The Good Soldier / Ford Maddox Ford

When published in 1915, the reviews for The Good Soldier were mixed, at best. This is is not surprising since it involves subjects that were considered taboo at the time, extra-marital relationships and suicide. Since then, the critical opinion of the book has shifted and it is now considered not only Ford’s masterpiece, but also a tour de force in the style of writing that came to be called impressionism. The book’s title is misleading. Picking it up, one might think they were about to read a story related to a soldier or the military. Ford had wanted to call the novel “The Saddest Story,” but his publisher changed it, fearing a book with that title would not attract an audience. However, the original title does much better represent what the reader will encounter between its covers.

Five main characters are featured, two married couples and a young girl who enters the picture and changes their dysfunctional relationships, already precariously balanced, for the worst. The story on the surface is certainly melodramatic. It is a rambling account of a passionless man whose wife (already earlier unfaithful) and best friend become lovers but are divided when the best friend falls in love with an innocent young girl; the guilty wife kills herself when her sins are made public; the best friend, frustrated with his wife’s manipulations to control his life, kills himself with a penknife; the young girl goes mad; and in the end she is left under the care of the passionless husband.

The book’s narrator happens to be the passionless husband. Duped by his wife, his best friend and the best friend’s wife, he hardly seems the appropriate person to retell the events that led to two deaths and madness. And yet it is this digressive account that elevates the melodramatic elements to comic irony.

What makes this novel important is Ford’s use of impressionist techniques to present his story. Writers who adhere to its principles present the action while events are occurring, concentrate on the emotional landscape of the setting, and avoid a chronological telling of the story, leaving the reader to puzzle together the book’s jumbled pieces.

Ford in his numerous novels tried to adhere to all these rules, and in the The Good Soldier he succeeds on all counts. And in this reader’s case, he kept my interest throughout. This novel not only has artistry, but it rings true to life on every page as it unravels a psychological analysis of its five main characters. While some might be put off by the book’s unrelenting presentation of personal tragedy, Ford’s intriguing presentation makes it much less a tragedy than a cautionary tale of what occurs when people who are basically decent and well-meaning remain in marriages that lack the spark of compassion and acceptance.


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