Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier

Ford Madox Ford's (1873-1939) most popular novel was originally entitled The Saddest Story but was renamed because it was deemed insensitive during the bloodshed of World War I. The Good Soldier (1915), as it came to be called, was Ford's sarcastic suggestion for a new title. The Good Soldier ironically features characters who cheat, lie, and threaten one another. Told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, The Good Soldier examines themes of reality vs. perception and cheating and betrayal.

Content warning: contains mention of suicide

The Good Soldier, Content Warning, StudySmarter

The Good Soldier Summary

The Good Soldier revolves around the intersecting lives of two unhappily married couples: John and Florence Dowell and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. The Dowells, an American couple, travel to a health spa in Nauheim, Germany, in order to treat Florence's alleged heart condition. At the spa in 1904, the Dowells meet and befriend the Ashburnhams, a British couple who are attending the spa to treat Edward's alleged heart condition as well. The Dowells and Ashburnhams begin a nine-year-long friendship that ends in tragedy.

The novel is narrated by John Dowell, who switches between the present and flashbacks to the past. It is important to note that Dowell is an unreliable narrator, and his presentation of the events in the story may not be factual.

Now that their friendship is over, John reflects on the couples' past. Although John initially considers Edward a moral and honest man, Edward has sordid affairs with numerous women. His dalliances inevitably get him in trouble financially, as he has to bribe and blackmail his mistresses and their husbands, so his reputation remains untarnished. Edward's transgressions leave the Ashburnhams in massive debt. Leonora seizes complete control of Edward's finances to regain control of their lives. She feels financially secure for the first time in nearly a decade while in Nauheim.

Meanwhile, Edward carries on with his sexual affairs. He is initially taken with Maisie Maidan, who is at the spa because she has a real heart condition. Edward faked his own condition in order to be close to Maisie, but his attention shifted to Florence when the Dowells took up residence at the spa. Maisie is heartbroken when she hears Edward talking badly about her, and the shock causes her to die.

The Good Soldier, Man's collar with lipstick kiss, StudySmarterFIg. 1 - Edward has multiple sordid affairs, hurting his wife and several mistresses throughout the novel.

Like Edward, Florence's heart condition is a sham. After her marriage to John, Florence feigned illness so she would not have to consummate her marriage. They have been married for 13 years without having sex, all while Florence maintains a long-term affair with an American artist named Jimmy. Florence falls in love with Edward, and the two begin a nine-year affair. She plans to marry him, but those dreams are dashed when she realizes Edward is in love with his young ward and niece, Nancy, after seeing them alone in a park together. Embarrassed and jealous, she rushes back to the hotel, only to find John has just learned of her infidelity. Florence poisons herself with hydrogen cyanide and dies.

Florence keeps the poison inside a container she had for years, where John thought she kept her heart medicine.

With Florence gone, John considers marrying Nancy despite their age difference. Unfortunately for John, Edward is in love with Nancy too. Nancy does not feel the same about her uncle, but Edward's infatuation triggers a mental breakdown in Leonora. Leonora tells Nancy about Edward's affairs and shortcomings as a husband, and Nancy's innocent love for Edward is replaced by sexual longing. Tormented by his own morality, Edward sends Nancy to India to live with her father. On her way there, Nancy sends a telegram to the Ashburnhams' saying she's having a good time. With his dreams of being with Nancy crushed, Edward slits his own throat with a pen knife.

Nancy reads Edward's obituary in the paper and suffers her own nervous breakdown. She can only repeat the word "shuttlecock" from time to time. John moves her to Edward Ashburnham's old estate. Unable to marry Nancy, John becomes her permanent caregiver. Meanwhile, Leonora remarries and has a child with a kind but boring man after Edward's death.

The Good Soldier, Quiet Lips, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Nancy becomes trapped in her own mind, unable to speak after Edward's death.

The Good Soldier Characters

The novel centers around four main characters—John and Florence Dowell and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham—and their often sordid interactions with other characters.

Edward Ashburnham

The "good soldier" of the title, Edward Ashburnham's immorality, reveals the irony of such a title. Edward cheats on his wife, plunges his family into debt, and feigns a heart condition so he can be near his mistress. The narrator sympathizes with Edward and paints him in a good light, but Edward's actions belie his goodness. Edward is rash and lustful. He eventually kills himself when he realizes Nancy's love is unattainable.

