The Saddest Story – “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford

May 18, 2014 at 7:40 pm 1 comment

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, Published in 1915

There is something wonderfully unconventional about how Ford tells this story. The narrator,    Dowell, meanders through his life and what has occurred but in exactly the way we all tell stories. He gets sidetracked, he misses parts, he returns to missed explanations – it is back and forth, and bit by bit the pieces of the story fill in to create a whole view, though unreliable, of what has happened.  As Dowell writes he imagines that he is speaking to someone.

     So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a     country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.

Dowell also states that the story he is about to tell is the saddest story he has ever heard. Though arguably it is about how his life has gone terribly wrong, so he is probably right – in our self-absorbed moments the saddest stories are often our own.

Dowell’s story is about he and his wife’s (Florence) nine year relationship with the elite Edward and Leonora Ashburnham.  What begins as a simple meeting while on a yearly holiday at a spa in Germany turns into a yearly event for the couples.  Through-out the nine years Dowell, the simple American, has nothing but the utmost respect for the Ashburnhams and their proper Britishness. However, after Florence’s seemingly sudden death, Dowell finds out that for nine years his wife was having an affair with Edward.  Dowell was the only one in the party of four that had remained blissfully unaware.  His revelation leads him to reexamine his relationship with Florence and the Ashburnhams.

I am not entirely sure what Ford wants the reader to take away from this story. This book is quite a harsh indictment of marriage, religion, and the ruinous effect that keeping up appearances can cause.  Edward was the proper soldier and Englishman but a sentimental fool who spent his married life in one romantic liaison after another.  Leonora is the dutiful Catholic wife who feels like she must stay with Edward and try to appear like the perfect wife. Dowell is a glorified nurse to Florence, who is faking a weak heart so she can have numerous affairs with everyone but her husband.  Dowell is blind to Florence’s cheating because he is so focused on trying to be what Florence wants.  So Leonora wants Edward, who is enamored with Florence, who is only wants to be a proper English (yet America) lady.  Dowell just wants simple love and devotion but even after Florence’s death he can’t find it. And so everyone is miserable.

Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.

Perhaps most importantly for the period in which it was written, this novel addresses the empty and meaningless lifestyle of the upperclass.  The tragic need to appear proper and refined only ends in dishonesty and a lonely existence for Ford’s characters.  Of course, this lesson is ever relevant – the  killing of another soul and the breaking of another’s heart should  never be considered worth it when the end result is merely station and money.   Perhaps some of our politicians would benefit from spending some time with this book.


Other reviews to check out:



Entry filed under: May 2014 reads. Tags: , , , .

A story has more than two sides – “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton The Spring Book Rehash

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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