Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

My local book group met today to discuss The Good Soldier. I finished reading it a few days ago and marked off this small accomplishment on GoodReads, where along with checking off the “read” box, we are given the opportunity to rate the book–which I did. Because my GoodReads account is linked to my Twitter account, my rating duly appeared in my tweetstream. Soon after, I received this tweet:

I got a real kick out of that message, because it got at exactly the problem I’d been having (and am still having) with my own response to the novel. Even though I recognized The Good Soldier as an extremely artful, intricately designed, psychologically probing book full of all kinds of juicy details ripe for interpretive picking, I really didn’t like it. Because the novel is so conspicuously a well-crafted aesthetic artifact, what accounts for my distaste for it? Perhaps this is one of those times when I have to say to a novel, “Honestly, it’s not you: it’s me.” But what is it about me that ruined this relationship? I think my ‘tweep’ may be right: it’s a Victorianist glitch.

The Good Soldier tells the tangled story of Edward Ashburnham (the “good soldier” of the title) and his wife Leonora, and of the narrator, John Dowell, and his wife Florence. It is, John tells us at the outset, “the saddest story [he’s] ever heard,” and from a certain perspective–not just his–it is sad indeed. There’s betrayal and adultery and bitterness and self-abnegation and manipulation, religious repression and moral confusion, malevolence and ineptitude–oh, and not one, not two, but three suicides. By the final stages of the novel everybody who isn’t dead yet pretty much hates everybody else, though how you would know what is love and what is hate in this group isn’t entirely clear. Dowell tells the story retrospectively, after all the misery has unfolded, and after his own gullibility and naïvete have been thoroughly exposed and demolished. (How Dowell could not have known the things he claims not to have known is a perplexing and important question: is he altogether an innocent betrayed? did he see but refuse to accept the truth? how reliable, in other words, is he, and how much is his version of events self-serving? How does he know, also, as much as he claims to know about the thoughts and motives of the other characters? How can he be at once both so ignorant and so knowing?)

I read The Good Soldier with the morbid fascination that seems called for by the novel itself: it invites prurient curiosity (first, what’s so sad about this story? and then, how bad are these people? and, how bad will things get for them?) and rewards it with sordid revelations; it layers and meanders and revisits meanings so that our attention must be scrupulous and sustained, but it holds us at a distance by, paradoxically, immersing us so completely in one voice, one point of view, that we know our efforts can always be subverted by yet another twist or revelation. The reading experience is compelling but also claustrophobic: by the end of the novel, I just wanted to get out of it, to open a window and let in some air. I was intensely tired out (and I’m sure I was supposed to be tired out) by the psychological tortuousness of the story and its narration–but I was also intensely tired of the whole damn bunch of them and their self-absorbed, privileged, neurotic lives.

The Good Soldier reminded me of The Golden Bowl, which had a similar effect on me except that it went on for much, much longer. Ford, as it happens, wrote a critical study of Henry James, and is pretty clearly working with ideas about the novel that are very influenced by James’s preoccupation with consciousness. I wrote a bit about my problems with the “Jamesian consciousness” in an essay on George Eliot, James, and the moral-philosophical criticism of Martha Nussbaum. I believe the words “elitist” and “exclusionary” may have come up! These are not quite the same qualities I felt in The Good Soldier, and a conspicuous difference in form between The Golden Bowl and The Good Soldier is Ford’s use of first-person narration. Ford’s prose is also much easier to follow than James’s. But there’s that same preoccupation with limited individual perceptions as if, scrutinized closely enough, given enough room to display all their twists and turns and uncertainties and evasions, those perceptions are all that matters. But–and here, I think, is that “Victorianist glitch”–it isn’t, at least not for me. All these people care about is themselves. There are indications of how those selves are connected to a wider social and political world: Leonora Ashburnham’s religion, for instance (she’s a Catholic) is a balefully determining influence on her values and thus on her warped and self-destructive marriage. Dowell and his wife are Americans; that matters too. But the implications of these broader contexts are endlessly personal, and the characters have no interest in its being otherwise. I just couldn’t care at all about them and their toxic mix of neuroses. I wanted to knock their heads together and tell them to go get jobs or do something useful, and along the way to stop using and abusing each other and everybody else they ran into. “Close thy Byron,” I wanted to yell at them; “open thy Goethe!” Yes, that’s right: I wanted to quote Carlyle at them and remind them that the way to healthy living is work:

Produce!  Produce!  Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name!  ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then.  Up, up!  Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might.  Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.

