The Good Soldier

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Good Soldier was first published simultaneously in London and New York by John Lane at The Bodley Head in March 1915. In fact the opening of the novel had appeared a year before in the first issue of Wyndham Lewis’s aggressively modern Vorticist magazine Blast in June 1914, under its original title of ‘The Saddest Story’. Ford was asked by his publisher to change the title of the novel on the grounds that sad stories would be difficult to sell during a time of war. Ford suggested the title The Good Soldier in a spirit of irony, but it was accepted and it stuck.

The Good Soldier – critical commentary

Narrative complexity

Although it is not as well known as other modernist classics, such as D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier certainly shares many of their values, and was written using a number of similar experimental techniques. The most obvious of those is the chronological complexity of the narrative.

Ford Madox Ford The Good SoldierThe story is related by a narrator John Dowell who is also a character in the story. But his account of events is extremely fragmented, and their temporal sequence is fractured in a way which makes great demands on the reader. The events themselves occur over a stretch of twenty-four years, essentially spanning the period between 1892 and 1916 – even though the novel was published in 1915. But these events are revealed to the reader in a series of scenes which shift backwards and forwards in time. Ford makes dramatic use of prolepsis and analepsis (flashes forwards and backwards).

Modern editions of the text often have a chronology included, to assist readers in reconstructing the sequence of the episodes. Dowell as narrator is fully aware of this shifting backwards and forwards of the story line, and indeed makes apologies for his uncertainty and lack of skill in reconstructing events.

Having said that, he is also very precise about certain dates, and at other times cannot remember if some something has happened or not. This was a technique which Ford Madox Ford called ‘impressionism’, and it was his attempt to reflect as a form of literary realism the fact that human beings cannot always remember things accurately. Nor can we always know the exact truth about events that have taken place.

It is interesting to note that this technique of narrative fragmentation was also a hallmark of Joseph Conrad, with whom Ford collaborated as a novelist in The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903, and The Nature of a Crime (1909). In addition to this Ford also exploits the modernist device of the unreliable narrator.

The unreliable narrator

Henry James and to a lesser extent Joseph Conrad are often credited as the first modern writers to exploit the technique which has come to be known as ‘the unreliable narrator’ – and Ford was acquainted with both of these fellow authors.

The unreliable narrator is a device which exploits the fact that when novel-length stories are delivered in the first person narrative mode, the reader has a natural inclination to believe that the truth is being told. After all, if the narrator is going to get the facts wrong or tell lies, why use this device in the first place? But modernist writers have embraced the idea that human beings do make mistakes in their perception of events; they are misguided in their judgement of others; and they may have motivations of which they themselves are unaware.

The skill of the modernist is to create a narrative in the first person mode whereby the narrator gives the reader enough information to form an independent judgement about events which differs from the narrator’s

Henry James did this in The Turn of the Screw, where all the ‘facts’ of the case are presented by the governess in a horror story – and the reader has just enough information to realise that she is neurotic and wrong in the judgements she makes. Her narrative tells one story, behind which the astute reader sees another which is quite different.

Vladimir Nabokov takes this literary device to an extreme in his novel Pale Fire, in which his narrator is editing a long poem written by a fellow college professor. The footnotes to the poem purport to explain its meaning, but what they reveal is that the narrator is a mad man.

Ford’s narrator John Dowell is unreliable in that he makes mistakes, forgets what he has previously said, and generally gives the impression of someone who is not sure of what is going on around him. After all, for the whole of his marriage to Florence she is having adulterous affairs with two other men without his knowledge.

The problem is that there are so many mistakes and contradictions, there becomes growing suspicion that these are errors on the author’s part – not simply Dowell’s. The text gives a distinct impression that Ford might be an author who is not incomplete control of the strategy he is adopting. For instance, he seems to forget from time to time that his narrator Dowell is supposed to be American. Dowell passes comments on Americans from a European perspective, in a voice which is suspiciously that of an author, not a fictional character.

And of course all of this is novelist’s sleight of hand on Ford’s part, because the logic of first person narratives is that narrators must have all the facts of the case at their disposal at the point of finishing the story. If they were genuinely unaware of some facts or circumstances in the earlier part of their account, they could go back and correct it later.

Dowell keeps shifting his approach to characters and events, and he claims to be relating his tale over a period of time – so gives the impression of doing just that. But in fact he knows the outcome of events right from the start of his account, as his suggestive hints reveal:

Permanence? Stability! I can’t believe it’s gone. I can’t believe that that long, tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks.

The four crashing days (no matter where they are finely placed in the complicated chronology of events) are the period in which he has learned from Leonora of his wife’s infidelity with first a blackmailer, and then the man he thought of as his best friend. He knew from the outset that he had been duped.

