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The Good Soldier Beginning English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1877 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford, the narrator, John Dowell tells the reader his story, the story of his marriage to his wife Florence and when she met an English gentleman, named Edward Ashburnham. (The good soldier from the title of the novel). He goes on to describe the events that lead to Ashburnham’s affair with his wife and it being revealed to him. Edward and Florence had both committed suicide by the end of the novel. However, John Dowell seems not to narrate any of these events in a linear, traditional fashion. Ford Madox Ford attempts to recreate John’s ignorance of Florence’s adultery by representing the events of the store, not in a casual sequence but instead as they occur to him in his recollections and reminisciences. It’s not that Dowell himself intends to be misleading, but he has an awful habit of teasing the reader by revealing the crucial parts of information in an off-hand, casual manner. He says “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down-whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from the distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself.” [1] Reading The Good Soldier feels like the reader is a detective in a mystery novel, trying to make sense of the clues presented to them along the way. Ford’s innovative use of this fallible or “unreliable narration” plays a major role in the novel and other modernist fiction. [2] In this essay, a particular section of the book will be examined, between page 37 and 43. The essay will take a number of examples in the text, in an attempt to draw attention to the language used in this section to reveal a deep understanding of Dowell’s character, especially focussing on his reliability or in this case unreliability as a narrator. Then, the essay will bring all the facts into a conclusion. (Lewis, 2007)

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The first thing this essay must do is examine the character of Dowell so that it is better to understand him from a reader’s perspective. Dowell, from the start of the novel is shown to be naïve and not as intelligent as he thinks he is. He doesn’t realise that his wife is having an affair behind his back, that she is lying to him about her heart condition and many other examples that are too numerous to list.

Dowell has a habit of recalling, in great detail, the parts of an experience that most people would ignore or remember less of. Yet, when something important or climactic happens his recollection is weak and limited. It becomes evident throughout the novel that Dowell is a curmudgeon. He seems to see absolutely everything in a negative light and what is most evident is that he seems to take pleasure from other people’s misery. A good example of this is when Dowell tells us about Leonora teaching Edward and “Leonora would just nod her head in a way that quite pleasantly rattled my poor wife.” (Ford, 2002, p. 38)

Another excellent example of Dowell searching for the negative in a positive situation is when he is describing their excursion. He describes shortly the green grass and the beautiful location but the reason he remembers the trip and the scene is nothing to do with the beauty but something else. “Why, I remember on that afternoon I saw a brown cow hitch its horns under the stomach of a black and white animal and the black and white one was thrown right into the middle of a narrow stream. I burst out laughing,”. It shows that Dowell focuses on the parts of a story that most people would gloss over. He reflects that he probably should have pitied the animal but he didn’t; he merely enjoyed the sight. Dowell adds that no one paid attention to him laughing. (Ford, 2002, p. 38)

Dowell’s apparent inability to understand any of the events that are about to happen, mean that he creates a lot of ‘dramatic irony’. A significant example of this irony is the obvious discrepancy between Dowell’s perception of himself and the reader’s perception of Dowell.

Dowell for example, considers himself to be really intelligent, perceptive and insightful. Because he has had nothing to do for nine years, he reasons that he must be a faithful and reliable narrator. He explains to the reader that his attention was entirely focused on his surroundings, for example: the dining room decorations, the hotel plan layout, the flirtatiousness of Florence. But as he relates to the story of their trip to Nauheim, Dowell is quite the opposite of insightful. He is so obsessed with seeing things at face value and in trusting those he sees as “good people,” that he seems to be incapable of noticing the things happening all around him. He doesn’t even notice that there is a budding romance between Edward and his wife, Florence.

Even when Leonora explicitly tries to reveal the truth to him, Dowell doesn’t understand. He simply accepts her “I’m an Irish Catholic” (Ford, 2002, p. 43) excuse quite happily with no objection. Dowell seems to only recognise the details which have little bearing on the situation or of little importance. Florence’s betrayal and Leonora’s absolute horror seem to remain completely transparent to him.