Sartor Resartus is sometimes read as a transitional text: stop being Romantic, and get busy being  Victorian! I think it works just as well as a diagnosis of what I sometimes feel reading around in Modernist texts, and certainly of what I felt reading The Good Soldier. My Responsible Professional Self knows that this is an absurd conclusion about Modernism in general and possibly about The Good Soldier in particular, but whatever Self made me chose Victorian literature as “my” field thinks there’s something to it. Call it a “glitch” if you like, and make as good a case as you want for the brilliance of The Good Soldier (and I am sure there is an excellent case to be made), but in the house of fiction, this is just not my room.

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11 Responses to Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

  1. I don’t know if Carlyle’s advice is going to be much help. Ashburnham is not the bookish type, and I worry that poor Florence will draw entirely the wrong lessons from Faust. The idea that Dowell’s problem is too much Byron is also pretty funny. I know that’s not what you meant!

    FMF was not a Victorianist, but he was a Victorian. He produced! produced! in a Carlylian spirit. Perhaps you are not so far apart, you and the author. Perhaps Dowell finally does take up what he findeth at hand.

    I am not convinced that the Victorian / Modern split is so useful here, although I have likely used it myself. James is a Victorian writer. Madame Bovary is from 1856.

  2. Rohan says:

    I’m sure you’d agree that ‘Victorian’ is a state of mind as much as (more than?) it is a matter of chronology.

  3. I’m not sure I do agree. Is that how scholars use the term? How do we include such a large variety of ways of thinking inside a single state of mind? I usually think of Romanticism, for example, as a historically associated bundle of ideas. It does not matter that some of the ideas conflict – they are not associated by logic, and no one person asserts all of the ideas. Different writers I lump under Romanticism have quite different states of mind (Shelley, Byron, Keats).

    To have Carlyle, Eliot, Stevenson, Wilde, James, Carroll, Wuthering Heights, etc. all share a “state of mind” – I am not used to thinking that way. Perhaps I overemphasize the differences among the eminent Victorians. The differences seem enormous.

    What do you do with the characters in, for example, Doctor Thorne, where the plot is built up to allow what’s-his-name to not have to sully himself with being a doctor or lawyer but instead spend the rest of his life maintaining a stable of dogs and horses? That fellow can say: Look at my useful work, look at my beautiful hounds, look at my woods full of rabbits and foxes. Trollope himself seems suspicious, on what look like Carlyle-like grounds.

  4. “Is that how scholars use the term?” might come across more aggressively than I meant it. You’ve got me worried, though, that I have been misinterpreting a lot of what I read. That when I was thinking “history” or “ideas” the author meant “mentalité“.

    I am never good with mentalité-based arguments. In natural science, taxonomists are “lumpers” or “splitters” – do these two butterflies belong to the same species (they share the following important characteristics) or to different species (they differ on a small but crucial detail)? Apparently much if this is temperament. I am a splitter by temperament.

  5. Rohan says:

    Mostly, I was being facetious–but in doing so, trying to say something like what you say about Romanticism, that the historically ‘bundled’ authors have many different states of mind, only some of which correspond with a kind of stereotypical notion of ‘Victorianism’ or of the Victorian ‘frame of mind.’ But don’t we actually do some of both much of the time anyway? That is, there are ideas we generalize about (cautiously, to be sure) as Romantic (ideas about poetry, ideas about language, ideas about society) but they don’t show up the same way (or even at all) in everyone we label a Romantic based on chronology. So the terms themselves do duty for both kinds of things, don’t they?

    When you say “James is a Victorian writer,” are you thinking about his chronology? Or about the things he thinks are important to explore and write about, or the forms he uses to do that? There are obvious ways in which it’s pointless trying to attach these kinds of labels–but as someone who has taught lit survey classes, I have also found that (a) there’s enough truth to them that they serve some useful purposes (there are trends and clusters and groups that do share some common features) and (b) it’s really hard to create any kind of big picture at all without resorting to some large-scale distinctions. Plenty of people oppose the whole notion of periods, though.

  6. Oh yes, what would I do without periodization. I’d be sunk. I start with period and language and form, and then challenge myself to think past those necessary categories (this is a mid-Victorian English novel – now, what else is it?), often fruitlessly.

