Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ford Madox Ford: December 17, 1873--June 26, 1939

As I've mentioned before, Ford's The Good Soldier is one of my top ten favorite novels. I find it absorbing each time I read it, for something new always emerges. It's been awhile since I last read it, and I believe I'm due for another read. I wonder what I'll discover this time.

I really enjoy the way Ford slowly introduces information throughout the novel, very quietly and so unobtrusively that I keep missing it. This is one work that must be read slowly and alertly. Something is always going on.

One example from my last reread is the f
irst sentence of the novel: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

This is the fourth? fifth? time that I have read this novel, and up to now I have always focused on the words "the saddest story" as being the most important. Now, I'm not so sure. The last word in the sentence, "heard," seems also to be very significant, if not even more so.

"Heard" suggests to me that this is not something that Dowell has been a part of, but a story that someone told him and now he is going to tell us what he heard. Yet, immediately afterwards, he tells us that it is the story of him, his wife Florence, and their English friends, the Ashburnhams. In fact he tells us that they had known these people with "extreme intimacy." This would seem to contradict the implication of his opening statement--that this is something he heard rather than personally experienced. Why does he say "heard" rather than "lived through" or "experienced"?

I think this poses the basic question of the novel: What kind of relationship did Dowell really have with the Ashburnhams?

Dowell is probably one of the most unique narrators I've ever encountered. He is at the same time both a reliable and an unreliable, or really a naive narrator, and this is what creates the tension in the story. The novel is a flashback in which Dowell tells us not only what he thought his life was like, but also what it really was. In doing this he poses the problem: Is what was once thought true, now no longer true?

Looking back on the past ten years, he cries out: "No, by God it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison--a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along the shaded avenues of the Taunus Wald.

And yet, I swear by the sacred name of my creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true plash of the fountains from the mouths of stone dolphins. For, if for me we were four people with the same tastes, with the same desires, acting--or no not acting--sitting here and there unanimously, isn't that the truth? If for nine years I possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?"

Can one change the past?

It's definitely time to dust off The Good Soldier and move it into my queue.


  1. Have you read anything else by Ford Madox Ford? Can you recommend any other book of his?

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, I've read a number of his novels, including the three collaborations with Joseph Conrad. If you have already read _The Good Soldier_ and enjoyed it, then I would suggest his quartet "Parade's End" which consists of four novels:

    Some Do Not...

    No More Parades

    A Man Could Stand Up--

    Last Post

    All four focus on Christopher Tietjens and might really be considered one large novel.

    After that, I would suggest reading anything you can find, which probably won't be much. I think most of his works are now out of print.

  3. FYI from R.T.

  4. R.T.,

    Thanks for the list. It's great. It was also a lot of work, I suspect.

  5. I was struck by the revelations in of Dowell as the narrative proceeds-small asides that undermine all he has said or change our perception of it-I also see it as one of the very best novels of all time-I hope you and your interested readers will join in the Ford Madox Ford Parade's End read along to commence on April 1 on my blog-

    My post on The Good Soldier

  6. Yes, I have found myself going back and checking on previous statements by Dowell to make sure that he really did say what I thought he said.

    And each time that I read it, I find other "small asides" that I had missed in my earlier readings.

    I consider it to be one of my top ten novels and reread it frequently.

    I do plan to join you for _Parade's End_ in April.