When Dowell laughs at the cows, it can be inferred that this is a bigger metaphor for how the reader perceives Dowell while reading the novel. The reader laughs at how pathetic and disastrously inept he is. He laughs at what is an act of violence among the animals in quite an odd, awkward manner. It is strange that he manages to notice the intricacies of the cow’s relationships but fails to notice the violence, emotional not physical, that floods his quite intimate foursome. It is also interesting to note that when reflecting on the situation Dowell admits that he SHOULD have pitied the animal that was hurled into the water, but didn’t feel any pity at all. With this said, it is hard for the reader to feel sympathetic for Dowell because though his situation is tragic, it is also morbidly hilarious. His ignorance and naivety means that an outsider observing the story develops only a queer fascination. Dowell’s character is clearly complex and has a lot of layers. Unreliable in life and as a narrator, Dowell’s narration is confusing and misleading.

Before this essay can examine Dowell as an unreliable narrator, the term must be defined so that is clear exactly what an unreliable narrator is. An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator who for some reason has a biased or compromised point of view. What the narrator himself does not know or experience can therefore not be explained to the reader. In this novel, Dowell is an unreliable narrator as the reader is given reasons not to trust his narrative.

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There are a number of ways that a narrator can be seen to be “unreliable”. He could have prejudices against a particular age, race, class or gender for example. The narrator may have an intelligence level considered to be lower than average. A common one is that the narrator may be trying to make a point contrary to the actions of the story or be attempting to slander or misrepresent a person or situation. In Dowell’s case, he seems to fall into a few of these categories.

Dowell has a very confusing way of talking, as if he is recalling memories there and then and writing them down on paper without the thought of editing them afterwards. Because of this, there are a number of issues that arise for the reader. For example, on page 37, he tries to remember something but cannot remember when it happened. “I can’t remember whether it was in our first year – the first year of us four at Nauheim, because, of course, it would have been the fourth year of Florence and myself – but it must have been in the first or second year.” (Ford, 2002, p. 37). This passage leads the reader to question how reliable the narrator is, as he is not sure of the time he is referring to and in his wording confuses the reader even more than perhaps himself. By adding in the reference to him and Florence, he makes it unnecessarily confusing to understand when he is talking about.

Soon after, when describing a European castle, Dowell says: “It has the disadvantage of being in Prussia; and it is always disagreeable to go into that country.” (Ford, 2002, p. 38) This shows that Dowell is trying to force his opinion onto the reader as if it were fact. If it were his opinion, he could have said “It is my opinion that it would be disagreeable…” or something similar.

When talking about Florence educating Edward, Dowell makes another comment to seem unreliable. He mentions that Florence was “singularly expert as a guide to archaeological ruins” and then went on to say “there was nothing she liked so much” as showing people around ruins. However, he then says that “She only did it once”. For something to be considered somebody’s favourite thing to do in the world, it would be typical to assume that they had done it many times, not just once. This questions once more whether the narrator, in this case Dowell, is reliable.

To conclude, the section of the book analysed shows us that John Dowell has a unique and vibrant character and personality. He is shown to be rather naïve and ignorant in the way he does not notice or understand that his wife is having an affair or even that Leonora was attempting to tell him about it. His habit to find the negative in every situation makes the reader rather depressed and frustrated, which seems a strange way of telling a story, both by Dowell and by Ford himself. When seeing the cows fight, he finds this funny, remembering this example of violence over remembering the pleasant surroundings and the fun of a holiday. This shows us that Dowell is a pretty unreliable guy to rely on when it comes to recalling the story as he does not remember the things of importance. When it comes to being an unreliable narrator, it becomes increasingly evident that Dowell fits this criteria as he constantly glosses over important facts giving his own opinions and slant instead of the facts, leading the reader to believe everything that he says to be the truth when it clearly is not the case.

The Good Soldier presents the reader with a confusing and at some times frustrating read. The narration throughout the novel is convoluted, misleading and annoyingly erratic. Regardless, the narration creates a morbid comedy of the situation, with the reader warming a little to Dowell’s uselessness and sheer dumbfoundedness. One thing is clear, John Dowell is unreliable as a narrator and would not be a good choice to tell a story!


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