Analysis of "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox

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In 1927 Ford Madox Ford wrote the “Dedicatory Letter to Stella Ford” in retrospect of his 1915 novel “The Good Soldier”. He recalled in this letter that Mr. Lane, the English publisher of this novel, “importuned” him with letters and telegrams regarding the request of changing the title. As a result, the name of the novel was changed from “The Saddest Story” to the “The Good Soldier” in order to cope with the special situation of WWI. However, this title that is well-known today was actually born in Ford’s hasty irony. He expressed his feeling towards the title change as “I have never ceased to regret it” in this letter to his wife. Nevertheless, I am personally in favor of this new title even though it seems to be misleading at the first glance of readers. From my perspective, this title is meaningful in a way that makes people wonder about whom this title is referring to. Traditionally, Edward Ashburnham is regarded as the good soldier by most readers and scholars as this idea is explicitly expressed by our narrator John Dowell “they said he was a good soldier”. However, if things are seen from a different angle, can we regard Dowell as the good soldier? Viewing the whole novel from a new perspective, this essay attempts to find potential evidence and discuss the possibility of Dowell being “the good soldier”.

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Redefinition of “Goodness”

To find relations between Dowell and the good soldier, the first thing is to understand what “good” means to Dowell. If we mark down all the words related to “good” (e.g. Good, goodly, goodness), we may easily realize that the concept of “good” is mentioned throughout the whole novel. In the first parts of the novel, Dowell keeps emphasizing that Edward was “the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinarily kind, careful and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, public character”. It successfully gives readers the impression that Edward, as a decent English gentleman, is the good soldier of the book. However, towards the end of the novel, Dowell suddenly comments about Edward and Nancy as “The villains – for obviously Edward and the girl were villains – have been punished by suicide and madness”. To explain the ending that “Not one of us has got what he really wanted”, Dowell says,

“Edward was the normal man, but there was too much of the sentimentalist about him; and society does not need too many sentimentalists. Nancy was a splendid creature, but she had about her a touch of madness. Society does not need individuals with touches of madness about them. So, Edward and Nancy found themselves steamrolled out and Leonora survives, the perfectly normal type, married to a man who is rather like a rabbit”,

which indicates that Edward and Nancy are not really “normal”. They are abnormal in a certain “sentimental” way that makes them the “bad people” in the end, while people who are normal enough, like Leonora, finally find their peace. Therefore, we can conclude that in Dowell’s eyes, “good” is “normal” and relatively “emotionless”, which serve to be the characteristics of people with fewer relationship issues in their life.

How Dowell Could Fit in the Definition

From Dowell’s own narration, he seems to be the one with the least emotion fluctuations. Regarding his wife’s death, Dowell says, “And I thought nothing; absolutely nothing. I had no ideas; I had no strength. I felt no sorrow, no desire for action, no inclination to go upstairs and fall upon the body of my wife”. Two hours after Florence’s death, Dowell thought “Now I can marry the girl”. Such indifference towards the death of someone whom he has lived with for 12 years seems unbelievable to me, but it proves exactly how emotionless Dowell could be. In addition, he seems to be dull in term of finding out what is happening around him. As is indicated in the novel, no matter deliberately or not, there are tons of evidence for people to question the unusual relationship between Florence and Edward. For instance, “…I have heard her lecture Teddy Ashburnham by the hour…”, “It ended in Florence saying… Then came, as it were, an appreciable gurgle from the captain…”, “And then Florence said… Again Edward Ashburnham gurgled slightly in his throat…”. Not to mention the most obvious part “And she laid one finger upon Captain Ashburnham’s wrist. I was aware of something treacherous, something frightful, something evil in the day. I can’t define it and can’t find a simile for it. It wasn’t as if a snake had looked out of a hole” when the betrayal is just about to break the surface, but Dowell asks, “No! What’s the matter? Whatever’s the matter?”. From these parts we can observe Dowell’s obtuseness and emotionlessness. His insensitivity towards love affairs never creates trouble for him, resulting in his relatively better ending than Edward or Nancy. To some extent Dowell’s personality perfectly matches to the new definition of “goodness”.

