‘This is the saddest story that I have ever heard.’ Thus begins Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece The Good Soldier.
John Dowell (the narrator of this story) and his wife Florence are leisured and wealthy Americans. They meet Edward Ashburnham (‘the good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora, who are English and of a certain class, in a German spa resort town. A nine-year friendship ensues. In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that his wife Florence and Edward Ashburnham are dead but we do not know why. Nor do we know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. What follows therefore is a tale of deception, intrigues and the dawning realization of how mismatched the couples are.
What’s interesting here is how John Dowell chooses to tell this story. Since he is looking back to the past and trying to make sense of what has happened, the narration is not linear in the way traditional novels are. It is a very rich and layered story and as the novel progresses, the explanations and motives of the characters become clearer. Or do they? After all, we only know one point of view and that is John Dowell’s.
The other strength of the novel is how psychologically complex the characters are. For one , they are well fleshed out. But because of the narrative style, we find our sympathies for the characters constantly shifting. And that makes the novel ripe for multiple interpretations.
This is a tremendous novel, brilliantly written and Ford’s crowning achievement; a fact the author acknowledged too.
Indeed, in 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2015, the BBC ranked The Good Soldier 13th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels. Truly well-deserved and a classic.