The Difference Between Appearance and Reality
The distinction between appearance and reality is one of the most important themes of the novel. No one in The Good Soldier is really who he seems to be, or who Dowell thinks him to be. Edward is not an honest, trustworthy "good soldier"; Florence is not a demure and faithful wife; and Leonora is not an upright, "normal" woman devoid of passion or emotion. The novel traces Dowell's realization that appearances are not reality, that the four are not really "good people."
Dowell's gradual realization, however, is trumped by the fact that the idea of "good people" seems to lose its very definition as the novel progresses. If this well-born and well-mannered English couple is not "good," and if his own wife is deceiving him, then he feels he has nothing to believe in. In the absence of appearances, Dowell is left only with madness, a skewed perception of reality. Ultimately, as the novel's first-person narration shows, personal perception is all one can ever have. "Reality" is merely one individual's version of the truth.
The Moral Significance of Adultery
The Good Soldier constructs adultery as a destabilizing force in society. At its very core, it is a violation of the marriage contract, and the betrayal of a promise. But more deeply, adultery undermines the family structure on which the unity of the country is built. It can be both an act of power and of passion. Edward seeks the arms of another woman in order to escape Leonora's total control. Conversely, Leonora regains power by attempting to control even his adulterous liaisons.
The novel presents two kinds of adultery: the conservative type practiced by Rodney Bayham, and the passionate type led by Edward Ashburnham. Of the two, it is the passionate type that is dangerous, because such an affair leads to impracticality and instability. Edward's "abnormal" attachment to his mistresses, not sex, brings about the collapse of his marriage, and his eventual suicide.
In The Good Soldier, Dowell assumes faithfulness in marriage to be a very basic level of human morality. When faithfulness is questioned, all morality seems threated. Confused, Dowell wonders, "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 all we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness."
Definitions of Normality
Ford's novel defines and redefines normality. Dowell uses the term to assign people to categories: normal or abnormal, passionate or restrained, hero or villain. Such a system allows him to restore order to a morally chaotic world. He considers women like Leonora and men like Rodney Bayham to be "perfectly normal" individuals, content to live according to society's rules. Dowell associates "normality" with a lack of passion, and he uses the term in an increasingly condescending manner.
More main ideas from The Good Soldier
The narrator, John Dowell of Philadelphia, begins what he calls “the saddest story I have ever heard” by comparing the breakup of the nine-year friendship between himself, his wife, Florence, and a wealthy English couple, the Ashburnhams, to events as unthinkable as the sacking of Rome.
Their friendship begins at a German health spa which the Dowells visit yearly because of Florence’s heart problem. During these annual visits, the four spend all their time together, until Florence’s sudden death on August 4, 1913. After Dowell returns to America to settle her estate, he receives two urgent request to visit the Ashburnhams’ estate.
The visit to England changes life for everyone, especially John Dowell, who learns facts that shatter his beliefs and happiness. He finds himself and his world in chaotic darkness with no clear moral certitudes.
On one level, this is the subtly told story of two marriages and of the problems, passions, and misunderstandings that beset such relationships. On another level, it is a microcosm of Western civilization, gradually revealing the hollowness and sickness of its surface conventions and institutions. John Dowell, the passive, naive American, learns of the true sickness of the human heart almost simultaneously with England’s plunge into the evil of World War I.
An acknowledged masterpiece, this fascinating story leaves the reader thinking, feeling, and seeing more clearly the complexities of human nature and society.
Hoffmann, Charles G. Ford Madox Ford. Boston: Twayne, 1967. Short, concise, for students, with sensible analysis of The Good Soldier.
Lid, R. W. Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Definitive study, with emphasis placed on technique.
MacShane, Frank, ed. Ford Madox Ford: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Collection of essays by several Ford scholars on several topics, including The Good Soldier.
Mizener, Arthur. The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford. New York: World Publishing, 1971. There is a close relationship between Ford’s personal life and the themes in his novels, and this is the best critical biography. There is substantial discussion of The Good Soldier.
Stang, Sondra J. Ford Madox Ford. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. One of Ford’s best critics discusses the novel in terms of method of construction, point of view, and experimentation.