Leonora Ashburnham

Edward's strong-willed wife, Leonora Ashburnham cares deeply about the Ashburnham reputation. She is the one who rescues the family from debt after Edward's affairs cause financial ruin. Although she knows of her husband's affairs, Leonora stays with Edwards and continues to care for him. When she feels threatened by his lovers, she uses violence and malice to protect herself. After Edward dies, Leonora remarries a normal and respectable man.

John Dowell

The novel's narrator, John Dowell is portrayed as naive, gullible, and unreliable. He tries to care for his wife but is completely ignorant of how she uses him. John is quick to trust and believes Edward to be the ideal man and soldier, unaware that Florence and Edward have an affair behind John's back for 9 years. John's sense of morality is skewed over the course of the novel until he has no perception of right or wrong anymore. He is an unreliable narrator, unable to effectively understand the people around him or his role in his own life.

The Good Soldier, Blindfolded Man, StudySmarterFig. 3 - John is willfully blind to Florence and Edward's affair.

Florence Dowell

Florence Dowell manipulates her husband, John, from the beginning of their relationship until her tragic death. Florence marries John against her family's wishes but refuses to consummate the marriage. She fakes a heart condition to gain her freedom, keeping him at arms distance while enjoying the financial security he provides. Florence's ultimate objective is to be the lady of her ancestors' home in Fordingbridge, which Edward now owns. She has an affair with Edward, hoping he'll marry her. When Florence realizes he is in love with someone else, she commits suicide.

Nancy Rufford

The Ashburnhams' young ward, Nancy admires her uncle Edward and his marriage. Her innocence is shattered when she realizes the Ashburnhams are not as happy as they seem. Edward is in love with her but convinces her to return to India to be with her father because he refuses to ruin her. Ultimately, Edward kills himself when he realizes Nancy will never return his love. As a result of Edward's death, Nancy goes mad.

Maisie Maidan

Edward's mistress at the spa, Maisie Maidan is the only character who genuinely suffers from a heart condition. She is depicted as young and submissive and dies of shock when she hears Edward disparaging her.

Mrs. Maidan is married to a soldier in the army, who is constantly away on deployment.

Jimmy

Florence's first lover, Jimmy is a poor artist from a lower class. To keep their affair secret, Jimmy perpetrates the lie that Florence has a heart condition.

The Good Soldier Analysis

Throughout the novel, Ford employs the device of the unreliable narrator through the character of John Dowell. Although John tells the story of both couples, he is physically and emotionally removed from many of the events he claims to be reporting. Dowell is physically absent in several cases when the story occurs, most notably in the Ashburnham's private marital life and in Florence's affairs. John presents his perception of these events as true, but he was completely ignorant and passive when the events occurred. Readers are left with a biased narrator whose perception is skewed by the information he gathered second-hand and presented as facts.

The Good Soldier, Optical illusion tunnel, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Because John's sense of reality is skewed, he functions as an unreliable narrator.

In addition to John's biased recollection of events, the narration consists of a series of flashbacks out of chronological order. The randomness of the flashbacks muddles the novel's events, making the plot unclear. This creates a feeling of mystery as readers struggle to piece together the Dowell's and Ashburnham's past with their present. The lack of clarity readers experience mirrors John's own ignorance and uncertainty.

By the novel's end, John is emotionally numb and functions as an outsider in his own life. When he thinks of Florence's long-time betrayal and deceits, he says,

You ask how it feels to be a deceived husband. Just Heavens, I do not know. It feels just nothing at all." (Part IV)

John's inability to feel emotion also makes his recollection of the story unreliable. Not only does he no longer care about his wife or old friends, but he also has no feelings at all. He has little basis for his judgment of others and no agency in his own life. Therefore, readers must question John's narration and discern the truth for themselves.

The Good Soldier Themes

The major themes in The Good Soldier are reality vs. perception and cheating and betrayal.

Reality vs. Perception

It is hard to differentiate between the actual events of the novel and the narrator's interpretation of those events. What makes it even more difficult is John himself isn't sure what is real and what is his perception. He states that for nine years, he considered Edward the ideal man—a loyal husband, a good friend, and someone he could trust. However, John's perception implodes when he discovers that Edward has been having an affair with Florence. Edward's perception is also shaken when he realizes that Florence lied about her heart condition for years to avoid having sex with her husband. John's entire identity (as Florence's husband and dedicated caretaker) fractures as he discovers how ignorant he was of reality. This constant battle between reality and perception also reveals itself in the unreliability of John's narration.

