The Good Soldier is a story about the complex social and sexual relationships between two couples - one English, one American - and the growing awareness of American narrator John Dowell of the intrigues and passions behind their orderly Edwardian façade. It is Dowell’s attitude - his puzzlement, uncertainty, and the seemingly haphazard manner of his narration - that makes the book so powerful and mysterious. In Ford’s brilliantly woven tale, nothing is quite what it seems.
Despite its catalog of death, insanity, and despair, this novel has many comic moments and has inspired the work of several distinguished writers, including Graham Greene. Originally published in 1915, The Good Soldier is considered by many to be Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece.
Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939) was a novelist, poet, literary critic, editor, and one of the founding fathers of English Modernism. He published over seventy books in his lifetime, perhaps most famously The Good Soldier. His books often centered on the conflict between traditional British values and those of the modern industrial society.
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford is "the saddest story" the narrator has ever heard, but because it's so well written about unlikeable characters who have been emotionally destroyed before the first chapter begins, it engrossed rather than moved me. The narrator, John Dowell, a Pennsylvania Quaker and a member of the American idle rich, is telling the tragic story of the relationships in the early 20th century Europe between himself and his wife, Florence, the relationship then between a married couple of the English aristocracy, Captain Edward Ashburnham ("the good soldier") and his wife Leonora, and the relationships between the four of them. He's telling the story in the way that people who witness disasters like "the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people" feel compelled to write about them for the benefit of future generations or simply "to get the sight out of their heads." Unsure whether to begin at the beginning and progress chronologically to the end, or to tell his imagined listener whatever comes to his mind when it comes and to fill in missing things as needed, he settles on the latter method. This makes the novel innovative for its time, an early example of modernism, though without the stream of consciousness of writers like Virginia Woolf. Dowell recounts how his wife, "poor dear Florence," was, he thought, an invalid with a heart condition that required him to live as her caretaker for the twelve years they were together, carefully monitoring all subjects of conversation to suppress any "dangerous" topics (involving religion or strong emotions or politics, etc.) so as to avoid upsetting her weak heart. It also involved complete celibacy, so that her bedroom door (in whatever European resort or spa hotel they happened to be staying in) was always locked to him. After three years in Europe, Dowell and Florence met the Ashburnhams in Nauheim, Germany, a famous heart spa town, and for over nine years the two couples made a happy foursome, Dowell believed, and if the apple he thought was perfect turned out to be rotten at the core after nearly nine years and six months, to him it was delicious until the end of that period.
This is not to spoil the book, because from the beginning Dowell tells us that the two seemingly happy loving couples, who seemed to make together "an extraordinarily safe castle," or "one of those tall ships with the white sails upon a blue sea, one of those things that seem the proudest and safest of all the beautiful and safe things that God has permitted the mind of man to frame," or a perfectly choreographed and instinctively coordinated "minuet de la cour," were destroyed by adultery, falseness, hatred, love, and death. The Good Soldier employs the cuckoldry or philandering of husbands, the duplicity or domination of wives, and the innocent cruelty of youth to explore the opacity of human nature, the impossibility of knowing what another person (especially a spouse) is really feeling and thinking, and the ungovernable nature of the human heart.
Despite Ford's incisive insights into our flawed human nature, the different influences of Protestant and Catholic Christianities on true believers, and the differences between early 20th century American and British characters and cultures, and despite his vivid metaphors, distilled dialogue, innovatively non-chronological story-telling, and perfectly constructed narrative (told by a man scrupulously relating the history of his devastating obtuseness), The Good Soldier and its characters were rather unpleasant.
The reading by Ralph Cosham is, like any book he reads, flawlessly delivered without showing off, adding to his voice the perfectly appropriate emotion and intention for every scene in the novel without any straining after different characters' voices. The problem is that whereas Cosham's method and style and voice are all just right for Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Robinson Crusoe, for example, here his tendency to turn phrases and sentences down at their ends works with the sordid story to make it all the more of a downer.
I recommend this novel to people who like a good tragedy revealed in layers and layers (like a morose and moldy onion being unpeeled little by little), or to people who want to read one of the best 100 novels in the English language to see what it's like and how it was innovative, or to people who are interested in plumbing the sad and mysterious depths of the human heart.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
What? You mean this novel isn't about war? Is it possible to hate a book and love it at the same time? This is one of those books where it immediately becomes obvious that you aren't going to read this novel for the strict pleasure of it. This book ain't ice cream on the beach folks. I don't think I've run across a more amoral, unsympathetic cast of characters since I visited Kehlsteinhaus. But, Ford Madox Ford is absolutely brilliant at portraying the decay, the depravity and the hypocrisy that existed in early 20th century English and American aristocracy. What a bunch of absolute rat bastards they all were. Nobody is happy. Nobody is true. Everybody gets eventually exactly what they deserve.
