There is an unconventional kind of heroism in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. No one character is heroic with a capital ‘H’, but each displays different forms of valor. Maybe that is why the narrator’s, John Dowell’s, happiest moments are during his nostalgic ruminations of the adulterous group as a whole, as a phenomenal gathering of eclectic individuals, as a manifestation of “good people.”
Yet, the combination of their distinctive personalities ultimately taints any understanding of “good people” as severely tortured and unnatural. An overall lack of communication enforces their distinctions, and the story becomes fraught with ignorance. It is too difficult to take sides, or even to praise a single character outright, because Dowell’s perspectives fluctuate constantly. But the fluctuations do not necessarily point to authoritative uncertainty; instead they are a symptom of Ford’s constant modification of archetypal heroism, and romantic literature.
If Ford revises the idea of the fictional hero it is only after he provides his understanding of the original idea. Edward is that provision. In “’A Frank Expression of Personality’? Sentimentality, Silence and Early Modernist Aesthetics in The Good Soldier,” Damon Marcel DeCoste recalls that Edward is consistently presented as, “a tasteless consumer, and mediocre product, of third-rate writing” (104). However, Edward is more than a product of third-rate writing. He represents third-rate writing, or light literature, as a manifestation of its most ideal protagonist.
Ford explores the humanity of his romantic hero, Edward, by placing him in a scenario that tempts him to act but limits his actions. This scenario is his marriage. After enough time in Leonora’s frigid household, Edward’s heroism, which stems from sentimental obsessions, becomes a swollen flaw with no outlet. Dowell explains how Leonora’s restrictions affect Edward when he says,
“I guess that made him cut his throat… the thought that he had lost his Nancy and that, in addition, there was nothing left for him but a dreary, dreary succession of days in which he could be of no public service…”(226).
Edward should never have married. Even though he escapes the expectations of his marital agreement fairly easily, he does not escape the emotional repercussions of his actions. Actually, he covets the significance of his betrayals as much as, maybe even more than, his romantic adventures. Leonora exaggerates the former, and Edward, as a romantic character is very susceptible to her emotional manipulation. So he kills himself.
John Dowell is the revised hero. At first, in his constant recollection, he is confused. He struggles into and out of the hard truths of a tale that he had failed to confront as it happened. Dowell is adjacent to his audience because they both learn the story simultaneously, so his ignorance garners sympathy. But is his childlike humility and unassuming dedication to the more wretched hedonism of the novel, heroic? David H. Lynn says so, in his paper, “Watching the Orchards Robbed: Dowell and The Good Soldier.” Dowell’s naivety is conquered heroically at the end of the novel by
“a vision of general irony, which suspends Dowell’s new affirmation of fundamental human values with an equal awareness of society’s enduring hostility to those same values of love and personal responsibility.”
Lynn concludes, “He has changed, not they” (411).
John Dowell definitely grows, which would be a more than a remarkable feat for any of the other stubborn characters, but growth is not necessarily heroism. Rather it is what Dowell grows into that is heroic: someone who can confront the uncomfortable truths of the novel with health and wisdom. Dowell’s repetition of the phrase “It is all a darkness,” suggests that he is stupid or unaware, but his ignorance helps him approach the complicated scenario without bias. The use of the word “darkness” does more than suggest blindness, though. It also lurches towards negativity.
As Kenneth Womack points out in his paper “It Is All a Darkness’: Death, Narrative Therapy, and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier,” Dowell’s narrative is an orderly reaction to profound circumstances of death and betrayal. Womack’s argument is founded on the idea that Florence, Edward, Leonora, and John shared a “psychological homeostasis,” wherein they all resisted change for the sake of mental stability. In this light, Dowell is the most heroic because he confronts the facts, when they finally find him, and explores them with the earnest intention of garnering knowledge about himself in an effort to change his emotional circumstances. Womack states it more eloquently:
“Dowell intentionally sifts amongst his memories in an attempt to retell them in a fashion–and, perhaps most significantly, in an order–that affords him with the possibility, at times, of self-delusion and, in other instances, of genuine emotional transformation” (324).
Edward’s death stimulates Dowell, and it is the first time that they are equal. Dowell claims, “I wanted to say, “God bless you,” for I also am a sentimentalist” (294). This indirect praise, is in stark contrast to Dowell’s consistent condemnation of Edward on the basis of the same sentimentality. Edwards’s death is the elimination of such sentimentality. His departure marks a transition in the novel from romantic heroism, a stale indulgence, to Dowell’s modern heroism, a genuine appreciation of the misunderstandings and complexities of leisure humanity.
If Edward is the archetypal romantic hero, and Dowell is a revision of Edward, then Leonora is a hero of society, religion, and naivety. Her relationship with Edward is, at most times, perverse. Most women would immediately leave a man who was abusing their affection so liberally, but Leonora stays. Dowell often proposes that her determination to control the circumstances is a characteristic of her morally-oriented nature. Michael Levenson discusses Leonora briefly in his article titled “Character in The Good Soldier,” but he is succinct: “Leonora begins as a living moral tautology who aspires to what she is made to be” (374). Tautology is a fitting label for Leonora because she adheres to such an intense diet of psychological repetition and routine that she becomes more militaristic than Edward. Still, Ford reinforces her humanity by suggesting that her reliance on religious fundamentals comes from fear and inexperience. For example, she wants children, but does not even know how they are made until a year into her marriage.
