Re: views of an editor.
Ford Madox Ford's novel, The Good Soldier, has been called a masterpiece by many critics and given an assigned, though not the highest, place in literature's pantheon. Yet, except for its adherents (and they are fierce in their loyalty), it has not been taken to heart by a wide readership. The difficulty of form is not the reason for the critical resistance, for surely Joyce's Ulysses would fall into a stream of neglected masterpieces if difficulty were the primary factor in popular esteem. Some other thorn keeps Ford on a fence of profound acceptance of genius. Probably the factor has less to do with content or complexity of style and form than with an authorial point of view too painful to accept cheerfully. Hence the reaction to Ford as a cynic, as a man without proper attention to morality. Ford is simply embarrassing to accept (though not to acknowledge grudgingly)-his view of human behavior is too permissive in its window of insights. Ultimately the writers of the world accepted as touchstones of cultural identity convey a certain goodness of being beneath the base of human character; such goodness is mixed always with a presence of evil apparent but the struggle implies not merely the triumph of good but its unalloyed integrity. Ford questions such assumption in his presentation, at least in this, his greatest novel, not by denying good and evil but by equating them in a lens limited by habit and lack of knowledge as well as doubt of knowledge beyond one's habitual sphere.
In a world now poised (in the United States at least) on a threshold of hope, in a faith that knowledge gained can lead to progress, and that the recapture of past optimism as a road to progress can be achieved, Ford's standing may be in even greater danger. Hence I believe there is a need to call attention again to his cautionary views, for they constitute as profound a view of human behavior as the more entrenched icons of world literature.
Perhaps the most viable way to understand Ford's triumph in the duplicity of his literary art is first to summarize the plot of his novel, not as he tells it but in a more conventional time-ordered narrative. Whether the conventional order of narration is more reliable than Ford's unreliable narrator is open to debate, but nothing of Ford's theme of the unknowingness of human behavior will be lost in the condensation.
Ford's narrator is Dowell, an American now living in a landed estate, Bradford Teleragh, in Sussex, England. He is taking care of a beautiful young mad girl, Nancy Rufford, who paces back and forth in the next room as he is writing checks to pay the bills of her care and the expenses of the estate his friend and widow, Leonora, has sold to him. Leonora has moved to a farm/estate down the road; she has remarried after the suicide of her husband, Edward, the good soldier--the fine, upstanding owner of the estate, a blond, blue-eyed, tall, manly English prototypical hero. Dowell says that Leonora is now pregnant; her marriage to Edward was childless.
Dowell then tells the story of his marriage to Florence and how he and Florence met and came to know Edward and Leonora. He chooses to tell it as the recollections come to him. One incident triggers an awakening of another event; the events form patterns and sometimes commentary that are both diversionary and illuminating. Indeed, Dowell's digressions become the most revealing content of his thoughts.
The reminiscences/memoir/accounting/recounting/ and likely, fictions--for Dowell is today what is called an unreliable narrator-span six years. During the course of this period Florence becomes Edward's mistress. Later, Florence will commit suicide when she becomes aware her efforts at deceiving her husband, Dowell the narrator, have been exposed to him by a stranger at the hotel in which they are staying. Florence has pretended she has a weak heart, thus preventing her husband from exercising his conjugal rights. This practice--or lack of it--has gone on for some years; during this interval Florence has repeatedly slept with her first lover, Jimmy, a groom from her family estate in Connecticut whom she took to Paris on an earlier visit with her bachelor uncle, who also claimed he had a bad--meaning, weak--heart. Florence has paid for Jimmy to live in Paris, and when she and Dowell arrive there on their honeymoon, she sleeps with Jimmy after telling Dowell she cannot sleep with him because of her weak heart condition. She also tells her husband they cannot return to Connecticut because the overseas voyage would destroy her fragile heart. Dowell writes in his narration that he believed everything Florence told him, even when the rich old bachelor uncle died and was autopsied as having had a perfectly sound heart while he was alive, but other and fatal health problems.
