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The Good Soldier | Study Guide

Ford Madox Ford

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The Good Soldier | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The main events of The Good Soldier take place from about 1899 to 1915. The unreliable narrator, John Dowell, is a wealthy American expatriate living in Europe with his wife, Florence. John imagines himself sitting by the fire telling his story about their friendship with a British couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, to a "sympathetic soul." As such, John rambles and digresses, and his "sad" story is not chronological. John bases his story on his own observations and on what Florence and the Ashburnhams have told him.

These are the most important plot points in John's story in roughly chronological order:

A Sham Marriage

On August 4, 1899, Florence Hurlbird sets off on a round-the-world trip with her Uncle John Hurlbird. Uncle John has a heart problem (or so he claims), so Florence must take care of him. On August 4, 1900, a man named Bagshawe sees Florence leave the room of her lover, Jimmy. Uncle Hurlbird and his two sisters, Emily and Florence Hurlbird, are aggrieved by their niece Florence's bad behavior. They try to dissuade the many suitors she has when they arrive back in the United States. John Dowell, however, will not be dissuaded. He knows Florence desires a "gentleman of leisure" to take her to Europe, so he books passage for them on an ocean liner and marries her on August 4, 1901.

After they are married, Florence lies to John, telling him she has a heart ailment like her Uncle John and that she might die if he shows her any passionate affection. John essentially becomes a male nurse to her. During their first two years living in Paris, Florence's lover, Jimmy, lives with them. They go each fall to Nauheim, Germany, for Florence to get heart treatments. In August 1904 Florence comes upon Leonora Ashburnham boxing the ears of Maisie Maidan, the mistress of her husband, Edward Ashburnham. Florence understands that she can use this incident to ingratiate herself with the British couple. At dinner that night, the Ashburnhams sit with the Dowells and meet more formally.

The two couples start spending more time together, even taking a joint trip to Marburg. While in Marburg, Florence puts her fingers on Edward's wrist, and Leonora understands this means they will begin an affair. John, however, remains ignorant, though Leonora obliquely tries to warn him. When they return to Nauheim, they discover Maisie Maidan has died of her heart ailment.

An Arranged Marriage

Leonora Powys grows up in a Catholic convent in England with her sisters. Her parents arrange a marriage between her and fellow Englishman Edward Ashburnham. However, when Leonora learns that Edward will not allow any male sons to be raised Catholic, the marriage suffers a setback. Edward comforts a crying nursemaid on a train, and she accuses him of harassment. Leonora stands by his side, but Edward recognizes that he likes the attention of other women. While on a trip to Monte Carlo, Edward has an affair with La Dolciquita, the mistress of the Grand Duke. The affair ends terribly, with Edward owing a large amount of money. Leonora steps in and takes over the management of money, her economy alienating her further from Edward.

Leonora arranges to have Edward transferred to Burma, so they can rent out their English country manor to save money. While in Burma, Edward has an affair with Mrs. Basil. When Major Basil discovers the affair, he blackmails Edward for money. The Basils move away, and Edward falls in love with Maisie Maidan. Leonora arranges for Maisie Maidan, who has a heart condition, to come with them to Nauheim. At Nauheim, Leonora becomes angry when she discovers that Major Basil is blackmailing Edward, and she takes it out on Maisie Maidan by boxing her ears. Florence Dowell happens to see this, and Leonora understands this means she must endure Florence's company or Florence will expose her imperfect marriage.

The Dowells and Ashburnhams form a quartet and are often accompanied by Leonora's ward, a young lady named Nancy Rufford. Meanwhile, Leonora sees Florence emerge from Edward's bedroom, which confirms her suspicions that Florence and Edward are having an affair.

Nine Years Later

After nine years of what John thinks is peaceful companionship, the Dowells and Ashburnhams are at their autumn visit to Nauheim again. At this point, Nancy Rufford is of marriageable age, and although she is accustomed to going out with Edward alone, Leonora now believes the two need to be chaperoned. On August 4, 1913, Edward and Nancy go out, and Leonora suggests to Florence that she follow them to make sure all is proper. Florence follows the two and happens to see Edward declare his love for Nancy. Nancy is not aware at this point that this love is anything other than fatherly love, but Edward has realized he has romantic feelings for her.

Upset by what she has seen, Florence returns to the hotel where John and Bagshawe are sitting. Bagshawe recognizes Florence as the woman who left Jimmy's bedroom 13 years before. Knowing Bagshawe will reveal her youthful indiscretion with Jimmy to John and realizing she has lost Edward to Nancy, Florence commits suicide. Seeing what he believes to be Florence's heart medicine by her side, John assumes Florence has died from her poor heart. John returns to the United States to take care of Uncle John Hurlbird's estate, as he has also recently died. Leonora keeps a careful eye on Edward and Nancy and prevents the two from being alone together.

At the Ashburnhams' Country Manor

The Ashburnhams return home with Nancy. Thinking she can trust Edward with Nancy, Leonora becomes less vigilant. Leonora suffers headaches and spends much of her time in bed with Nancy by her side. Nancy eats silent dinners with Edward, who is suffering from loving Nancy but not wanting to corrupt her. Edward decides to send Nancy to her father in India to end his own suffering, but Leonora objects. Meanwhile, Nancy comes to understand that Leonora and Edward hate each other and wonders if Edward could love her romantically. Leonora offers Edward to Nancy and says she will divorce him. Nancy rejects this offer as she is Catholic and believes divorce is a mortal sin.

The Ashburnhams ask John to come visit, saying they need him urgently. He arrives and notices nothing amiss. When Edward declares that Nancy will go to India, John tells Leonora he would like to marry Nancy. Leonora tells John that Nancy should have more life experience before marrying. John accompanies Edward and Nancy to the train station to see her off. Some time later, John is in the stables with Edward when Edward receives a telegram from Nancy in Italy on her way to India. Edward slits his throat in front of John, and John takes the telegram to Leonora.

An Unsatisfactory Ending for All

While crossing the Red Sea, Nancy learns of Edward's suicide and goes "mad." When she arrives in India, her father does not know what to do with her, so he asks Leonora to pick her up and bring her back to England. Leonora refuses and sends John instead. After a period of mourning for Edward, Leonora begins a relationship with Rodney Bayham. Leonora and Rodney get married, and Leonora becomes pregnant. John buys the Ashburnhams' manor and establishes himself as Nancy's caretaker. John reflects that no one in the story got what they really wanted, and that, perhaps, is what makes it such a sad story.

The Good Soldier Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The Dowells meet the Ashburnhams in Nauheim.

Rising Action

2 Florence and Edward begin a nine-year affair.

3 Edward professes his love for Nancy.

4 Thinking she has lost Edward, Florence commits suicide.


5 Leonora offers Edward to Nancy, who refuses him.

Falling Action

6 Edward commits suicide, and Nancy goes mad.


7 Leonora remarries, and John becomes Nancy's caretaker.

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