© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Any brief summary of the story contained in The Good Soldier would make it sound something like a period soap opera set in the Edwardian era. Any brief summary of the story contained in The Good Soldier would also be almost entirely beside the point. Ford’s novel is one of the first works (perhaps the first) of long British fiction in which modernism emerges fully formed. It might lack the spectacular verbal hijinks of later works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), but The Good Soldier is an excellent demonstration both of the techniques employed by literary modernists and of the reasons why they felt those techniques to be necessary. The book employs an array of characters, are of whom are unable in one way or another to function effectively in a rapidly changing modern world that they scarcely understand. And this complex, changing, confusing world is mimicked directly in the form of the text, which uses an extremely fragmented, nonlinear narrative structure to present a confusing story no details of which can be known for sure—except for the fact that the narrator of the story, American millionaire John Dowell, is extremely unreliable, to the point that, by the end of the story, we realize that we have no idea how to interpret the story he has just told and what his real role in it might have been.

Dowell gets off to a fast start as an unreliable narrator by announcing, in the very first sentence of the narrative, that “this is the saddest story I have ever heard” (1).[1] There is, of course, something wrong with this declaration. Dowell is not the hearer of this story, but the speaker; all that we know of this “sad” story is told to us by Dowell in a rather conversational style. Indeed, Dowell gives us early on his vision of the rhetorical setting of his narration: “So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars” (6). In short, Dowell asks the reader to imagine that he is talking to them directly, as a friend, thus drawing the reader in and establishing a sort of trust. Meanwhile, by describing the book’s story as one he has “heard,” it is almost as if he wishes to distance himself from it and to disavow responsibility for it.

That trust will be badly undermined by the end of the text. He begins his narrative by establishing a basic scenario suggesting a warm friendship among a circle of four that includes himself, his wife Florence (also a wealthy American), and their friends the British Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora. He claims that the four are a collection of individuals who mesh very well as a group, so comfortable and familiar with one another that they can virtually communicate without words. In the book’s second sentence, for example, he describes this closeness: “We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand” (1). And yet, even as he seeks to establish this vision of friendship, he already begins to contradict himself. In the book’s third sentence, he continues in this same vein by announcing, “My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody,” then immediately following this announcement with a corrective: “and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them” (1).

Soon afterward, Dowell proclaims the Ashburnhams to be “the model couple. He was as devoted as it was possible to be without appearing fatuous. So well set up, with such honest blue eyes, such a touch of stupidity, such a warm goodheartedness!” (4). That off-the-cuff suggestion of Edward’s stupidity will be repeated several times in the text, often in the midst of passages that seem to be praising the English officer. Meanwhile, Dowell will later reveal that Edward and Leonora are very much at odds—to the point that they not only don’t sleep together, but literally never even speak to each other when not in public, suggesting that Dowell is attempting to correct his initial (inaccurate) impression of the Dowells (even though he is narrating the events of the book after the fact), or that he is simply can’t keep his story straight and is knowingly mischaracterizing the nature of their relationship.

Dowell explains that his lack of any real understanding of the Ashburnhams can be attributed to their Englishness, given that he, as an American Quaker from Philadelphia, understands very little about English people. He indeed plays the “American card” several times in the text, by the end of which he excuses his inability to relate to those around him in England, where he has retired, having purchased the Ashburnhams’ former estate, by the fact that he is “that absurd figure, an American millionaire, who has bought one of the ancient haunts of English peace” (157). But it is clear that there is much more to his claims not to understand what is going on in the text than his Americanness.

After all, Dowell’s narration often puts us in very much the same position as the one in which he claims to be. Many critics have argued that the real story of this text has little to do with the characters and their activities (after all, they don’t really exit) but has everything to do with attempting to convey a sense of what it is like to live in the modern world, where, in fact, so many things are uncertain. Edward Lobb’s reading epitomizes this view of the text:

“The definition of modernity is a central concern of the book, one that reinforces and complicates the issues of subjectivity and the possibility of knowledge and is in turn reinforced and complicated by them. Beginning with the epistemological problem, Ford shows the destabilizing effects of uncertainty and their consequences in the social and moral world of his characters—consequences which further undermine their ability to understand their world and to make moral choices. If one were to summarize the novel in a single word, that word would be ‘uncertainty’ or ‘indeterminacy’” (37).