Thus is sounded the beginning notes of deception. Florence is an aggressive, deceitful woman and she has chosen her husband wisely, for he has his own reasons for playing a neuter role. The reader doesn't know the reasons, and will not know them, until the end of the novel. He will only come to know Dowell better, or have seen him and the ways of his behavior over a six-year period.
The words HEART and KNOW are signifiers to what the novel is exploring. Everybody has a heart, and this novel is about heart conditions--the good and the bad-hearted people, the weak and the strong in heart. Florence, for example, is a strong-hearted person, in that she is a good and lambent liar--she goes after her prey without slackening of energy or doubt of mission. Her prey is Edward, the rich, handsome English gentleman married to Leonora. They have met at a table in the dining room of a spa in Nauheim, Germany. Florence becomes Edward's mistress with the blinking of an eye. Florence and Leonora KNOW each other for what they are and have become; they accept their knowledge without inner dissent.
The reader is likely to wonder if Dowell, in his withholding of information as he tells his story, is doing it KNOWINGLY. To present himself in a better light--is that what Dowell is doing? When he talks of KNOWING, he means it in the informational/intellectual and the Biblical/sensual references, but when he tells the reader what he knows, he says he didn't know it till long after the occurrences of the events he describes. Thus the reader knows information before Dowell knows it--that is, if Dowell is telling the truth, whether intentionally or naturally beyond his artifice to shape it. But is he telling the truth, or is he lying, intentionally or pathologically? Ford doesn't give an easy answer. Indeed, he gives no answer.
Dowell goes on to relate the story of Edward and Leonora's marriage, as best he can. BEST, meaning his limitations as any one human observer can be objective, or his limitations as an eunuch writing about sexual passion.
Edward and Leonora have brought to the spa a tubercular waif, Maisie Maidan, from India, where Edward was stationed at an army outpost. They are paying for Maisie's expenses, they are doing good by helping someone more afflicted than they. That is how Edward sees it. Leonora has gone along with the project, as she has gone along with all of Edward's projects, knowing she cannot change Edward's delusions of beneficence.
Maisie is deceived also. She believed that it was her husband who was paying for her treatment, and for the expenses involved in the journey to Nauheim. She discovers it is Edward who is her benefactor, and this knowledge shatters her into an awareness of maladroit intentions.
The pattern of ending and beginning in Edward's affairs will continue when Florence later overhears Edward's pure and sentimental remarks to his ward and nominal niece, Nancy; Florence will correctly interpret the words as the death blow to her sexual affair with Edward, for Edward, as the good soldier he is, is not able to be pure to Nancy and illicit to Florence. Edward is the kind of man who can only idealize one woman at a time.
Running back to her hotel, Florence will see her husband talking to a new guest, Mr. Bradshaw. This person happened to be on the same ship as Florence, her uncle and her lover Jimmy years before; he is a friend of Florence's family. Mr. Bradshaw will tell Dowell he saw Florence leave Jimmy's stateroom at five in the morning. Knowing that her deceptions about a poor heart--which is true in a metaphorical and characterological manner--may be exposed to her husband, Florence commits suicide. .
The pattern of deception and self-deception will be narrated by Dowell in an associative manner. Dowell will tell of Edward's several past affairs, but first he will ramble on about dates, as if these are of great significance, and perhaps they are, since World War I began on August 4, 1914, and the world was never the same again. August 4 is the date on which several of Edward's and Florence's and Leonora's escapades occur. Just as the death of a mouse from cancer can be as momentous in its reverberations as the sack of Rome by the Goths- a comparison Dowell makes at the beginning of his narration--so the story of two well-heeled and self-centered English and two well-heeled and self-centered Americans may reveal the decline of modern civilization.
Dowell then writes about La Dolciquita, a Spanish courtesan with whom Edward spent an evening of passion; the evening spread into a week at the gambling tables of the casino and on to Edward's loss of much of his fortune. Leonora returns to England to rescue Edward's financial situation, and in the process take away his independence of spirit as well as act. She will in effect take over Edward's financial life. She will raise the rents on their estate, she will void generous pensions to old tenants Edward has set up, and she will lease their estate on profitable terms while she and Edward spend the next five years abroad. They move to Chitra, India, where Edward has a role to play in his regiment as a commanding officer.
