The Good Soldier

The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier is a novel which extorts admiration” The New York Times

“For all the author’s clever manipulation of words, he has given his story nothing to compensate for its artistic feebleness.” Boston Transcript

“His avowed method is to tell it all as if he were on one side of the fireplace…and a listener opposite him…But frankly Mr. Hueffer is so terribly long-winded…[that] the longing to go and do something else would be too strong… long before the tale was well afoot…” Times Literary Supplement

“The infinitely artistic development of events, their slow growth and inevitability, the turning inside out of characters to show amazing linings, have no hint of tediousness…” Observer

As a writer, I find it heartening to read these contradictory reviews of The Good Solder by Ford Maddox Ford (aka Hueffer).

I read the novel on my new kobo, but then I turned to a physical book (see the link) because it included these reviews and a number of critical essays as well. Let me first quickly summarize what I got out of the essays. The Good Soldier is a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s a social novel. It’s a Freudian novel. The narrator is an idiot. The narrator is insightul. The narrator can’t be trusted as far as you can throw him. The soldier of the title is a tragic hero. He is an idiot. Love is ridiculous. Love is epic. Passion is admirable. Ha!

I would like to write a book as deeply investigated and hotly debated as this one. Written during the outbreak of the first World War, this is a novel about two enmeshed couples, marital affairs, passion and the forbidden object of passion. One of the marriages is between a tart and an asexual man (the narrator). The other marriage is between an uptight woman and a man who is generous of spirit and body (courtly knight or lech, depending on your view). But the beauty of this book, for me, isn’t as much in what it’s about as in how the story is told.

Using quite different techniques, Ford does the same thing I did in The River Midnight, ie as the book goes along, he provides the reader with information that sheds new light on a previously revealed fact or incident that makes it seem entirely different than on the first encounter.

Ford does this through an unreliable first person narrator who shifts back and forth in his telling, commenting on his own reactions then and now, in the sort of rambling, random way that people actually tell stories. The writing is careful, subtle, and very funny. The narrator does seem like an idiot at first, but as the novel goes along, I found him to be clever and insightful. The story moves from comedy to tragedy, from the farce of incompatible marriage to the sad torment of people who could be good in other circumstances treating each other with merciless cruelty because they ought not to be together and are helplessly trapped with each other.

And yet, even there, when tragedy is at its peak, there is a note of comedy in the obvious hyperbole of the tragic outcome. I don’t want to say too much here and reveal the end, but if you do or have read this, tell me what you think of the pen knife and the madness of “shuttlecock.”

Ford Maddox Ford
The Good Soldier is an Impressionist novel, and I gather from the essays in the Norton Critical Edition, that Impressionism as a literary movement followed painting by about 20 years. Ford himself says (p 263)

Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass–through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.

He does it brilliantly. According to Wikipedia:

The Good Soldier is frequently included among the great literature of the past century, including the Modern Library 100 Best Novels, The Observer’s ‘100 Greatest Novels of All Time’, and The Guardian’s ‘1000 novels everyone must read’.

I would agree with that.

10 thoughts on “The Good Soldier

  1. I’ve ordered the book.

    It sounds to me like you (as a writer) are a bit of a provocateur. I wholeheartedly applaud you for it.

    When I read your book (The River Midnight) the deepest impression I got from it was a sense that reality is cast by the largely invisible flow of “spirit”. That is, the psyche (to use a Jungian term) is something of its own, an event in the world that our conscious mind is often oblivious to. Yet it is the great compound psyche (that includes us all, and the world too), its mixing, tides, flow, torrent is what an event in human life actually is. It sounds like Ford works based on the same premise – which is of course also what drove impressionism. The moment in the torrent of impressions caught in the conscious eye is what becomes the painting.

    One of the things I liked best about River was the way you braided apparently different streams (people/creatures) and showed how each was part of the same river (society/world). That was very nicely done.

  2. Your description of The River Midnight intrigues me, especially as I just bought the book! Thinking of The Good Soldier, we really know nothing of the worth of books published in our time, do we? We disagree on old things all the time too. It makes me emboldened to just say what I think, because who’s to say I’m wrong?

    1. Dorothy, that’s why I’m hesitant to comment on someone else’s work in progress. It’s so important for the creative work to follow it’s own arc and opinions are so subjective. On the other hand, work can be improved by an objective eye and I’ve benefitted from that. It’s so hard to discern the difference.

  3. A very different novel from “The Good Soldier Svejk” which I was expecting. I loved The River Midnight and its multiple narrators and I can only think that this book (Good Soldier) would benefit from different points of view. But then I haven’t read it (yet).

  4. I read this novel several years ago now and loved it – great review, Lilian! And I quite see why it garnered all those contradictory responses, because the narrator is himself portrayed in a contradictory way. If you don’t get that, if you miss his unreliability, you may well not get the point of the book as a critic and think it foolish or long-winded. As ever, critics say much much more about themselves than they do about the object of criticism!

  5. Thanks Pete! When a friend mentioned the title, I also thought of “The Good Soldier Svejk” (which I haven’t read but should), only to discover it was rather different when she lent me the book.

    Litlove, thank you, and that’s so true. Critics do reveal themselves in their criticism, and I was fascinated by the range and variety of essays included in the critical edition, also relieved to find a response like mine among them. The novel is short, about 160 pages. The discussions about it were far longer.

  6. Thanks for a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, review. Just finished reading The Good Soldier at Project Gutenberg. It does seem a bit over the top. On the other hand, it was written in the days of Freud and World War One, just before the Russian Revolution. An entire era on the verge of nervous and physical breakdown. The pen-knife incident doesn’t strike me as unbelievable. Nor does the girl’s madness. The image of the shuttlecock (for Nancy) or parcel (for Edward) strikes me as very fitting. We are not the masters of our destinies but the toys of forces larger than us. I have read psychiatric case reports from the first half of the 20th century, and some of them are far stranger. Chapeau to Ford Madox Ford for not judging his madmen and madwomen.

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