The uncertainty at the heart of the novel, combined with the fact that this uncertainty is related to a sense of epistemological crisis in the world at large, would seem to make The Good Soldier a paradigmatic modernist novel, and most critics have seen it this way. Others, however, have argued that the uncertainty in the novel is so extreme (and sometimes seemingly playful) that it moves beyond modernism into postmodernism. Catherine Belsey, for example, reads the text in just this way, arguing from a poststructuralist perspective that “desolate though its outcomes are, the clever, witty, disconcerting text of The Good Soldier gives the firm impression of enjoying itself. ‘Just look’, it seems to say, ‘at what fiction can do!’” (44).

Belsey, I think, overestimates the extent to which Ford celebrates uncertainty in The Good Soldier, partly because of her typical poststructuralist lack of interest in historical context and in the actual content of the novel, both of which should make it clear that the motif of uncertainty is here accompanied by a great deal of regret and anxiety. Among other things, the unraveling of the peaceful life shared by the Dowells and the Ashburnhams seems to be an expression of the unraveling of the world in which they have lived their lives, a genteel world out of step with the fast-paced and rapidly-changing world of modernity. Among other things, World War I hovers over this text like a bomb about to drop in the midst of its world. All of the action takes place the years before World War I, so the characters cannot be aware of the war. The book was not completed and published until after the outbreak of the war, however, and in any case all subsequent readers of the book have been aware that the war was about to break out as the action of the book (most of which, perhaps significantly, takes place in Germany) takes place.[2]

Isabelle Brasme sees Dowell’s unreliable narration as an unquestionably modernist gesture. In particular, she argues that “Ford uses this flawed narrator as a tool to investigate the process of storytelling and question the authority of the narrative stance, not only in the traditional novelistic genre inherited from the nineteenth century, but perhaps also in modernist fiction” (79). That is, for her, the book’s unconventional technique is largely a matter of metafiction, used to call attention to the fictionality of the text, as opposed to the authoritative narrators of conventional realist fiction, whose effect is to obscure the constructedness of their narratives, not only helping readers to become immersed in the story but also suggesting a stable worldview in which figures of authority (such as narrators) can be trusted.

In any case, there is no question that Dowell is a highly unreliable narrator, as virtually every critic of The Good Soldier has noted. What we don’t know, however, is just how unreliable he might be or why. For example, does he really just have a bad memory and/or a poor understanding of the events related in the text, as he frequently claims? Or is he willing to stretch the truth or even lie outright, either to make himself look better or just to make for a better story? For example, one of the oddest aspects of the text is the coincidence of dates, in which so many important events all seem to have occurred on one specific day and month. In particular, according to Dowell, Florence was born on August 4; later, she lost her virginity to the unsavory Jimmy on August 4, then married Dowell on the same date. August 4 then also became the date of both Maisie Maidan’s and Florence’s deaths.

Critical discussions of this unlikely sequence of dates have often concentrated on the fact that August 4, 1914, was the date that Germany invaded Belgium, causing Britain to declare war on Germany and thus launching British participation in World War I, the cataclysmic event that lies at the heart of the turmoil of modernity. Lobb, for example, notes this correspondence and suggests that it is highly significant. For him, “The Good Soldier is a book—the book—of the Edwardian twilight, that period of deceptive stability and calm in which the forces of radical change are already at work. Many of the novel’s important events take place on August 4th in various years, and the repetition of this ominous date suggests that the cataclysm of the Great War was simply the culmination of events in smaller spheres” (50).[3]

Whether or not Ford might have chosen August 4 as such a central date in the novel because it was the date of the 1914 German invasion of Belgium is open to speculation. I would suggest, however, another possibility (though not necessarily one that precludes this one). Given Dowell’s general unreliability as a narrator, it is certainly not beyond belief that he would simply have manufactured the idea that so many events occurred on the same date, either because he thought it made his narrative more interesting or because it somehow created a sense that the events of the novel were all interrelated, perhaps even foreordained, which would, among other things, relieve him of any and all culpability in the tragic events that have unfolded.