Dowell’s Personal War as Novel

It is interesting that August 4th is constantly mentioned in the novel as the important dates for the two couples, especially for Florence and Dowell: “The death of Mrs. Maidan occurred on the 4th of August 1904. And then nothing happened until the 4th of August 1913”, “the thought that Mr. Bagshawe would almost certainly reveal to me that he had caught her coming out of Jimmy’s bedroom at five o’clock in the morning on the 4th of August 1900 – was the determining influence in her suicide. And no doubt the effect of the date was too much for her superstitious personality. She had been born on the 4th of August; she had started to go around the world on the 4th of August; she had become a low fellow’s mistress on the 4th of August. On the same day of the year she had married me; on that 4th she had lost Edward’s love…”. This date 4th of August served to be a deliberate coincidence designed by Ford as the start of everything around the characters, especially marking the beginning of Dowell’s marriage with Florence. The purpose of such a design remains unknown, but to interpret it in one way, we may find that the date on which England entered WWI was exactly 4th of August. In this case, it is possible for us to regard this novel as Dowell’s personal war with an official start on August 4th when his marriage with Florence starts. In this personal war, Dowell fights as a soldier in the chaotic relationship of people around him, facing the betrayal of his wife and of his friend as a participant in the story while telling the “saddest story” he has ever heard as a beholder of the story. This poses a question to this interpretation of the novel: If the whole novel is regarded as Dowell’s personal war, what exactly is he fighting for? Is he simply trying to survive in the chaotic environment, to manage the relationship with Florence or to hide parts of the truth away from us? Ford left this question to us readers, making the novel even more ambiguous with the space of different answers.

Interpretation of Title and Subtitle

In term of the title change, although it was not regarded to be satisfying by Ford himself, it has indeed served for the purpose of irony successfully since its publication during the warfare. I personally appreciate this title as it is less direct than the original one, helping to reinforce the ambiguous atmosphere created by the whole novel with unreliable narration and impressionism. It makes people wonder about the relations between this title and the characters presented in the novel. Another interesting point is that Ford kept the original subtitle A Tale of Passion, which continues to let people wonder whose passion the title is referring to. Following the traditional understanding of this novel, the good soldier is believed to represent Edward, and the passion is said to be Edward’s. However, even though Dowell presents himself in the novel though his narration as an insensitive man, can we rely on his words and believe in his emotionlessness? What if the subtitle is actually referring to Dowell’s hidden passion? As can be inferred from details in the novel, Dowell might not be as single-minded as he seems to be.

For instance, Dowell appears to be innocent without performing betrayals to Florence, but the reality revealed by his narration might as well tell a different story. it is rather interesting that while Edward is having affairs with Mrs. Maiden, Dowell describes one small piece of his thoughts to be “Why, even I, at this distance of time am aware that I am a little in love with her memory”, indicating his hidden feeling towards this “submissive” young lady.

Moreover, Dowell’s attitude towards Leonora is also questionable as he states that “I loved Leonora always and, today, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service. But I am sure I never had the beginnings of a trace of what is called the sex instinct towards her”. After these words he then says, “No, Leonora always appeared to me at her best in a blue tailor-made. Then her glorious hair wasn’t deadened by her white shoulders. Certain women’s lines guide your eyes to their necks, their eyelashes, their lips, their breasts”. Such detailed and sexy descriptions are obviously contrary to the statement he made above as “no sex instinct”. From the language he used to describe young ladies like Leonora, we can observe that he is not as passionless as the way he tends to be perceived.

