Despite what the title may lead you to think, The Good Soldier is not a war story, nor does it have much of anything to do with soldiers, except that the main character used to be one. That man is Edward Ashburnham, a gentleman of deep emotion and shallow character.
The Upper Crust
Edward is part of the English aristocracy, and as this book takes place in the early 1900s, that’s important. He owns a large manor and is therefore responsible for the wellbeing of his tenants. Edward has all the marks of a gentleman: he enjoys taking a cold bath in the morning, prefers drinking brandy liqueur after lunch and eats his beef underdone, as proper gentleman do. (Who knew?)
But, alas, he is a whitewashed tomb.
There’s no connection between Edward’s manners and his heart. He makes the right choices when it comes to what to wear and how to speak, but when it comes to moral behaviour, he’s a rudderless ship tossed to and fro by his frightfully willful emotion.
The Heart of the Matter
Edward’s also described as a man with a “heart” – that is, he suffers from a vague cardiac complaint that necessitates a stay at a German spa every summer. Ironically, you might also rightly say he’s heartless. Yes, he’s sentimental, and he’s a romantic – but in a consuming, narcissistic way that destroys the people who are drawn into his orbit. It sounds a tad dramatic, but he’s a black hole.
Edward has a certain vision of himself that he yearns to see realized; I suppose in psychology parlance, we might say that he has a hero or saviour complex. He yearns to be a rescuer. As a result, Edward is drawn to solitary and sorrowful women, because “what really made him feel good in life was to comfort somebody who would be darkly and mysteriously mournful.”
But his wife is practical and sensible, without a mournful bone in her body, and Edward can’t bear seeing her looking at him in a mene mene tekel upharsin manner that finds him lacking. So he becomes obsessed with other women and plunges into extramarital affairs feverishly and recklessly (all the while his wife grows colder and her gaze harder).
Edward also wants to be appreciated as a benevolent and generous landlord. (He spends an inordinate amount of time is spent in his office poring over his estate books with his mistresses.) But the huge blackmail debts that arise from his affairs consume the bit of money his beleaguered, mismanaged estate raises.
Edward’s conceit demands that he be thought of in a certain way, but he lacks the restraint necessary to actually be the person he wants to be. He’s philandering when it comes to love, which makes it impossible for his wife to respect him, and he’s irresponsible in financial matters, which makes it impossible for him to be generous.
The Feeble Backbone
All this is to say that Edward is the victim rather than master of his own emotion. This becomes perfectly clear when he falls in love with yet another woman, this one a young girl fresh out of convent school. She is oblivious to his attempts to seduce her and he realizes, slowly, that it would be evil to morally corrupt her. So he vows to leave her untouched – and pines away for her till he very nearly dies of it.
His love for her consumes him.
A man of principle might recognize that his passion for a woman other than his wife is sinful, and work on mortifying that improper desire, but Edward is all feeling and no principle. Ford actually wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, and this painful look at the irredeemability of a weak man surely is tragic.
The Untidy Tale of Woe
In case you’re thinking this is a fairly straightforward tale of woe – it’s not. Edward’s friend, John, is the narrator, and he speaks in a conversational tone as though you, the reader, are sitting next to him listening. He jumps around from past to present, first giving away the ending, next penciling in the main events and then slowly fleshing out the sordid details of the story from various perspectives. It seems like a risky technique to tell the reader up front how the story will end, but I found it added a fair amount of tension as I focused more on how things happened, rather than on what happened.
And there’s an aspect of unreliability to John as a narrator. In one of his opening lines, he says, “My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.” And that’s the sort of uncertainty that is found throughout the novel; John’s whole life, his whole understanding of the world, is tossed upside down over the course of a few days and he’s left questioning what he knows to be true. “I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone.”
As a reader, you are also left questioning. Is John really the world’s biggest fool, oblivious to what was happening right under his nose? Or is he even more of a monster than the good soldier? Do you trust his satirical ‘happy ending’? Are you convinced that he actually saw Edward as a true friend?
The Conclusion of the Matter
After mulling the book over for weeks, I’m left with one thought: is this story true? Not ‘Did the story actually take place?’ but ‘Is what Ford says about human nature true?’ Are people irredeemable? Are those of us with passionate, vibrant hearts all doomed to end up strangled in an inextricable web of sin, with nothing but suicide or madness to lend us escape?
My answer to that question is no. While Ford and I agree on the diagnosis of the problem (sin exists, people are inherently wicked), we differ on the question of the cure. By leaving out of his story any note of hope for the human condition, Ford suggests there is none; he’s about as bleak as Gabriel Garcia Marquez in that respect (so look elsewhere if you’re in the mood for a cheerful beach read). There is hope, though – beautiful hope in the God who in Himself is the answer to our wander-prone hearts.