The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford


This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

We had known the Ashburnhams for nine years in the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and as easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand.

My wife and I knew Mr and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.”

These are the words of John Dowell, a man struggling to make sense of what has happened in those years at the start of the 20th century.

At first he descibes an idyllic friendship, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that the truth is much darker.

Both marriages were flawed and none of the quartet understood their spouse.

Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier of the title, was a man with many strengths but a fatal flaw – he was a compulsive philanderer who had many affairs.

As did Dowell’s wife, Florence. It was almost inevitable that she and Edward would begin an affair. It went on for years and when relationship Florence took her own life.

And that was not the only harm done. Far from it. Many lives were damaged, and eventually one of Ashburnham’s affairs would lead him to suicide as well

As Dowell tells the story he begins to realise the truth and he must go over events again and again, filling in new details and trying to make sense of what has happened.

There is very little dialogue, just John Dowell’s narrative voice as he moves back and forth in time, untangling events.

That is what makes this book great – the characterization, the elegant prose and, most of all, the wonderfully clever structure.

And yes, it is terribly sad -the complete failure of so many people, who seem to have so much, to understand each other and find fulfillment in their lives.

Not a book to enjoy but definitely a book to admire.

I will read it again one day because I am quite sure that there are details and subtleties that may have passed me by on a first reading.

There is much that could be said about “The Good Soldier”, but it needs someone more articulate than me. Julian Barnes in The Guardian, for example …..

4 responses

  1. A classic “unreliable narrator” story. I read this last year and enjoyed it, too–not because it is a happy story, but because it is so well done, and the characters so well-drawn.

  2. I read this last year as well–in a group (and I believe Krakovianka was part of the diescussion). Similar reaction–not a happy story, but so well executed. Definitely a story to appreciate.

  3. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: February 28, 2008 at Semicolon

  4. I definitely agree that this is a book to revisit – I hope to do so myself when I’ve had a little time to digest my first read. It seems to me a quite wonderful novel, a gem hidden beneath a seemingly mundane title and plot.

    My review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

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