Wednesday, August 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

I’m double-dipping on challenges again. I’ve had the Folio addition of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier on my bookshelf for three or four years. It sounded irresistible when I bought it; the introduction is written by Julian Barnes. And yet I’ve managed to avoid reading it until now. I chose it for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge as my 20th century classic and I’m also using it toward my Mount TBR Challenge.

Apparently Ford wanted to call the book "The Saddest Story." Instead, it ended up with the somewhat ironic title, The Good Soldier. A Tale of Passion. Given that it is narrated by a purposefully unreliable narrator, the titles are also appropriately unreliable. It was a wonderful unfolding narrative of an affair told by the betrayed husband who tries, at different times, to excuse and accuse everyone involved.

Not the edition I read.
John Dowell is a wealthy American who travels to Europe with his bride, Florence. She has a heart condition and must remain abroad to recover, so they are there for nine years. While there, they meet Captain Edward and Lenora Ashburnham. They are "good people." Edward also has a heart condition. The two couples are thrown into company a lot. They take to one another and spend time traveling and touring. At the beginning of the book, which is the end of the story–John has begun looking back–Edward and Florence are dead. A scandal has occurred.

The story is told in fragments. Dowell narrates, but he tries to explain the viewpoints of each of the other characters as he thinks through what happened. He tells the same essential story over and over but yields up more information each time, allowing the reader to piece together a more complete picture of what actually took place. Dowell doesn’t seem to want to face the truth even now. It’s hard to believe that he was as blind to what was going on as he pretends that he was. It’s difficult for him to give a true account because a lot of what he remembers as truth has turned out to be a lie. And, when at last the story comes full circle, he is left with the sad realization that no one had the happy ending they wanted. Still, it’s hard to feel as sorry for him as he does for himself.

What makes this book such a readable classic is not the "plot." In itself, the plot is a rather straightforward and sordid, once it’s untangled. The characters are nothing special. But it is a classic example of narration by a hesitant, stumbling narrator–a narrator who tells his story reluctantly, seeming only to truly understand what story he is telling after he has talked it all out. It’s also a nice period piece. It’s set just before WWI and shows how the moneyed class lived and some of the social conventions of the times.

A lot of my classics challenge books are adultery themed. I’m not sure why that happened. I still have Anna Karenina to go.


  1. All you need to go with this one and Anna Karenina is The Scarlet Letter.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. Anna K is one my favourite classics, don't be put off by the length as it's suprisingly easy to read and fast paced with a lot happening. I read it in two weeks and it wasn't a chore to do so.

  3. I've often wondered about this book. Thanks for your review.

  4. I definitely agree that it is the narrator who makes The Good Soldier - the story that he weaves reveals so much about himself and is so beautifully done by Ford.

    The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford