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The Good Soldier | Study Guide

Ford Madox Ford

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The Good Soldier | Symbols



For John Dowell, dancing symbolizes order. He describes the way he and Florence got along with the Ashburnhams as like "stepping a minuet." The quartet moves perfectly in tune with the unheard music of good society, always "unanimously" choosing the same table and getting up to go "without a signal from any one" of the four. The illusion of their perfectly ordered friendship was so wonderful to John that he imagines the minuet must be "dancing itself away into the furthest stars." But when the illusion comes crashing down at the end of "nine years and six weeks," John is able to see the reality of the situation. The minuet is not a dance at all but a prison. The people orderly stepping the minuet are merely hiding their chaotic hearts at their center and are in reality a bunch of "screaming hysterics." Only the concentrated desire to be a part of good society keeps them locked-in to the minuet.

Light and Darkness

In a society that rewards shallowness, light and darkness symbolize how everyone is measured on a binary—they are either light or dark, black or white, good or not good. Throughout the novel, Ford Madox Ford illustrates that when society enforces this binary, there is no room for depth or moral complexity. Through his ambiguous narrator, John Dowell, Ford rebels against this binary. By having John contradict and amend his statements, the reader cannot trust anything he says. That is, there are no clear black-and-white readings of the text.

Of course, John still offers numerous symbolic instances of light and dark. For example, in the scene where Leonora Ashburnham offers Edward Ashburnam to Nancy Rufford, Leonora is wearing the black lace of a temptress while Nancy sits innocently in her white silk kimono. But is Leonora making her offer as a noble sacrifice to the other woman to save Edward from his agony? Or does she know Nancy will refuse and her offer is simply a way to make both Edward and Nancy suffer? The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, in the shades of gray that their shallow society does not allow. John's story continually generates more questions than it ever intends to answer. By offering no "shallow" reading or easy answers, Ford forces the reader to interact more deeply with the text and confront moral complexity.


Ford Madox Ford uses hearts in several ways to illustrate his themes. Hearts symbolize the tension between illusion and reality especially well in regard to Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham. Both Florence and Edward falsely claim to suffer from bad hearts, a pretext for them to gain outward sympathy while following their inner desires. But while the physical state of their hearts may be fine, the moral states of their hearts are called into question with their extramarital affairs. They pretend to be upstanding good society people while indulging in their vices behind closed doors. Meanwhile, Mrs. Maisie Maidan, who actually suffers from a physical heart condition, is so horrified to discover she has been set up by the Ashburnhams to have an affair with Edward that her heart literally and figuratively gives out.

Leonora Ashburnham has locked down her heart and passions behind her carefully controlled restraint. Ford symbolizes this by giving her a gold bracelet with "a small golden key to a dispatch box." John outright points out that Leonora has "locked up her heart and her feelings" within it. This same bracelet is the one that gets tangled in Maisie Maidan's hair when Leonora tussles with her over Edward's heart. Florence's witness of this scene is what allows her to gain a hold over Leonora and gain access to Edward's heart as well.

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