In addition, Dowell’s most explicit expression of love towards women other than Florence is the words he says after Leonora’s death: “I mean, that Leonora would probably never have spoken to me at all about Florence’s relations with Edward if I hadn’t said, two hours after my wife’s death: ‘Now I can marry the girl’”. And he repeated the same sentence over again “And then Leonora came to me and it appears that I addressed to her that singular remark: ‘Now I can marry the girl’”. This is not a man’s normal reaction to the death of his beloved wife. Such indifference may be inferred as the result of Dowell’s passion towards Nancy. It is also interesting to analyze the ending of the novel, where Florence and Edward have met their death, Leonora ends up with someone she doesn’t love, but only Dowell gets to stay forever with Nancy, who is the one person he feels passionate about. What is Ford trying to convey through an ending like this? It is discovered that Dowell possibly has affection for four women in this novel and that in reality he is not emotionless. If we regard being emotionless as being normal and good according to Dowell’s understanding, we can therefore infer that the image of insensitivity and innocence that Dowell tries to establish is rather superficial and unreal. It is even possible that he describes himself in this particular way so as to be perceived as a good person by readers.

Unreliable Narration

A typical characteristic of this novel is the use of unreliable narration. Dowell, as the unreliable narrator, is the story-teller throughout the entire novel. Everything we learn about the couples starts from the descriptions of Dowell’s. Therefore, if Dowell is telling lies or intentionally concealing the truth, we may not be able to recognize easily. However, the style of narration is ambiguous and sometimes even self-contradictory, leading readers to question the reliability of the narrator. A bold guess regarding the death of Florence and Edward suggests that these may not be suicides, but Dowell might be the murderer instead. From a section of narration, Dowell unconcernedly tells the story of him and Julius:

“Julius was so overcome with grief at being left behind that he must needs go and drop the precious grip. I saw red, I saw purple. I flew at Julius. On the ferry, it was, I filled up one of his eyes; I threatened to strangle him. 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…She was afraid that I should murder her…”.

In this particular part, not only Florence gets the idea of Dowell’s character, but also the readers. We can observe that Dowell could be violent when being furious. In addition, as is told in the previous paragraph,

“Florence entrusted to me one very special and very precious leather grip. She told me that her life might depend on that grip, which contained her drugs against heart attacks… Julius was so overcome with grief at being left behind that he must needs go and drop the precious grip”.

As we have learnt in the later part that the grip actually contained poisonous chemicals that have killed Florence. In this case, it may be reasonable to argue that Dowell might have discovered the secret of the chemicals and have murdered Florence after being irritated by her affair with Jimmy.

Meanwhile, it is questionable that with plenty of detailed evidence proving the unfaithfulness of Edward and Florence toward their marriages, how can Dowell still be so utterly ignorant of the things happening around him?

Moreover, if we look at the chronology of the novel, it is not hard to realize that the timeline stated by Dowell doesn’t match (e.g. There are overlapping and blank intervals). It might either be due to the inaccuracy of memories, or the fact that Dowell is hiding important events in order to present himself as innocent in front of readers.

If Dowell is simply pretending to be “good”, it can be inferred that the novel partially consists of lies and misrepresentation. With respect to the possible fact that Dowell might be guilty as well, the title “The Good Soldier” ironically serves the theme that people are not whom they seem to be.


To discuss the possibility of Dowell being the good soldier, part 2 and part 3 of this essay analyze the definition of “goodness” and fit Dowell into the concept. Part 4 proves that if we consider the novel as Dowell’s personal war, it is reasonable to treat him as a soldier. Therefore, Dowell could be Ford Madox Ford’s good soldier in a certain way. Then, part 5 and part 6 mainly discuss the interpretation of titles and narration features. To conclude, the use of an unreliable narrator is the key point to the feeling of uncertainty of truth. If Dowell is actually not innocent but referring to himself as the good soldier, it is a deliberate behavior of deceit.

To extend the topic further, imagine that we are reading the novel and pitying Dowell for being such a poor normal man who suffers betrayal from his wife and friend, but not realizing that the so-called truth that we are being told is actually seen merely and entirely through the “victim’s” own eyes. How can we be so affirmed that it is true? How can we trust the man with his clumsy story-telling style that he is innocent? This is exactly the scary point of the unreliability of narration. It is as if we are reading a detective story and finally found out that the man who called the police, reported the case and provided all the information was the killer himself. After all, if everyone else is not whom he or she seems to be, then how come Dowell is?

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