John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier is a man searching for order in a world which has turned chaotic. As the narrator, Dowell presents himself as well-intentioned and tolerant. He is a man who has faith in others and in tradition, and who accepts that people are as they appear to be. For nine years, he assumes that Edward is nothing but a good soldier, perfectly honorable and trustworthy in every way. He believes himself to be the caretaker of a heart patient, willing to do his duty and sacrifice his own marital happiness to care for his wife's condition.
However, Dowell is an unreliable narrator. Cheated on and easily deceived for thirteen years of his marriage, Dowell is neither insightful nor perceptive. So destroyed is he over the realization of his "saddest story" that he is utterly unable even to relate emotion. Asked what it feels like to be a deceived husband, he replies that "it just feels nothing at all." We cannot trust his judgments, because it seems clear that he has little basis for them; Dowell has a skewed and biased perspective. For example, he concludes at the end of the novel that he and Edward are "just alike." But such a comparison is ridiculous; Dowell is passive and emasculated, while Edward serves as the prototype for the sexually assertive and passionate male. Ultimately, The Good Soldier is the tale of Dowell's attempt to chart his way through social and moral confusion.
Florence Dowell, the adulteress of the novel, is the only main character whose tale is never told. In large part, our ignorance of her background is due to a complete lack of communication between Dowell and his wife. In contrast, Dowell's later discussions with Leonora and Edward allow him to include their versions of events into the novel. The exclusion of Florence's story allows the author to suspend direct judgment of her. If Dowell criticizes Florence, we are able to understand the criticism as the emotional pain of a deceived husband; Florence is never directly criticized from an objective source.
What we know of Florence comes mainly from her actions, not her words. She is deceptive and controlling. She is willing to feign a heart condition to get her way, and to commit suicide if she doesn't. Florence values her ancestors, if not her family. She is perfectly happy to dismiss her aunts in favor of a home that belonged to her ancestors more than two centuries ago. Dowell's impressions of her are strongly split; he alternates between sympathetic pity, calling her 'poor Florence,' and strident hatred, comparing her to La Louve, the She-wolf. Florence is indeed both powerful and manipulative, but ultimately she is thwarted in her every desire; perhaps this is cause for pity.
Edward Ashburnham is, ironically, neither very good nor much of a soldier. Though Dowell assumes he is strong, upright, and "exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with," his assessment proves incorrect. Edward's goodness extends only so far as it can bring him personal honor. He is a generous magistrate, allowing tenants to remain on his land, thus endearing him to his people. He is also heroic; he willingly jumps into the sea to save a man who has fallen overboard. But the novel suggests that there is something selfish in these heroic acts, which allow passion to overcome practicality and concern for the well-being of his family.
Edward cheats on his wife relentlessly, and though Dowell dismisses his infidelity as the consequence of his passionate and sentimental nature, Edward nevertheless deeply hurts and offends Leonora. Such flippancy in hurting one so close to him must be considered an important facet of his character. But Captain Ashburnham is not completely immoral; he refuses to act upon his feelings for Nancy. Eventually, this thwarted passion destroys him.
Edward is old-fashioned; he strongly values his land and his family's name. He is not vulgar, and he is horrified at the thought that his wife might know the truth about his affairs. Edward's character is ultimately ironic, for he is the very opposite of what he appears to be. His suicide is not an act of heroism, as Dowell claims it is. Killing oneself with a penknife is not a brave way to die. Instead, his death is the ultimate capitulation to his wife's power.
Leonora Ashburnham is shaped by her economic upbringing and her stoic Catholicism. Though she is not outwardly religious, she believes in right and wrong, and in making the best of one's situation. Above all, she values propriety, and she insists that the Ashburnhams maintain the appearance of the perfect couple. Although she loves Edward deeply, especially at the beginning of their marriage, she grows frustrated with his impracticality. Though Leonora tries to keep control over her emotions at all times, she, too, is vulnerable to outbursts. When she hits Maisie Maidan, Leonora is really "striking the face of an intolerable universe." Leonora tries to remain in control so that, unlike Dowell, she may be aware of the world crumbling around her.
Dowell describes Leonora as "a perfectly normal woman," but we understand that from Dowell, this is not a compliment. "Normality" in the novel is associated with coldness, boredom, and a complete lack of passion. Dowell is jealous of Leonora, but she is the character who most intrigues him. Leonora, in her utter normality is the prototype of the new, powerful woman. She endeavors to control not only Ashburnham's money, but his amorous affairs as well. Such power and control is utterly threatening to man like Dowell, one who fears and chooses to remain ignorant of all female assertiveness.