Dowell himself continually seeks to portray his narrative inconsistencies as mere mistakes, accidents occasioned by his own faulty understanding and memory of the events that he is attempting to relate to us. And it is certainly possible that, as an American in Europe, he does sometimes understand the events going on around him less well than he might. It is also possible that Ford seeks to use Dowell’s lack of understanding of events in an allegorical manner, as a sort of stand-in for the kind of interpretive confusion anyone in living in the flux of Edwardian England might have experienced. However, there is also some reason to believe that Dowell wants us to think him incompetent as a narrator so that he can hide a more sinister agenda. On one end of the scale, this project might simply involve an attempt to curry sympathy, presenting himself as the mere victim of events such as Florence’s infidelity with his friend Ashburnham (and, before that, with Jimmy). On the other end, Dowell might be trying to cover up serious crimes, even murder.

Dowell sometimes seems almost deliberately to make himself look bad, though pretending to be so clueless that he has no idea he is presenting himself in a bad light. He often, for example, characterizes himself as passionless and devoid of feeling. For Dowell, this lack of feeling is apparently supposed to go hand-in-hand with his claims to be extremely innocent, even squeamish, especially where sexual matters are concerned. Very early in his narrative, Dowell notes the ”chastity” of Edward’s conversations, then suggests that “I will vouch for the cleanness of my thoughts and the absolute chastity of my life. At what, then, does it all work out? Is the whole thing a folly and a mockery? Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man—the man with the right to existence—a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour’s womankind?” (6).

We cannot know at this point in the text that the odd vehemence of this statement arises from his bitterness over the fact that his wife Florence has cheated on him with Edward, who is associated with horses throughout the text and who is, of course, the “raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour’s womankind.” Meanwhile, the suggestion that Dowell himself might be “no better than a eunuch” suggests a sense of sexual insecurity (and, especially, sexual inferiority to the handsome and athletic “stallion,” Edward) that runs throughout the narrative.

Later, when Dowell has decided that, after Florence’s death, he now wants to marry young Nancy Rufford, he announces that intention in a matter-of-fact way that disavows any sense of passion: “I don’t mean to say that I sighed about her or groaned; I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne” (74). Of course, Nancy had apparently been in love with Ashburnham and he with her, so that Dowell’s lack of any real passion in his desire to marry Nancy might be attributed to the fact that he primarily wants her simply to prevent Ashburnham from having her.

At the same time, Dowell also wants to claim that not having strong feelings is perhaps a virtue that gives Americans an advantage over hot-blooded Europeans. On the other hand, his central expression of this idea occurs in a passage in which he himself contradictorily claims, for once, to have very passionate (though negative) feelings where Florence is concerned:

“For I hate Florence. I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness. She need not have done what she did. She was an American, a New Englander. She had not the hot passions of these Europeans” (43).

Such contradictions are common in this novel, of course, suggesting that Dowell is struggling to create a viable persona for himself but that his true self is always on the verge of bursting through with a statement of his real feelings. Through much of the novel, he tries to present himself as a long-suffering caregiver for Florence, attempting to protect her from any kind of upsets that might be unhealthy for her supposedly bad heart. Of course, Dowell eventually relays to us his discover that Florence’s heart condition was a ruse designed to release her from her conjugal duties with Dowell—and free her for sexual escapades with other men. At the same time, Dowell is so generally unreliable that we are not sure how much of his story about Florence’s heart condition (or lack thereof) to believe, and we certainly don’t know for sure when he discovered that she was faking it. What any attentive reader will suspect, though, is that his detailed account of his devoted service to Florence is highly suspect.