This novel is probably the most sexless novel containing the subtitle: A Tale of Passion. It is as sexy as a festering cavity and as passionate as an obsessive and unreliable group of narcissists can be. Two of my favorite writers were either heavily influenced by Ford (Graham Greene) or collaborated heavily with Ford (Joseph Conrad). This isn't a novel you can really ever love, but you will carry this novel with you and days and weeks later you still won't be able to escape its funky grasp. And THAT is something.
23 of 27 people found this review helpful
I found this book enormously engaging, because every statement--whether the narrator's or his accounts of what other characters have said--must be weighed for degrees of truth: each person has his or her own self-interests to rationalize and justify. Ralph Cosham's voice perfectly expresses the appropriate nuances of self-doubt, puzzlement, and regret. I liked Cosham's work here so much that I subsequently chose him as my narrator for Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and noticed that while his voice sounded younger and fuller for HoD, for TGS he seemed more a master of the meaningful pause, making his reading of this devastating story all the more powerful.
9 of 11 people found this review helpful
What a strange book this is. The whole book delves into the completely dysfunctional lives of two couples, and their relationship with each other. Infidelity seems to be the theme, along with just a boredom of life. It is completely depressing, but at the same time very interesting. The book was written in the early 1900's, with the setting in that same era. Which makes it totally different from any modern day writings, and adds to the interest to me, as I haven't read too many books written in that time frame. It's done, as a narration from the point of view, of one of the main character's. He reminisces stories, trying to explain just what happened to him and the other 3 of the 4. Can be confusing, at times, as he jumps around from story to story. But, in the end it's all understandable, and quite tragic. Definitely different, and I don't know exactly how I feel about the book as a whole.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of The Good Soldier to be better than the print version?
What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
I found it a fascinating character study of a class of people with enough money to travel and indulge their vices, yet without ambition or direction. It's also a beautifully written book. It would have been more aptly titled The Sound and the Fury, because it is truly "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The protagonist/first person narrator is clueless, and often states, "I don't know; perhaps you can make sense of it," or phrases to that effect. It's obvious he learned nothing from the experience he relates. Even so, it's worth reading for its precise prose and the fascinating way the author weaves in flashbacks. Written in 1915, in style Ford Madox Ford falls in a direct line between Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. Though more reminiscent of James in both subject matter and style, there are passages that will remind you of Hemingway's character descriptions in The Sun Also Rises. The least rewarding aspect of the story is the failure of the male characters to grow. They are unbelievably dull-witted, which can become tedious with repetition.
What about Ralph Cosham’s performance did you like?
Ralph Cosham brings just the right tone of ennui and cluelessness that makes the first person narrator both a charming fool and an annoying idiot.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful
Would you listen to The Good Soldier again? Why?
This is such a brilliantly written story. I not only listened to it but also
downloaded the book because I wanted to savor the language and descriptions of
the story of these characters. The narrator is wonderful!
Have you listened to any of Ralph Cosham’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
No, but I will in the future
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
Just savored every moment of it.
Any additional comments?
A must to listen to.
8 of 13 people found this review helpful
Would you try another book from Ford Madox Ford and/or Ralph Cosham?
What was most disappointing about Ford Madox Ford’s story?
I felt no connection with the characters. I would never want to listen to it again, it was of no consequence
What aspect of Ralph Cosham’s performance would you have changed?
His performance was fine - the story was lacking
3 of 5 people found this review helpful
This is considered one of the finest novels of the early twentieth century. The story and characters are suffocating - slowly killing each other and themselves - and we readers - through their idleness and pointlessness. However, and this is an enormous HOWEVER for anyone who is interested in HOW novels are written, I have never seen such an exquisite example of moving backwards and forwards in time to construct the story and characters. I may read this again and again just to see how Ford did it. It is simply brilliant.
Not every read must be pleasant, but it can be beautifully sad.
This sadness is not a surprise in 'The Good Soldier', but there are many in this novel that keep the reader engrossed in a difficult tale. Narrated to perfection and gorgeously written, a story of people as real in all colours of growth and disintegration as the earth we survive upon.
The painting of a small portrait, I am grateful to have witnessed.
The story narrator (not the reader) makes explanation for the confusion of the storyline. The author seemed to use that device as an excuse for not being able to write a coherent piece. I'm not sure why I stuck with it so long, except that I had hoped it would redeem itself. Perhaps I should rate the reader's performance more highly. What hope did he have with such a book to work with?