The conversational style

In addition to these complexities of narrative mode, Ford also develops a very conversational tone for Dowell’s delivery of the story. He actually says that he thinks of his account as addressing a listener directly. ‘I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes.’

Dowell speaks directly to the reader; he uses lots of repetition; corrects himself after making mistakes; raises questions, confesses that he doesn’t understand the events he is relating; uses hesitation, ellipsis, and often leaves statements unfinished.

You are to remember that all this happened a month before Leonora went into the girl’s room at night. I have been casting back again, but I cannot help it. It is so difficult to keep all these people going. I tell you about Leonora and bring her up to date; then about Edward, who has fallen behind. And the girl gets hopelessly left behind. I wish I could put it down in diary form.


The Good Soldier is also a very difficult novel to ‘interpret’. Even though all the information in the story comes to us from Dowell, he seems as a character to be incredibly dim and lacking in good judgement. His wife is having affairs with the blackmailer Jimmy and Dowell’s best friend Ashburnham for years without Dowell suspecting, and even when he does find out, he does nothing about it. Indeed, he even tells us he felt nothing about it.

And when giving an account of people’s occupations, he describes his own as ‘absolutely nothing’. He spends all his time with people who are poisonously hostile to each other; the lives of other characters all around him are wrecked by deception and adultery; and he does nothing.

In the end, the one character who he continues to admire and hold up as a paragon of virtue, is Ashburnham, his best and only friend, who has been cuckolding him for years. Ashburnham goes through the novel as a serial adulterer who gambles away half his family fortune and ends up cutting his own throat because of his suppressed lust for a young girl whose paternal care he has undertaken. Yet Dowell admires, even ‘loves’ Ashburnham right to the end – because he is kind to his tenants.

The Good Soldier – study resources

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon UK

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon US

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – eBook formats at Gutenberg

The Good Soldier The Good Soldier – DVD of 1981 film version – Amazon UK

The Good Soldier – plot summary

Part I

American John Dowell and his wife Florence are living in Europe, ostensibly for the sake of her health, as she has a weak heart. At the German spa resort of Bad Nauheim they meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora and strike up a close relationship with them. They all enjoy each other’s company, they go on excursions together, and are inseparable as friends.

Dowell as narrator present the Ashburnhams as an ideal if rather colourless couple, but then gradually begins to reveal all sorts of unsavoury details about their lives. Dowell discovers that Ashburnham has committed a string of sexual infidelities in the past, and has lost a lot of money gambling. His wife has forced him to make over all his money into her name. Their marriage was arranged, and he has been a slave to his sexual passions. He has also had to rent out the family estate at Branshaw Teleragh in Hampshire.

It gradually becomes apparent that Ashburnham is conducting an affair with Dowell’s wife Florence. Dowell claims to feel nothing about it, and both couples maintain a polite public appearance. Ashburnham’s wife Leonora also knows about the affair.

The Ashburnhams have recently arrived from India, where the Captain was serving in the army. Dowell reveals that Leonora has paid for the travelling expenses of Mrs Masie Maidan, her husband’s lover in India, so that she could accompany them to Europe. But when Mrs Maidan realises that Ashburnham has tired of her and has turned his attentions towards Florence Dowell, she plans to go back to her husband in India. However, she suddenly dies whilst packing her travelling case.

Part II

Dowell backtracks to recount the story of his courtship and marriage to Florence, after which she immediately begins to feign a bad heart. It transpires that her family , who disapprove of her marriage, have paid Jimmy, an old disreputable ‘admirer’ of Florence’s to stay in Europe, away from her.

When Dowell and Florence arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, Jimmy turns up and stays with them. Dowell fails to realise that Jimmy and Florence are lovers, right under his nose.

Dowell reveals that Florence deployed her new lover Ashburnham to get rid of Jimmy by ‘knocking [his] teeth down his throat’. In fact Dowell claims to empathise with the difficulties Ashburnham, Florence, and Leonora face in maintaining the veneer of respectability whilst all three are involved in this adulterous triangle. Dowell himself appears to be either unaware or untouched by what is going on around him. It is unclear if he is a complete fool, a bloodless psychopath, or a liar.

Florence is plotting to run off with Ashburnham when she is recognised as a former lover of Jimmy’s by an English guest at the hotel, and she commits suicide, not wishing to face the shame of such a revelation. Dowell appears unmoved by his wife’s death, and reveals that he is in love with Nancy, a young girl to whom the Ashburnhams act as guardian. He leaves for America.

