The Good Soldier is, in simplistic terms, a book about appearances being deceiving. But since it’s a novel whose central themes include depth and truth, hidden by the willingness that all of us have to brush over the more uncomfortable aspects of the truth, can you really sum the book up in one sentence?
The book opens with the declaration that “this is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a pretty brilliant opening sentence and one of my favourites, I’m sure. It grabs your attention, it prepares you for the fact that obviously this is not in the least any sort of cheerful book, and less obviously, it introduces you to a narrator who is so detached and emotionally lacking that he’s stuck on the sidelines as his closest friends and wife destroy themselves all around him.
The tale of their downfall is completely non-linear, as narrator John Dowell follows his own traumatised train of thought more closely than the passage of time. However, unlike some novels that are written in an untraditional order, The Good Soldier is never hard to follow, due to Maddox Ford’s use of imagery which acts as a knowingly clever framework to tie it all together, and emphasises how trapped the narrator is in a messy and mostly dishonest social circle. This construction is not subtle – it is obvious that Maddox Ford spent a long time putting it together, like one of those models of buildings made out of matchsticks, and the novel seems almost boastful about its cleverness.
But of course, with a book like this that takes as its subject the way humans work, it’s up to the four main characters to carry the whole thing off. If they’re unconvincing or flat, then the novel is completely pointless, but of course, this book is a classic so I think you can already tell where I’m going with this. This is a novel with few characters, but everyone of them is written very cleverly, in particular the Dowells and the Ashburnhams. Like a contestant on a reality show with dodgy editing, it seems as if all four of them are set up with solid and definite character types and then… turned around completely. Leonora Ashburnham, for example, (my favourite character) is initially set up as the cold and calculating wife of the titular soldier, Edward, but her piety, her feelings about family and her honour all chip away at the clichéd façade, right up until an ending that twists her character around once again and leaves you with a lot to think about. Edward himself is almost the traditional hero, a passionate, handsome and charming man, but he also causes a lot of emotional pain to his wife and closest friends, and the truly ambiguous part of his character is whether he is callous and selfish enough to ignore them all and act so recklessly anyway, or if he is in his heart of hearts, just weak.
Maybe some of the social commentary of The Good Soldier can be ignored by a modern reader in our day and age where codes of etiquette and conduct are not really what they once were in 1915, but its still a relevant book with a lot to offer. If you’re sour from all the Twilight drama, then this is a great choice of book for a completely pessimistic, unromantic un-love story. If you liked Closer, this has a similar sort of style, it’s intelligent and character-driven and just a little bit twisted. So many people that I know enjoy books or films or what-have-you when they have traits that The Good Soldier has: solid, three dimensional characters; ambiguity that the reader can interpret in any number of ways; a constant cleverness that never lets up and on top of that it’s one of the more accessible novels that are considered classics. As much as I’ve said already about the technical cleverness of this novel, and how much I enjoyed it, my reason for writing a review is pretty simple: it’s just that I feel like you’d enjoy it too.