  7. nicole says:

    It’s very interesting to me that you connect everyone’s self-absorption here to their lack of productive occupation; exhorting the privileged to healthy living through work is usually in my line but The Good Soldier is one of my favorite novels ever. And I think that while I expect work to lead to healthy living I don’t necessarily expect it to lead to other-absorption. I was most intrigued by this point:

    But there’s that same preoccupation with limited individual perceptions as if, scrutinized closely enough, given enough room to display all their twists and turns and uncertainties and evasions, those perceptions are all that matters. …All these people care about is themselves. There are indications of how those selves are connected to a wider social and political world…[b]ut the implications of these broader contexts are endlessly personal, and the characters have no interest in its being otherwise.

    That last is one of the things I love about this book, and I think extremely realistic. There is something all Catholics have in common, but each person who is Catholic instantiates that in his or her own way, with infinite (?) possible permutations and combinations. Being American might mean some one thing for everyone who is American, but on the individual level you are American in some much more specific way, and it has much more specific effects on what you do, how you do it, and all your interactions with others. That is to say, things connect us to wider social and political worlds, but only on some level far above the individual and the individual’s actual experience—and you always have to step down from that level to actually get to a person.

    Like Tom, I am a splitter, in this case—a splitter of one human being from the next.

    I also like Tom’s point about what’s-his-name in Doctor Thorne (which I have not read) doing work that’s maybe not all that productive, but still licensed for whatever reason. Isn’t all Leonora’s work real work?

  8. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Nicole, I think you and Tom are both taking me a bit literally about the ‘produce, produce’ or work issue (though of course I have only myself to blame for what I wrote). It’s not really that I want them to go out and get jobs doing manual labor or something: I was just grabbing at a vehement way to express my impatience with the whole group of them. I concede it is possible to explain their self-absorption in realist terms (as you more or less do here–people do experience their lives very personally) as well as formal and thematic terms. On the other hand, not everybody does in fact live in such a bubble; some people make efforts themselves to understand their experience in relation to the wider world–and even work to affect that wider world. This bunch seems particularly, conspicuously, preoccupied with themselves, and not with any intent of, say, becoming better selves. Maybe there’s some irony at their expense–do you think so?

    Leonora is certainly busy: is anything that keeps us busy in fact productive? What does she actually do, after all? I suppose I can give her credit for her efforts to solve her husband’s money problems–there’s some honor in that!

    Am I being cast as a “lumper,” then? Because I hazarded a (negative) generalization about Modernism? Too blunt an instrument, sure. But acknowledging that it is so (as I did myself in the post), that still leaves it true that for some combination of reasons, I am drawn to some books / writers / periods more than others. There are examples from chronologically all over the place of books I admire, appreciate, enjoy, love, whatever, but I chose one area to specialize in because it gave me the most satisfaction–there’s something I particularly liked about being in that zone. When I’m in that zone, I do lots of splitting…but isn’t splitting only intelligible in the first place if we have some sense of how things might be lumped together? I don’t know. All I know is I’m happy to be reading something else now.

  9. No, sorry, the “lumping” was the “Victorian state of mind” business, a joke I unfortunately did not get. I believe Nicole then extends the metaphor into a more complex thematic argument.

    I am actually suggesting more lumping – forget Modernism, and extend certain strains of Victorianism. I won’t speak for Nicole, but my answer to “is there irony at their expense?” is yes! Very much so.

  10. nicole says:

    With the splitting thing, I was mostly teasing–I can barely say “splitter” in my head without attaching an exclamation point to make it a silly accusation.

    I also think there is irony at their expense, and I think you get at some of it with your questioning of whether Dowell could possibly be as blind as he seems–or, in turn, then know much of what he seems to. This is a big source of tension in the novel: no one can ever know anything about anyone else (the atomization side of things), and yet they go around socializing and acting like they know about each other and making all sorts of pronouncements about each other’s actions and feelings and how they all fit into their own (very small) group. I always have a personal taste for that atomization side…and its bleakness…but I think the tension is very real and while it seems to be a novel about the difficulty of interpersonal relations I don’t think it rules them out. I sort of think it’s more desperately grasping for the kinds of connections you would prefer, but you’re right that these characters are (mostly) unable to make them.

  11. nicole says:

    Oh, and, with Leonora’s work, I was referring to her taking the family finances in hand.

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