Edward in India begins and ends an affair with a pleasant young woman, Mrs. Basil, who demands little from him except the pleasure of their relationship. Her husband however demands payment-this may be called blackmail or a business arrangement. The affair becomes a contained one;
The last part of the novel wanders between the death of Florence, the fortune she inherits from her poor-hearted bachelor uncle five days before her suicide, and the legacy of that fortune to Dowell, who in turn leaves much of it to Florence's disapproving and churlish aunts in Connecticut. Dowell also brings to his mind Nancy Rufford, the lovely young girl Edward and Leonora raised into an enchanting presence and sexual threat in their rented garden. Edward is aware of the sexual threat; his awareness prods him to send Nancy away to prevent an act of horrendous evil. Perversely, Leonora, begs Nancy to stay on, for Leonora knows Edward will fall apart with the physical loss of his ideal virgin,
Eroding the suffocating triangle, Nancy goes on to India. In Aden, she sends a telegram to Edward. She writes she is having a "rattling good time."
Is this phrase "rattling good time" what finally drives Edward to suicide? He has sent his true love away to protect her from his own inclinations. She in her innocence--or is it stupidity--or is it anger and revenge?--writes in a coded way she has forgiven him by telling him she is not despondent. She writes she is having a rattling good time. Does the phrase mislead Edward, overwhelm him with the failure of his quest to protect his ward? Does the phrase destroy his esteem of his noble sacrifice? Edward did his duty in sending Nancy away; he acted in good faith. Nancy, the Catholic girl, has written a facetious line on a solemn matter; her gesture is vulgar low faith, bad faith. This too is part of the mystery of human complexity. Nancy loved her "uncle" Edward but did she want to give him less, or more, pain by writing cavalierly that she was having a "rattling good time." Edward reads the missive as punishment for his way of life: he had sentenced a good girl to a life term of cynicism, and he cannot bear this newest sin. Was Leonora, his wife, right then when she said Nancy would destroy Edward because in Nancy, Edward had found a purity he desired but knew he could not, would not, violate.
There is a thin and deep line between "I know it" and "I don't know how to put it into words." It is the difference between knowledge of a phenomenon and awareness that such knowledge does not guarantee a capability to utilize its illuminating power.
In The Good Soldier Ford constantly and consistently crosses this line, though he never writes of it in his passing. The profound irony of the many ironies is that Ford's reader does not know whether Ford's narrator Dowell is telling the truth when he says that he does not know how to express himself well.
It is one thing to claim ignorance and another to apologize for a lack of skill in truth-telling. Ford has Dowell engage in both assertions. His mastery of ambiguity poses the issue of the authority of narration. It is not a matter of trusting the narrator but one of putting into some kind or order, or faith, a conviction of the narrator's judgments and his sentences of character assassination. Dowell the narrator passes judgment on his characters as he is holding court with them.
Little doubt exists (at least in one camp of Ford's champions) of Dowell's duplicity in the course of events. Posing as an obscure bystander, Dowell may just as correctly be seen as a disguised activist. He causes things to happen, whether he stands away from them or cleverly opens a door to let events run their course. The supporting players (and this is another irony, for they consider Dowell a minor player in their society) believe they are agents of change, but it is the mousy Dowell who turns out to be the big rat.
That Dowell is an actor in the sense of an enabler is clear. His actions, or lack of act, contribute to the deadly frustrations of his wife (and later her death), and to the suicide of his idolized friend, Edward. Ford does not present a closing argument for the innocence or falsehood on the part of Dowell--he asks instead that the reader suspend judgment by questioning the absolutes of right and wrong. He is claiming mercy for a possible liar as well as exposing the self-deceiver's hypocrisy. Ford is expressing a philosophical creed that a human being, at his/her core, is not attainable for the plucking. The mystery--or the ambiguity of human behavior--remains central to his vision.