For one thing, Dowell tells us that taking care of Florence was a full-time job that took up essentially every moment of his life, so that she was virtually never out of his sight. Then, later, he suddenly reverses himself: “But, looking over what I have written, I see that I have unintentionally misled you when I said that Florence was never out of my sight. Yet that was the impression that I really had until just now. When I come to think of it she was out of my sight most of the time” (53). Of course, Dowell here is providing a new perspective as part of his revelation of Florence’s perfidy and of the extent she went to escape his attentions so that she could be free to be with Jimmy or Ashburnham. Included in this project is Florence’s bizarre and byzantine scheme to keep Dowell locked out of her bedroom at night (presumably so that she can entertain other men there), a scheme so preposterously transparent that it is difficult to believe Dowell might have fallen for it, unless he is indeed as naïve as he sometimes claims to be.

Both Dowell’s claim to provide constant attention to Florence and his claim to have been duped into providing very little attention are probably exaggerations. In any case, a closer look suggests that, even when Dowell does provide attention to Florence, he does so in a mode that is more about exerting control than about administering care. He sometimes seems to want to have complete control of her interface with the outside world as part of what he presents as a desire to shield her from potentially harmful upsets. But the central example of this sort of control is his insistence that she remain on the European continent, supposedly for fear that any sea journey—even a brief one such as crossing the English Channel—might cause a flare-up in her heart condition, which supposedly originated on their original sea passage to Europe for their honeymoon. What this means, first and foremost, is that she is unable to travel to England—and especially to the Ashburnham’s estate, Branshaw Teleragh, which turns out to be her family’s ancestral estate and which she badly wants to visit or even reclaim in at least some sense. At the same time, not being able to travel to England also means that she cannot hope to have a life there with Ashburnham.

If one reads Dowell’s narrative closely, one gets the impression that Dowell is less than displeased that Florence is denied her dream of at least visiting Branshaw and possibly living near there (though her status as a divorced woman would prevent her from officially becoming the lady of the estate were she to divorce Dowell and marry Ashburnham). In fact, Dowell positively (and sadistically) gloats at Florence’s disappointment in this matter. He tells us that he has consulted doctors about a possible trip to England, but admits to having told them he and Florence had no particular reason to go there, as if coaxing from them the medical advice that they should stay put on the continent—where they travel about considerably, including running to catch trains and other activities that seem potentially far more stressful than sailing the twenty miles across the English Channel. Moreover, it might be significant that Dowell’s most detailed explanation of the medical necessity of staying on the continent occurs immediately after he has just detailed how Jimmy and Florence conspired to keep Dowell out of her bedroom—for the reason that she must avoid all conjugal activity on account of her heart. In essence, Dowell presents his refusal to allow Florence to cross the Channel as a sort of retribution for her refusal to allow him to cross the threshold of her bedroom: “For that young man [Jimmy] rubbed it so well into me that Florence would die if she crossed the Channel—he impressed it so fully on my mind that, when later Florence wanted to go to Fordingbridge [the location of Branford Teleragh], I cut the proposal short—absolutely short, with a curt no. It fixed her and it frightened her” (54).

Dowell has indeed made it clear that Florence is afraid of him, though he also generally attempts to portray those fears as groundless. Perhaps, though, Florence has good reason to be afraid. Noting Dowell’s attitudes toward Florence throughout the text—and also noting that the details he provides concerning Florence’s suicide by drinking “prussic acid” (another name for hydrogen cyanide, a common rat poison) differ dramatically from the actual reported effects of deaths incurred in this manner[4]—Amy Griswold concludes that there is a good chance that Dowell actually murdered Florence himself, both to avenge her infidelities and to free himself up to marry Nancy Rufford (after having inherited Florence’s considerable fortune).  

