The Good Soldier | Study Guide

Ford Madox Ford

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The Good Soldier | Themes


Shallowness Versus Depth

Ford Madox Ford uses John Dowell's narration as a way to comment on the shallowness of British "good society." People must limit themselves to shallow interactions with others to conform their conduct to the ideal set by the "good sort of people." To be considered good, people must restrain any personal preferences in favor of the norm. For example, good people prefer cold baths, so everyone, even those who prefer hot baths, must take cold baths. John often divides the people he describes on a binary of normal or abnormal. Because of his contradictory and ambiguous way of narrating, John never takes a solid stand on which he prefers. By the end, however, his tone seems to ridicule Leonora Ashburnham, the only character who fully embraces "normality" by remarrying the solid but boring Rodney Bayham.

If Leonora is the villain of the piece because she never gave into her passions, preferring the shallow life, then Edward Ashburnham and Nancy Rufford are the romantic heroes. Their passions and sentimentality drive them mad in a society that enforces a lack of passion and forbids any kind of depth. If Leonora is the heroine because she suffers through Edward's various affairs and carelessness with money, then Edward, Nancy, and Florence Dowell are the villains who cause her suffering. John himself proposes both opposing scenarios, but he never acknowledges both may be true at the same time.

John himself is a product of his own shallow society, and perhaps he can only understand the depths and complexities of the human soul subconsciously. As he states at one point, he feels he might have a "dual personality, ... one ... being entirely unconscious of the other." Is this a mental instability caused by a too-rigorous restraint of his natural passions? Are his portents of "evil" simply flashes of insight that real life and real people are more complicated and chaotic than their perfectly ordered personas might indicate? Ford does not offer any pat or shallow answers, forcing the reader to interact more deeply with his text.

Order Versus Chaos

John Dowell's narration style could certainly be described as chaotic rather than orderly. However, on the whole, John's character, or at least his outward persona, is more orderly than chaotic. His attempts to place other people in the binaries of good or not good, hero or villain, and normal or sentimental reveal how society has given him a need for strict order.

Externally, all the characters show restraint, calm, and order, even when they struggle internally with their private passions. Edward Ashburnham especially exemplifies this duality. His chosen career, which is soldiering, demands orderliness. His marriage is arranged with a suitable woman. And his leisure pursuits are the "normal" ones of his class. However, his sentimentality, carelessness with money, and weakness for women lead to a private chaos he cannot control. His wife, Leonora Ashburnham, has to step in to "save" him, but her attempts to put his affairs in order paradoxically cause her to lose him.

Leonora Ashburnham's order comes from "the restraints of her religion." She is able to curb her "instinctive desires" through much of the narrative, even when provoked by Florence Dowell. Leonora obliquely warns John of Florence's intentions with Edward Ashburnham while they are in Marburg, but she cannot allow herself to come out and tell him directly. Her devotion to Catholicism is the foundation of her devotion to Edward because Catholicism disallows divorce. How rattled must Leonora have been during her private breakdown after Florence's death that she offers to divorce Edward so that Edward and Nancy Rufford can be together. This is the climax of the story—the moment when order descends into chaos. This loss of order has tragic consequences. It leads to Edward's suicide, which is also something forbidden in the Catholic Church, and to Nancy's madness. Though, interestingly, Leonora has no reaction to Edward's suicide. Ultimately, Ford seems to advocate for a society that accepts the duality inherent in the human condition in order to avoid such tragedies. If society could accept depth and complexity rather than forcing everyone to be defined on a shallow binary, perhaps happiness could be possible and people could get what they want.

Reality Versus Illusion

All the characters in some way favor illusions over reality, perhaps narrator John Dowell most of all. At the beginning of his narration, John expresses his utter disbelief that something as perfectly ordered as his relationship with the Ashburnhams could have been merely a pleasant illusion to mask an unpleasant reality. It makes him—and the reader—question the nature of truth. He asks if he has "possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core" but only finds out it is rotten later, has he not possessed a good apple for the time he believed it was a good apple? On the surface John continually attempts to assure the reader he believes the others are good people, yet he also frequently contradicts himself and exposes the others for their true rotten selves.

This discrepancy between outward virtue and inward vice is most noticeable in Edward Ashburnham, the titular good soldier. In his public life John portrays Edward as almost saintly. He is a highly decorated solider who has earned the love and admiration of his fellows. He is a generous landlord who donates his time, talents, and money to helping the less fortunate. In his public service, he personifies loyalty and honor, but his extramarital affairs mark him as disloyal and dishonorable. John says himself "it is very difficult to give an all-round impression of any man," but the impression he ultimately gives of Edward is not a favorable one. This is despite his continued vocal protests that he loves Edward and that Edward has been merely a victim of his own sentimentality.

But if John really loved Edward, would he really want to shatter the illusion of Edward's perfection in favor of the imperfect reality? The reader must question John's motivation for telling this story. At one point, John says, "We all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist." Perhaps this means John is relating this story to whom he hopes will be a sympathetic reader as a way to make himself valuable and "real." John points out elsewhere that Florence Dowell is "a personality of paper." John cannot see her as a "a real human being" because by her never being able to accept her imperfect self, "she wasn't real." And although John never says so directly, Leonora is the same as Florence in this regard. Both hold so tightly to the illusion of perfection that they cannot embrace their complicated, real human cores. In contrast, by telling his story disjointedly, as a real person would, John reveals himself to be imperfect and therefore real.

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