The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford centers on the friendship between two sets of “good people,” the English Lenora and Edward Ashburnham and the American Florence and John Dowell. The couples have been casual friends for almost nine years, regularly meeting at a German health spa for Florence’s and Edward’s respective heart ailments. Only, John suddenly discovers that his wife Florence has been having an affair with Edward for nine years. The collapse of the lives involved and the corruption running throughout, of which John was previously unaware, occupies the bulk of the novel.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Julian Barnes, 1st for Mary Gordon, 3rd for David Leavitt, 5th for Tom Perotta, and 7th for Ann Patchett.)
You’d think John would hate Edward once he makes his discovery, but things aren’t that simple. He seems to come to hate his wife Florence (whom he ceased loving long ago and thought more of as a fragile invalid to protect, not knowing that his marriage had been deliberately set up on this deception so Florence could live the life she wanted) and Edward’s wife Lenora somewhat, but he still seems to think highly of Edward even after discovering the affair:
For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance. And, you see, I am just as much of a sentimentalist as he was….”
Florence set up John to be a patsy from the beginning, though that was the only way available in that society to achieve her goals. Edward had a continual problem with fidelity, though he wanted to be good. Lenora was aware of her husband’s failings, but even aided him and was willing to have people destroyed to maintain the marriage her religious principles ordered her to maintain.
I got the idea that John, and Ford through John, thought the whole situation inescapably (and perhaps excusably in John’s view) doomed. For and John seem to leave the question of where the ultimate blame rests, though there seems to be blame, ambiguous:
Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people—like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords—broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?
I don’t think I would have liked The Good Soldier so much if it was just a tale of hidden deception amongst longtime friends who still remained somewhat surface despite the length of the friendship. What I like is the ambiguity in where Ford (and/or John) lays the blame. He seems fatalistic about it, but also seems to lay blame equally on all of the individuals, the conventions under which they operate, and the circumstances of their lives. The blame doesn’t seem to ultimately matter and everyone remains “good people” to at least some extent, “good people” who all have miserable lives.
That ambiguity, particularly as expressed through the main character John, is what makes The Good Soldier particularly intriguing for me. I could ponder over it for a good long while.