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.