The Good Soldier | Study Guide

Ford Madox Ford

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The Good Soldier | Context


Literary Modernism and Impressionism

As a literary movement spanning from roughly 1890 to 1940, modernism sought to break with traditional conventions via experimentation and innovation. Modernism's roots lie in the rapid industrialization of the Victorian Age (1830–1901)—the period spanning most of Queen Victoria's reign—as artists felt alienated from Victorian norms, such as politeness and social conformity, and looked to express themselves in new ways. Modernism proliferated mostly after World War I (1914–18), but earlier modernist writers include Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) and Ford Madox Ford.

Some characteristics that are often found in modernist literature are:

  • A tendency to force readers to take an active role. In The Good Soldier Ford makes his narrator purposefully ambiguous and contradictory. Because there is no explicit, easy way to figure out what is going on, the reader must interact more deeply with the text.
  • A rejection of traditional linear structure. A modernist work may play with flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness narration, fragmentation, digression into unimportant or unrelated events, and unstable focus. In fact, The Good Soldier employs all of these techniques to some degree. Narrator John Dowell tells the story as it occurs to him, frequently going back and forth in time to add or amend details.
  • The use of subjectivity. The unreliable narrator is one example of the modernist tendency to filter story events through a subjective lens, taking away the narrator's traditional objective authority. In The Good Soldier the reader is never quite sure to what degree John Dowell can be trusted.

Literary impressionism, which stresses the use of characters' sensory experiences to convey meaning, is a sub-genre of modernism. Ford defined himself as an impressionist and associated his fellow writer and collaborator Joseph Conrad with the movement regardless of Conrad's disdain for the label.

For Ford, impressionism meant more than concise sensory detail. In his 1913 essay "On Impressionism," Ford writes, "all art must be the expression of an ego." That is, the artist must necessarily embed his own views in his work, and as such, an impressionist work is "a frank expression of personality." Ford argues that a writer can never achieve true objectivity, and he feels the goal of a writer should be to convey accurately the subjectivity of human experience. This is indeed the thought behind The Good Soldier and John Dowell's rambling narration.

The Unreliable Narrator

In literature a narrator's purpose is generally to tell a story that is consistent with the novel's own fictional reality. Sometimes, however, authors employ unreliable narrators, who misinterpret or misrepresent events to intentionally or unintentionally mislead the reader. Literary theorists have categorized various types of unreliable narrators, including:

  • Narrators who exaggerate, usually to make themselves look better. An example is Moll Flanders in Moll Flanders (1722) by British author Daniel Defoe (c. 1660–1731).
  • Naïve narrators, often children, who are not mature enough to understand story events. An example is Huck Finn in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by American humorist and satirist Mark Twain (1835–1910).
  • Mentally ill narrators, who suffer some type of psychosis, paranoia, or mental incapacity. An example is Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (1991) by American writer Bret Easton Ellis (b. 1964). Ford teases the reader with the possibility that The Good Soldier's John Dowell is this type of narrator in Part 3, Chapter 1, when John says, "It is as if one had a dual personality, ... one ... being entirely unconscious of the other."
  • Outsider narrators, who may misinterpret events because events are foreign to them. An example would be the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca (1938) by British writer Daphne du Maurier (1907–89).
  • Trickster narrators, who purposefully defy narrative conventions. An example is Tristram Shandy in Tristram Shandy (1759–67) by Irish-born English novelist Laurence Sterne (1713–68). John Dowell in The Good Soldier might also be considered a trickster, depending on the reader's interpretation of John's intentions.
  • Outright liars, who are crafty enough to spin a believable story while hiding their own character defects or disreputable histories. Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921–95) is an extreme example. Most critics agree that John Dowell in The Good Soldier is this kind of unreliable narrator.

Authors employ unreliable narration as a way to force the reader to interact more closely with the text. In The Good Soldier the reader must puzzle through John Dowell's rambling narrative, frequent contradictions, and amendments to previous statements. Ultimately, Ford leaves Dowell's level of unreliability up to the judgment of readers, allowing readers to interpret events for themselves.

Early 20th-Century Spa Towns in Germany

Spa towns, or towns built around therapeutic hot springs, date back to Roman times. Spa towns were most popular as a social and medical phenomenon in Europe from the late 18th century to about 1920. At the beginning of the 20th century, when The Good Soldier is set, mainly wealthy patients continued to visit spa towns for the hot springs' mineral and thermal curative qualities. Wealthy patients also went to enjoy leisure activities in the surrounding natural environment. In The Good Soldier the characters regularly visit Bad Nauheim, which like other prominent German spa towns attracted visitors to its highly carbonated salt springs.

Bad Nauheim opened its curative saline baths in 1835 and officially became a German spa town in 1854. As narrator John Dowell mentions in The Good Soldier, Bad Nauheim's saline baths were especially attractive to heart patients as a recognized remedy for cardiovascular diseases.

Spa towns' effectiveness on patients' health had also to do with the relaxing atmosphere. Spa towns primarily attracted the wealthy, who were interested in being in the company of their own society. European nobles and prominent personalities visited Bad Nauheim regularly.

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