Friday, August 01, 2008

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

After reading this novel, I don't think I understand this "saddest story" about the emotional entanglement between two couples, but I had a strong sense of permanent bewilderment, which is, perhaps, the effect the author sought for. Dowell, the conservative American, is an unreliable narrator, but is his unreliability a matter of ignorance, secrecy or deception? It may be impossible to tell, as David Bradshaw's Introduction argues by adducing evidence for each interpretation. Dowell comments on his own narration thus:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very ambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

Bradshaw shows the similarity between Dowell's words and Ford's theory of narrative. In Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, Ford recalls how he and Conrad had decided that the whole problem of the British novel
was that it went straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintance with your fellows you never do go straight forward. . . . To get such a man [Ford is referring to his example of an English club man, but his point is it can be any man] in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.

Which, as Bradshaw comments, is exactly what Dowell does with Ashburnham, the good soldier of the novel's title.

But what is interesting to me here is the different uses of this theory of fictional realism by Ford's "A Good Soldier" and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." In Conrad, Marlow is telling his story to more-or-less silent listeners; that is the narrative frame of the story. But in Ford, Dowell is not telling his story to anyone, but writing it down. In the end, in the house he bought from Ashburnham, Dowell faces only Nancy Rufford who has lost her mind; he has no visitors. His narrative is a conscious literary effort, not an oral performance. This tilts me towards the belief that Dowell is a competent, even ambitious, narrator, despite his protestations of his ignorance and dim intelligence. His naivete is an act.

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