Many critics have cited how often Ford employs the verb TO KNOW in both active and passive mood, and how often this employment suggests the negative of the infinitive: we cannot know. The sadness of that tone, that we cannot know, no matter how much we learn, is one undissimulated score of truth Dowell utters in his lifetime.
It has been assumed that Dowell's sadness arises out of the melancholy that follows the death of his flagrantly fickle wife, and later the suicide of the person he considers the last gentleman in England (and thus the last Edwardian, for Edward attended the coronation of Edward VII). Melancholy is also part of the affect of the deaths and emotional woundings of the other characters in the novel.
But which is the saddest story? Nancy Rufford's? the innocent, Ophelia-like creature gone mad from a love never consummated (or declared). Is such a secret so ugly if not acted upon? Possibly, Nancy's withdrawal into insanity is the culmination of the manner of life to which the quartet of the leading actors pay homage. They are a mannered people and in their manners lie their commitment to high civilization as they perceive it. Ford is a brilliant social critic as well as a romantic of the pictures he paints. Is he then satirizing Dowell or issuing a warning against him, for at the end of the novel it is Dowell who has claimed Edward's landed estate in England and who becomes lord of its manor. This is exactly the dream of Dowell's wife--that she be the mistress of a great estate in England. At one point Dowell explicitly writes that he kept Florence from getting to England, for it was Florence who said her weak heart would not allow her to travel by sea, and so she never left the European continent; her one dream, of being mistress of a great house in England, was made impossible by Dowell, who kept reminding her of her poor heart condition. Dowell's behavior lies in the non-act, the passive prevention of action. And yet it must be remembered that Dowell is writing his journal in a grand old house with a history, an idyllic (English) house while in the next room the beautiful young Nancy paces like a madwoman locked in a castle. At last Dowell has a major role to play--as Nancy's caretaker. He is owner of the deceased Edward's estate. He is the guardian of the girl Edward loved and who loved Edward. Dowell has stripped his best friend thus of his land, his castle-home and his lady-love. Is Dowell then so petty as to be ignored by the gentry? Who indeed in this recounting is the lord and who the servant?
Again, the interpretation of events is dependent on the interpretation of events that have gone before the novel begins. Where then to begin? How does the reader decide on the morality of character, and on the characters' morality, and truths or non-truths they tell?
This sense of a beginning--or rather the understanding of a beginning--is connected to Ford's involvement with the feel and affectation of Impressionism in both painting and writing. In painting, the term and its Movement were disciplined into a school of criticism that suggested that what is seen is a composition of mood and physical detail ascertaining to a vision of reality. What is seen is what is felt, the feeling organizes the vision. The vision is of course pictorial and sensual, but it is also beyond such elements--it coheres, or suggests, a truth of insight as well as a proof of outer sight. In literature, the term is less codified, but it suggests a way of cohering truth and vision through a pattern of motif and chords. A common feature is the employment of a remembrance of events as they move into view through sensual observation. The reader may then see Dowell as an obsequious dupe, which is the pose -or the genuine article--by which he defines himself. Yet it must be added that the only evidence presented in the novel is that of Dowell's journal. He is the sole narrator giving the supposed facts..
Since Dowell is the only presenter of evidence, and since he has been seen to engage in contradiction if not determined falsehood, it is necessary to doubt Dowell's conclusions of others, perhaps even of the anti-darling, his wife Florence. Dowell also implies he is the good soldier, the responsible friend, .and not the fool others may perceive him.
It is Ford's genius that makes real all these doubts and crossings of examination after the so-called facts of observation. His masterpiece is not only a profound gallery of light and darkness in human behavior but an assertion of the unknowing in the known, a point to remember whenever we are sure of ourselves.
It is time to be positive--without any further doubts--to put Ford on the ledge he deserves. He is the master of doubt, but his artistry in revealing its many layers is a certitude of triumph.