Part III

Ashburnham and Leonora are left in Bad Nauheim, fighting over his growing obsession with Nancy. The narrative then leaps backwards again to cover the period of Ashburnham’s early marriage to Leonora which was arranged by their parents. Animus soon develops between them, and when Ashburnham kisses a girl in a railway carriage (the ‘Kilsyte affair’) it awakens his sex urges. These burst into life in his brief dalliance on the Riviera with La Dolciquita, the mistress of a Grand Duke. She demands money to be his mistress, and he loses money gambling to raise the funds to keep her.

Leonora has meanwhile seized control of the family’s finances with a London solicitor. She lets out the family home at Branshaw and arranges for her husband to be transferred to India, where they spend the next eight years, trying to recoup financially.

In India Ashburnham begins an affair with Mrs Basil, the wife of a fellow officer. The husband finds out, and blackmails Ashburnham on a regular basis, threatening to expose him. When Colonel Basil is transferred to the Boer War, Ashburnham begins an affair with Mrs Masie Maidan. Leonora has meanwhile managed to solve their financial problems and proposes a return to their Hampshire estate.

Part IV

The narrative loops back in time again to pick up the story shortly before Masie Maidan’s death in Bad Nauheim. Dowell explains Leonora’s motivation in trying to win back her husband, who is just starting an affair with Dowell’s wife. The Ashburnhams go back to their estate at Branshaw, where Leonora starts to harass Ashburnham over money matters.

Dowell returns from America to stay at Branshaw, where he reports on Leonora’s dejection and headaches. Ashburnham is meanwhile eaten up with unexpressed desire for Nancy, a young girl who has been in their care since her parents abandoned her. Leonora finally confronts Ashburnham about Nancy, then tries to prevent the girl leaving to rejoin her feckless mother. She would sooner hand her husband over to the girl than have her leave. In this confrontation Nancy reveals that she is in love with Ashburnham.

Dowell then switches to recount events from Nancy’s point of view – her youthful awakening to the knowledge of personal unhappiness, divorce, and her love for Ashburnham, who she thinks must love someone else, until Leonora reveals to her that her husband is dying for the love of Nancy herself. But she also reveals Ashburnham’s all infidelities, which kills off Nancy’s idealised vision of him. Ashburnham arranges for someone to take care of Nancy’s mother, then summons Dowell to Branshaw.

Dowell returns to his own point of view, and reveals the end of the story before describing the events that bring it about. Nancy goes to join her father in India, and on the journey there learns that Ashburnham has committed suicide (by cutting his own throat). She becomes slightly mad with religious monomania, and Dowell is despatched to bring her back to Branshaw. Leonora meanwhile sells the house to Dowell and marries the colourless Rodney Bayham. The novel concludes with Dowell living at Branshaw with Nancy, who is now so deranged he is unable to marry her, and at the very end of his narrative he describes the events leading up to Ashburnham’s suicide.

Principal characters
John Dowell the narrator – a wealthy American living in Europe
Florence Dowell his wife, a university graduate
Captain Edward (Teddy) Ashburnham an ex-Army county magistrate and Tory landowner
Leonora Ashburnham his Irish catholic childless wife
Nancy Rufford ‘the girl’ who has been adopted by the Ashburnhams
Mrs Rufford Nancy’s mother, who abandons her
Major Rufford a brutish army man with a loud voice
John Hurlbird Florence’s uncle, from whom Dowell inherits
Miss Florence Hurlbird Florence’s elder aunt in Connecticut
Miss Emily Hurlbird Florence’s younger aunt
Mrs Masie Maidan Ashburnham’s mistress in India
Bunny Masie’s husband
Jimmy Florence’s lover in Paris, a blackmailer
La Dolciquita the Spanish mistress of a Grand Duke, with whom Ashburnham has an affair
Colonel Basil a colleague of Ashburnham’s in India who borrows money from him
Mrs Basil Ashburnham’s sympathetic mistress in India
Rodney Bayham an admirer of Leonora’s who she marries

Further reading


Red button Stella Bowen, Drawn from Life, London: Collins, 1941.

Red button Alan Judd, Ford Madox Ford, London: Collins, 1990.

Red button Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Red button Arthur Mizener, The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford, London: The Bodley Head, 1972.

Critical commentary

Red button Richard A. Cassell, Critical Essays on Ford Madox Ford, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.

Red button Robert Green, Ford Madox Ford: Prose and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Red button Samuel Hynes, Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1972..

Red button Richard W. Lid, Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964

Red button Frank MacShane (ed), Ford Madox Ford: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1972.

Red button Martin Stannard (ed), The Good Soldier, New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, second edition, 2012.

Other novels by Ford Madox Ford

Red button Parade’s End – Wordsworth Classics edition

Red button Parade’s End – Kindle edition

© Roy Johnson 2013

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