I’ve read The Good Soldier twice now and both times been amazed by the virtuosic performance of its author, Ford Madox Ford. The novel, a feat of narrative ventriloquism, is narrated by John Dowell, a literary ancestor of Nabokov’s notorious unreliable narrators, though Dowell has more in common with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire than Humbert Humbert. Dowell and Kinbote aren’t nearly as astute, crafty, or monstrous as H.H. They’re guileless, or at least that’s how they hope to come across.
The Good Soldier was published in 1915, decades before the publications of Lolita and Pale Fire. The comparison is useful, I think, in showing just how contemporary The Good Soldier reads even today, and how indebted Nabokov, among many others, might’ve been to this strange book. Like Kinbote, Dowell’s capacity for self-delusion is almost psychotic in nature. They also share a fondness for prolix, purple prose, and candour, or better to call it pseudo-candour. All unreliable narrators have this in common: their determination to be honest with their dear reader runs up against their inability to be honest with themselves. Dowell’s pseudo-candour comes out in his claims of uncertainty: “I don’t know” is a refrain of the novel. He uses the disarming statement partly to earn the trust and affections of his readers. Tellingly, his uncertainty never extends to his portrayal of his dead wife: about her, he claims to know everything. Dowell’s bitter attitude towards his dead wife is one of the keys to understanding him as it reveals his not-so innocent side.
If there’s victim in The Good Soldier, I’d say it’s Florence, Dowell’s wife, who kills herself after she spies her lover, Edward Ashburnham, making advances on another woman. Florence is no saint. She twice makes a cuckold out of her husband and deceives him into thinking she has a heart condition, which turns Dowell from husband into nurse. It’s a role he’s more suited to because Dowell is remarkably without passion for women, hence the irony of the novel’s subtitle, A Tale of Passion.
The way Dowell describes his wedding night is laughably asexual; equally laughable is how seemingly unsuspecting he is of Florence’s infidelities. After they move from America to Europe, they live in a flat in Paris with Florence’s first of two lovers, Jimmy. Jimmy convinces Dowell that, because of Florence’s fragile heart, he must never enter her room without knocking. At night, Florence locks her room from the inside on account of her “fear of thieves.” Dowell tells us all this straight-faced, as if we wouldn’t be shocked by his astounding innocence of what was actually happening directly under his nose. It reminds me of a cruel note a student leaves in Charles Kinbote’s coat pocket that says, “You have hal – – – – – – s real bad, chum” and Kinbote’s epic failure to recognize this as a remark on his clinically bad breath (he instead interprets the word as “hallucinations” despite the “insufficient number dashes”).
I see Florence as a victim because of how shabbily Dowell treats her memory: don’t speak ill of the dead is a maxim he never considers. And then there’s the ease with which he tosses Florence from the narrative during the book’s second half, like throwing her out of a moving car. This is when his attention turns almost exclusively to the good soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham, who, with his “courage,” “virility,” and “physique,” serves as the perfect foil for our passionless narrator. Of course, Edward Ashburnham is far from perfect: there’s a reason why the book’s title isn’t The Good Husband.
I can’t sum up the novel any better than Mark Schorer does in his introduction to my 1951 paperback edition in which he likens the novel to a maze. It’s one that Dowell both weaves and gets lost in, just as we get lost in it in our attempts to understand this enigmatic narrator and the significance of the sad story he has to tell.