Choose Your Own Advent, Day 11: The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox FordChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Good Soldier
Author: Ford Madox Ford
Year: 1915

When you’re writing well, you’re hardly writing at all. The characters tell their own stories. Your scenarios (the tragedies, the comedies) unfold naturally. You set out on a journey and realize, only well into your project, that you’re actually heading somewhere else.

I don’t know much about Ford Madox Ford. I know less about his writing process. I won’t pretend that The Good Soldier took him anywhere that he didn’t expect to go.

It does, however, seem to be the sort of thing that I end up with when the material starts taking shape without me.

I have a story I plan to tell. I sit down to tell it. I produce something I never realized I had in me.

Even the title suggests a different story. “The Good Soldier,” as a phrase, isn’t without textual resonance, but it does feel incongruous. Whatever you envision when you see a title like that, it probably isn’t a tale of spiraling adultery and emotional turmoil as told by a character completely ignorant of what’s happening around him.

That latter detail is important, too. The narrator of The Good Soldier is John Dowell, an American lost in a maze of English passions without realizing it, caring much about it, or understanding any of it. Ford knows more about what happens in the story than Dowell does, which is fine. But so do all of the other characters, making our narrator seem especially hapless, as he’s genuinely both the last to figure out what’s happening and the least equipped to explain it to readers.

…which also seems like the kind of twist that occurs naturally, while an author intends to write something else. It’s in the process of telling a story that one figures out how best to tell it…which, in turn, can lead to it becoming a different kind of story altogether. The Good Soldier is now, and always will be, for better or worse, a permanent record of John Dowell’s inability to understand basic human behavior.

Without Dowell, the story would be something else. It would be centered upon the faithless Edward Ashburnham and his affairs. Edward (a fairly bad man but…ahem…a good soldier) is a romantic to disastrous lengths, seeming to fall for any woman who is not his patient, intelligent, independent wife Leonora.

The two are never quite happy with one another. Each of them seems to long for a life they can’t actually have. And their marital stalemate–often humorously–finds each of them branching out into independent lives of their own, while tethered, tragically, to each other.

Edward’s philandering is the more public (and sensational) pursuit; Leonora prefers to develop within, while Edward seeks to conquer without. His affairs, at best, renew the friction between he and his wife. At worst, they result in the unfortunate deaths of the objects of his desire.

One of whom ends up being John Dowell’s wife, Florence.

Dowell is not aware of this until much later, when a different character explains it to him. This other character is bewildered that Dowell could have overlooked this.

Dowell overlooked this.

Dowell is our narrator.

In non-fiction, this would be a clear detriment. In literature, it’s a positive boon, and it leads to a wealth of incredible, rewarding narrative complexity.

Dowell is masterfully thick headed. We pick up on things that he does not, almost exclusively so. He is present at the suicide of a main character, and doesn’t quite understand what he’s seeing until it’s over. At one point he distracts himself from an important conversation–and thereby prevents it from being recorded–because he’s seen a cow fall into a lake and can’t stop laughing.

Dowell is an idiot, and one of literature’s finest. We don’t hate him; we follow him. We aren’t frustrated by his inattention; we are entertained by it. In fact, on the actual story’s own actual merits, The Good Soldier would be a forgettable chronicle of sad adultery. It’s only Dowell that makes it memorable, because all of it gets filtered through a character who not only fails to understand the unfolding tragedy, but also fails to understand that he is in a position to stop it.

That, I truly feel, is English literature’s most perfect joke.

I’ve read a few theories that consider John Dowell to be a sort of deflective genius, playing the fool while letting others bring themselves down in an avalanche of tragedy. They claim that you can read The Good Soldier in a way that positions him as a secret villain, I guess, pulling strings and orchestrating demise.

Frankly, that borders on Jar-Jar-is-a-Sith-lord levels of unnecessary reaching, and I feel that it willfully clouds the story in such a way that its true pleasures–to be found Dowell’s unreadiness as a narrator and not in an extra-textual possibility of the man being a brilliant sociopath–get lost. You don’t end up reading The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford that way; you end up reading a work of fan fiction that exists only in your head. I feel that this does the actual novel a huge disservice, and does an even greater disservice to the reader, who has imagined his own story and overlooked Ford’s.

Dowell is a dolt, and that’s what makes The Good Soldier such an incredible, fun, remarkable reading experience. He describes things in ways we, as readers, can easily disprove. He promises us one thing, while other–more reliable–characters elsewhere reveal the truth. He spends long passages describing the way something unfolded, by use of tortured metaphor and desperate grasping for understanding, only to then rewrite those same passages differently, because he thought of a better way to explain things.

There’s a lot of death in The Good Soldier, and that’s what gives John Dowell his battlefield promotion. He shouldn’t be narrating, but by the time the story’s over, there’s nobody else left to narrate.

Just Dowell.

Alone amongst the destruction, to tell us what went wrong.

If only he could figure it out for himself.