By the end of the novel, Florence and Edward lie dead, and Ashburnham Teleragh is under the control of Dowell—as is Nancy, now helpless and fully dependent on Dowell for her care. One could argue, in fact, that he has achieved everything he wanted. On the other hand, by the end of the novel, Dowell is still bemoaning his fate, claiming that, as the new owner of Branshaw Teleragh, he is stuck with an estate that he doesn’t really want. Moreover, having assumed the position of caring for the now-insane Nancy Rufford, he finds himself once again serving as a “nurse-attendant” and still effectively living without a wife. He also generalizes his predicament as a typical symptom of life in the confusing modern world: “It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me” (146).

But is Dowell really as unfortunate in the outcome of the story as he claims? In gaining ownership of Branshaw Teleragh, he gets a sort of posthumous revenge against Florence, who would have so dearly loved to own the estate. He also gets the satisfaction of having taken control of a property that was extremely dear to Ashburnham, who would no doubt have been crushed to see his family lose its ownership after generations. After all, when Leonora takes control of Ashburnham’s finances so that he won’t ruin them with his philandering, one of the things she does is rent out Branshaw Teleragh to help make ends meet while he is stationed in India. But (at least according to Dwell), the idea of someone else living there gives Ashburnham “a feeling of physical soiling—that it was almost as bad for him as if a woman belonging to him had become a prostitute” (103).

One gets the feeling, then, that Dowell wants to own the estate out of a malicious sense of vindictiveness, that he takes an odd satisfaction from believing that both Florence and Edward, who betrayed him together, would both be mortified at the thought of him being there instead of them. That they are literally “mortified,” i.e., dead, does not necessarily lessen this pleasure. Indeed, there is possibly a certain satisfaction to be had for Dowell from the mere fact that, as the novel ends, his twin nemeses, both lie dead, ostensibly by suicide.

Conveniently, meanwhile, their deaths clear the way for Dowell to be with Nancy (who had apparently been in love with Ashburnham, though with an innocence so extreme that it is hard to characterize the emotion—at least as it is described by Dowell in his narration.[5] Because of her mental condition, Dowell is unable to marry Nancy, but one still wonders how much of a burden it really is to be charged with her care. For one thing, she has a nurse to do all the real work. For another, reduced to a near-catatonic state, she is now completely dependent on Dowell and completely within his control, granting him a power of domination that he was never quite able to attain with Florence, no matter how hard he tried.

Dowell does, in fact, seem to regard the natural relationship between a man and a woman being one of domination on his part and submission on hers. In one of the occasional asides that perhaps tell us more about Dowell than he intends, he explains to us how he feels men regard women (which means, of course, how Dowell regards women): “As I see it, at least, with regard to man, a love affair, a love for any definite woman—is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory” (69).

One then wonders whether Dowell’s admitted hatred of Florence is purely a result of her infidelity, or whether it is part of a general misogyny that informs his attitudes toward all women, which seem to consist largely of a combination of condescension, animosity, and resentment at their annoying tendency to think of themselves as people, rather than mere territory. At many moments, Dowell seems a nasty individual indeed, as when, after repeatedly reminding us of how pure and innocent “poor” Maisie Maidan had been, he presents her death by heart attack essentially as a moment of slapstick comedy, suggesting that he was less than broken up by her death: “Maisie had died in the effort to strap up a great portmanteau. She had died so grotesquely that her little body had fallen forward into the trunk, and it had closed upon her, like the jaws of a gigantic alligator” (46).