Cheating and Betrayal

The novel also examines the long-reaching consequences of cheating, not just on the cheater, but on all parties involved. Infidelity in the novel leads to debt, madness, and even death. At the end of the novel, two central characters (Edward and Florence) are dead, one has gone mad (Nancy), and one feels isolated, trapped, and broken (John). The cheating directly impacted many lives, causing each of the characters to lose their innocence in one way or another. As John remarks, no one is happy at the end of the novel, but they are all irrevocably changed.

Ford had many affairs in his own life. How does that affect your understanding of cheating and betrayal in The Good Soldier?

The Good Soldier Quotes

Below are some of the major quotes in The Good Soldier.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard." (Part I)

The opening sentence of The Good Soldier is also one of the most famous lines in English literature. Although it is not apparent at first glance, this sentence reveals the unreliability of John Dowell as a narrator. He claims that he heard this story, but, in fact, he lived it, and the events had a direct impact on his life. If John tries to subtly distance himself from the story, what else is he hiding from readers?

I know nothing—nothing in the world—of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone—horribly alone." (Part I)

This quote speaks to the loneliness and uncertainty that John experiences after he loses Florence and the Ashburnhams. When Florence's deception comes to light, John realizes that everything he thought he knew was wrong. He will never again live as blissfully and ignorantly now that his perception of reality has been ruined. Instead, he will constantly question himself, and the pain he endured will keep him isolated from future relationships.

Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.” (Part IV)

John says the saddest part of the story is nobody ended up with what they wanted. Each of the characters was destined to be miserable because what they desired was just out of reach. Whether it's karma, fate, or bad luck, neither John nor any other characters will know peace.

The Good Soldier, Crisis Banner, StudySmarter

The Good Soldier - Key takeaways

  • The Good Soldier was written by Ford Madox Ford.
  • The novel was published in 1915, and the title was changed due to the advent of World War I.
  • The novel centers around the intersecting lives of two couples who find themselves tangled in a web of adultery, deceit, and emotional turmoil.
  • John Dowell functions as an unreliable narrator: his sense of reality becomes skewed when he learns of his wife's infidelity and manipulation, and his understanding of morality becomes increasingly hard to navigate.
  • The major themes in The Good Soldier are reality vs. perception and cheating and betrayal.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Good Soldier

The central idea is that things aren't always as they seem and a person's perception can skew reality. 

The novel is loosely based on Ford's personal life and experience with affairs, but it is not a true story. 

The novel was written by Ford Madox Ford. 

Yes, The Good Soldier is considered a classic. It was published by both Wordsworth and Penguin as "Classics." 

The Good Soldier ends with John taking care of Nancy, who has suffered a nervous breakdown, and Leonora marrying a "normal" man. 

Final The Good Soldier Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Good Soldier

Show answer

Answer

Ford Madox Ford

Show question

Question

Who is the "soldier" in the novel's title? 

Show answer

Answer

Edward Ashburnham.

Show question

Question

True or false: The Good Soldier was not the original title of the novel and was actually a sarcastic comment taken seriously. 

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What events inspired Ford's The Good Soldier

Show answer

Answer

Ford's own experiences with adultery 

Show question

Question

When was The Good Soldier published? 

Show answer

Answer

1915

Show question

Question

Where do the couples become friends? 

Show answer

Answer

health spa in Nauheim, Germany

Show question

Question

Why does Florence claim she has a heart condition? 

Show answer

Answer

To avoid sex with John 

Show question

Question

Why does Edward claim he has a heart condition? 

Show answer

Answer

To get closer to Maisie Maidan, who is at the spa because she has a real heart condition.

Show question

Question

Who does Florence have an affair with? 

Show answer

Answer

Edward.

Show question

Question

Who does Edward ultimately fall in love with? 

Show answer

Answer

His ward, Nancy

Show question

Question

Why does Florence want to marry Edward? 

Show answer

Answer

Florence's ultimate objective is to be the lady of her ancestors' home in Fordingbridge, which Edward now owns.

Show question

Question

Who commits suicide? 

Show answer

Answer

Florence. 

Show question

Question

What happens to Nancy at the end of the novel? 

Show answer

Answer

She suffers a mental breakdown after learning of Edward's death and becomes catatonic. John takes care of her. 

Show question

Question

What are the main themes in the novel? 

Show answer

Answer

Reality vs. perception.

Show question

Question

What narration style does John embody? 

Show answer

Answer

The unreliable narrator. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the The Good Soldier quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.