Ford was “good friends” with lots of lit figures… Conrad, too… i think read a bio of him once… maybe…

  7. I enjoyed the review very much even though I have to admit that I’m in a distinct minority here regarding the merits of the novel — when I read The Good Soldier many years ago I thought it was great! You made such a good case, however, that I now want to go back and test that long-ago first impression.
    I read Soldier when I was in graduate school, as a break from a very long grind, and I had a sort of total immersion experience with it. I had never heard of Ford when, by chance I saw a dramatized BBC version of Soldier on TV; I was so curious I read the book (it’s pretty brief), then watched the drama again, all in the course of five or six days. I totally agree with you that there’s little to admire about the characters and that Ford’s view of the universe isn’t very uplifting or morally instructive. I did find him a wonderful stylist, however, and I was totally fascinated with the way he kept shifting the story, so that you altered your view of events as you learned more of the facts. As for the narrator (Dowell, right? As I said, it’s been a long time since I dabbled with the novel) — I mostly took him as the typical unreliable narrator type who totally misses/misinterprets everything around him. Even his “saddest story” line — as you noted, the story isn’t sad at all, it’s pathetic, really, but even after he knows all the facts Dowell is STILL unable to grasp the meaning of what he’s lived through.
    I did give Ford’s Parade’s End a try, also many years ago, but only made it through the first two novels (I believe there are four!!!). I found the main character (a noble, brilliant, wealthy Tory type who’s true to his class, the last of his kind and the maybe father of his flighty wife’s child) just a bit of a drip! I’ve always meant to try the series again but, as you say, there are lots and lots of books out there and I really did find that protagonist intensely irritating!
    As for Ford himself — well, as one of your previous commenters noted, he was quite an interesting guy. Grandson of that eminent pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Maddox Brown, friend of Henry James and collaborator with Conrad; I also have a vague notion that he was involved personally and professionally with Jean Rhys. His historical fiction (a series about Catherine Howard, set in Tudor times — The Fifth Queen, I think it’s called) is supposed to be a model of its kind . . . . .

    • Well, I’m so glad you showed up! I always welcome differing book opinions because they often help me appreciate the book more. I would love to get your more-mature take on it; it would be interesting. I did really enjoy Ford’s writing but that bothered me as well as I didn’t feel he used it to good purpose. The only thing I took away from this novel is that most everyone is a mess, and destroys their lives, but in certain cases it wasn’t their fault, even if it was their own doing. 🙄 The unreliable narrator …. hmmmm …. from my searches, that term appears to first be used in 1961, so I wonder, prior to this date, if it was actually the author’s intent to make an unreliable narrator or is it just a modern take on something that is coincidentally common? And aren’t we all unreliable narrators to some extent? How reliable is this term to be able to use it in literary analysis?

      I do plan to try Parade’s End, but with some trepidation. Not too soon though.

      I had no idea of that part of Ford’s background so thanks for sharing it. I can understand him being friends with Henry James. You’re one of the ones I’m going to be coming to when I start my foray into James’ work for a better understanding, lol!

      And love the long comments, BTW. Thanks for your thoughts!

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