Leonora’s heroism is persuasive simply because of her inhuman devotion to her beliefs. She is not natural, and that is understood, but there are moments in Dowell’s description where she acheives a great deal of sympathy and appears very ‘human’. Her obedience and deliberation are so practiced that her actions go beyond pretension to suggest a queer and naïve selflessness. In one instance, Dowell says,
But she drove with efficiency and precision; she smiled at the Gimmers and Ffoulkes and the Hedley Seatons. She threw with exactitude pennies to the boy who opened gates for her; she sat upright on the seat of the high dog-cart; she waved her hands to Edward and Nancy as they rode off with the hounds and everyone could hear her clear, high voice, in the chilly weather, saying: “Have a good time!”(236)
There is no physical description of Leonora better than this with which to pinpoint her character. The weather is cold, and Leonora is very stiff, and so is the very brief dialogue. Yet, there is an implication of great pain in her language. In subtle moments alike, Ford forces an established admiration for Leonora’s tragic position.
It is difficult to argue that Florence is heroic. Even the firmest recollection of her most generous actions would only supply an argument in defense of her humanity. But to call her a villain would be unfair. In fact, she champions a female liberation that Leonora, and any other female character in the novel, is incapable of even conceiving. While Leonora strains her moral fiber in an attempt at minimal control, Florence exercises full exploitation effortlessly. Of all Edward’s affairs, she is the only one to actively pursue him, without the intention of taking his money. Florence travels across the Atlantic Ocean and in an instance of almost divine serendipity finds Edward. She is a woman with a purpose, and she exercises her will to every extent. As Dowell naively describes in the beginning of the novel,
She was yet a graduate of Vassar. I could never imagine how she did it-the queer, chattery person that she was. With the faraway look in her eyes-which wasn’t, however, in the least romantic-I mean that she didn’t look as if she were seeing poetic dreams, or looking through you, for she hardly ever did look at you! (18)
The implication of Florence’s “faraway look,” is multifaceted. Primarily it suggests that she is goal-oriented, a unique trait for this book. It also depicts her disregard for Dowell, who remarks at her tendency to never “look at you.” Dowell also mentions her schooling, which is important because it becomes difficult to remember later on that Florence is the most educated character. It shows agency.
Florence exhibits a unique knowledge and purpose in an environment of confusion and aimlessness. Leonora is inexperienced, and she relies on the sometimes contradictory morals of the Catholic religion. Edward is for the most part, an idealistic brute, and Dowell is, as everyone knows, completely out of the loop.
So Florence is separate; her actions are all full of intention. She understands her position, and while she is void of moral action, she is not of moral thought. The phial that she carries around, in case she decides to kill herself, is testament to this. When she dies, her death is on purpose: “She was lying, quite, respectably arranged, unlike Mrs. Maiden, on her bed” (119). From what Dowell explains, Florence is not romantic, whether or not this is a failure of observation on his behalf is unknown. In any case, if Florence is not romantic her suicide is a brave admission of guilt. At the very least, it is a reminder that she has some kind of conscience.
The Good Soldier is a battle in itself. The complex characters each struggle with their own unique external and internal conflict, but they all share a common environment of uselessness. In many ways their environment is the literary aftermath of the nineteenth century adventure novel; whereas heroes were needed before, there is now nothing that needs to be done. So they do not physically do anything, but characters like Edward and Florence still superficially fulfill the idealized gender roles of the past. Edward is a savior without anyone to save, and he has it in his mind that his purpose is to act. Yet, there is nothing to act about, so the majority of his inner quarrel stems from boredom. His is not an isolated boredom either. There is very little physical action in the story. It is this separation between physical apathy and emotional entropy that is a primary source of conflict. More importantly Ford uses this conflict to exaggerate the flaws of romanticism, high class society, and the Edwardian era as a whole.
DeCoste, Damon Marcel. “‘A Frank Expression of Personality’? Sentimentality, Silence
and Early Modernist Aesthetics in The Good Soldier.” Journal of Modern Literature 104 (2007): 101-123. MLA International Bibliography. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Library., Pomona, NJ. 22 March 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/>.
Ford, Ford Maddox. The Good Soldier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Levenson, Michael. “Character in The Good Soldier.” Twentieth Century Literature 374
(1984): 373-87. MLA International Bibliography. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Library., Pomona, NJ. 24 March 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/>.
Lynn, David H. “Watching the Orchards Robbed: Dowell and The Good Soldier.”
Studies in the Novel 411 (1984): 410-423. MLA International Bibliography. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Library., Pomona, NJ. 20 March 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/>.
Womack, Kenneth. “‘It Is All a Darkness’: Death, Narrative Therapy, and Ford Maddox
Ford’s The Good Soldier.” Papers on Language and Literature 324 (2002): 316-33. MLA International Bibliography. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Library., Pomona, NJ. 23 March 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/>.