Then again, perhaps “misogyny” that should be corrected to “misanthropy,” because he doesn’t really seem to like much of anyone, man or woman, though he does sometimes express a certain admiration for Leonora, largely because she is able to get the better of Edward and Florence. Thus, he is clearly impressed when he notes that, in relation to Florence, “Leonora would treat her like the whore she was”(43). Of course, Dowell might be particularly bitter toward Edward and Florence because of his inability to find a strategy that will give him complete control over them. Toward those over whom he does have power, meanwhile, he can be extremely abusive. Thus, he tells us (displaying some clear racism and perhaps trying to brag a bit about a masculine power he might not actually have), Florence is quite physically afraid of him, largely because of the way she saw him abuse his aging black servant Julius early in their marriage. When Julius inadvertently drops a piece of luggage, Dowell strikes him and threatens to strangle him, showing no remorse when he relates the event (and perhaps even sounding a bit proud of himself): “And, since an unresisting negro can make a deplorable noise and a deplorable spectacle, and, since that was Florence’s first adventure in the married state, she got a pretty idea of my character” (56).

Dowell’s barely-concealed hatred of Edward is particularly nasty, perhaps because he resents the fact that he cannot physically dominate the larger and stronger man, a trained soldier with whom he would likely little luck were he to attempt to thrash him for his transgressions. And this nastiness comes through quite clearly, despite the fact that Dowell claims to admire the man who is, after all, the “good soldier” of the book’s title. But Dowell seldom misses an opportunity to subtly undermine Edward with stories of the latter’s misadventures, some of which simply involve kindness and generosity of a sort that Dowell is ill-equipped to appreciate. On the other hand, Dowell seems intimidated by Edward’s virility and “physique,” and, late in the novel (after most of the novel painting Edward as an idiot and a cad for his philandering), he suddenly declares that he and Edward actually have much in common: “For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance” (157).

Yet even this expression of admiration and solidarity seems to conceal a certain envy, and even bitterness. It certainly does not negate all of the moments earlier in the text when Dowell pronounced Edward to be an idiot. For example, in the midst of an early passage ostensibly designed to extol Edward’s attractiveness to women, Dowell suddenly focuses on Edward’s eyes: “I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid” (16). And when Dowell complains late in the text of the mistreatment of Edward at the hands of women, one wonders whether he is really expressing his own sense of having been mistreated—recalling the declaration that Edward is “just myself.”

Dowell, in general, seems to have a low opinion of the human race, as when he wonders “if you can trust anybody alone with anybody,” even before he has given any explanation for why he might not trust people in general (5). One strain of imagery that runs through the text perhaps suggests just what Dowell thinks of people. At one point fairly early in his narration (but fairly late in the actual story), Dowell is visiting Leonora at Branshaw in the wake of the deaths of both Leonora and Edward. When Leonora complains that the local rabbit population is getting out of hand in the wake of the demise of Edward (who presumably used to shoot them), Dowell explains her complaint by noting that “I understand that rabbits do a great deal of harm to the short grass in England” (64).

This offhand characterization of rabbits as destructive pests might not seem important, were it not for the fact that, at the end of his narration, Dowell describes Leonora’s bland new husband (of whom he is clearly a bit envious) as being “rather like a rabbit,” continuing his tendency to have bad things to say about virtually everyone (147). Immediately after this, he adds that Leonora is now pregnant, the implication of course being that she and Rodney are breeding like rabbits (who are, of course, notoriously fecund). Soon afterward, he notes that “society must go on; it must breed, like rabbits. That is what we are here for” (157). He hardly need add the next sentence: “But then, I don’t like society—much.” Dowell has expressed a barely concealed horror of sexuality throughout the text, and it now clearly comes to the fore in his notion that human sexual relationships are little more than a matter of animalistic breeding. At the same time, this equation of rabbits (already characterized as opportunistic and destructive pests) and humans makes quite clear Dowell’s low opinion of humanity.

Is that opinion so low that Dowell might be a psychopath who sees little value in human life? Perhaps the oddest instance of narrative correction in The Good Soldier occurs at the very end, when Dowell suddenly announces, as if it had completely skipped his mind, “It suddenly occurs to me that I have forgotten to say how Edward met his death” (157). For one thing, this statement isn’t strictly true. We have been intriguingly told twice before, with virtually no elaboration, that Edward had cut his own throat (on pages 120 and 145), a bit of information that surely calls for elaboration. Indeed, this information is dropped in so nonchalantly that one is tempted to assume that Dowell only means Ashburnham’s throat-cutting to be taken metaphorically. Meanwhile, the second time this information is given, Dowell notes that he was unable to stop Ashburnham from cutting his throat. Now at the end of the text, he provides more details, while suggesting that he actually made no effort to intervene. He and Ashburnham are alone in a barn, when Ashburnham suddenly pulls out a small penknife. Dowell seems to recognize what is about to happen, then calmly decides to do nothing whatsoever to prevent Ashburnham’s suicide, claiming that he understands that Edward wants to end his own suffering. So Dowell merely goes back to the house, presumably leaving Ashburnham literally to cut his own throat with the penknife.

Dowell tries to justify his inaction by suggesting that Edward’s suicide would put an end to the latter’s suffering, thus even attempting to put an altruistic spin on what virtually makes Edward’s death, as narrated, into an assisted suicide. Or is it even that? Dowell, presumably not having been present, cannot, of course, relate the act of suicide directly. But what if the reason he avoids describing the suicide is that, in fact, he himself murdered Ashburnham by cutting his throat? After all, cutting one’s own throat would be a very odd way to commit suicide, though it is a relatively common form of murder.

It is thus possible, as multiple critics have pointed out over the years, that Dowell murders both Edward and Florence, leaving a helpless Nancy in the hands of a psychopath (at last finally fully in control of a woman) as the novel ends, thus making The Good Soldier into a sort of horror story. Just what sort of story it actually is, of course, is somewhat left to the reader to decide—or not. Indeed, the appropriate response to The Good Soldier might be not to make any final decisions at all, but simply to enjoy the various puzzles and possibilities provided by Dowell’s enigmatic narrative. Ford’s greatest novel is not intended to provide answers but simply to capture some of the difficulty of finding answers to life’s key questions in the complex and confusing modern world. It is this literary attempt to capture the texture of modernity in the early twentieth century that makes The Good Soldier a paradigmatic modernist novel.


Brasme, Isabelle. “From Disfigured to Transfigured Past: Memory and History in The Good Soldier.” Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary Essays. Ed. Max Saunders and Sara Haslam. Brill/Rodopi, 2015. 79–90.

Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier. 1915. Vintage Books, 1957.

Griswold, Amy. “Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier as Detective Story: Is Dowell a Murderer?” ELT 60.2 (2017): 152–166.

Lobb, Edward. “The Definition of Modernity in the Good Soldier.” Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Ed. Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis. Brill Academic Publishers, 2018. 36–52.


[1] Page numbers in this discussion refer to the Vintage-Random House edition of the novel. However. Many editions are available, include free ones on-line, given that the novel is now out of copyright.

[2] It should be noted that Ford’s later tetralogy of novels, collectively known as Parade’s End (published over the period 1924–1928), also begins shortly before the war, but in this case extends through the war and into its aftermath.

[3] The principal events of The Good Soldier take place between the death of Maisie Maidan on August 4, 1904, and the death of Florence on August 4, 1913. However, the novel was published in 1915, after the outbreak of the war, so that Ford might well have chosen this date intentionally as a way of suggesting the sort of pattern that Lobb indicates, even Ford himself denied doing so and claimed to have selected this date well before the German invasion of Belgium. However, Ford was notoriously unreliable in providing information about his work, and many critics believe that the date was chosen because it corresponded to the outbreak of World War I.

[4] The most famous comparable literary death by self-poisoning occurs in the suicide of Emma Bovary in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856). Here, Emma eats arsenic, whose effect is fairly similar to that of cyanide (though perhaps even more violent). Emma envisions a romantic death like the ones she has read about in novels, but instead suffers a very painful, protracted, and messy one.

[5] Dowell is given to attributing an extreme innocence, or perhaps ignorance, to the other characters (especially where sex is concerned), as when he claims that neither Leonora nor Edward, at the time of their marriage (and perhaps for a couple of years afterward) had any idea how babies are conceived (90).