This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
This is the line written by John Dowell that opens the novel. He prefaces his story with his own judgment, saying that the "tale of passion" he promises will also be a tragedy. The word choice in this quotation is very important. This is the saddest story that Dowell has ever heard. The word "heard" implies that he has not lived the story or experienced the events, but merely "heard" about them. His statement is accurate. Although Dowell was present in many of the scenes he described, his eyes were closed to the reality of what was occurring. He was so blind, ignorant, or naive, that the significance of the events can only be felt as he writes and reflects upon what has happened.
For, though women, as I see them, have little or no feeling of responsibility towards a county or a country or a career—although they may be lacking in any kind of communal solidarity—they have an immense and automatically working instinct that attaches them to the interest of womanhood.
This quotation is written by Dowell in Part IV, Section VI of the novel, as he reflects on the tragic story he has just told. Dowell perceives women to be the radically different other. He assumes that, like Catholics, they think and act in a way which is completely foreign to his own. He also considers them to be individualists, more concerned with their own happiness and well-being than with their country or with anything larger than themselves. By blaming womanhood for its irrationality and individualized nature, he allows himself to feel that he is the rational, victimized party. He believes that they act together to do what is best for themselves and their gender. In this way, they help to maintain power over men. By accepting this view of womanhood, Dowell helps himself to give some order and structure to what appears to be an entirely chaotic situation.
Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too truthful are condemned to suicide and madness.
These lines are written by Dowell in Part VI, Section VI of the novel. Dowell attempts to overlay order onto the tragedy and moral confusion of the story. He believes that society is made for normal people, and that those who attempt to break its rules are destroyed by it. Society is not fit for the passionate or the sentimental. This state of affairs saddens Dowell, and implies perhaps, that he wish society should not have to go on as it seems to do. Dowell places a higher value on Edward's type of person, who is carried away by passion. Ironically, he is not that type of person at all. Dowell, as much as he can in his chaotic situation, acts a normal part in a normal life. In the end, he survives madness and death, but he is left with moral confusion.
I don't think that before that day I had ever wanted anything very much except Florence. I have, of course, had appetites, impatiences. Why, sometimes at the table d'hote, when there would be say, caviare handed round, I have been absolutely full of impatience for fear that when the dish came to me there should not be a satisfying portion left.
This quotation is written by Dowell in Part I, Section V of the novel. Here, he tries to describe to the reader his own personal flaws. He admits that he, like Edward has had appetites and impatiences. But this passage is comically ironic. Dowell's passions are not like Florence's or Edward's at all. Though the reader assumes his appetites are somewhat sexual, he quickly puts an end to such a misperception. Dowell's appetite is for caviar; his passion is for the Belgian trains to run on time. Though he denies it to himself, Dowell is a passionless, sexless, "normal" individual. He is very different from his good friend, the passionate and heroic Captain Ashburnham.
Leonora, as I have said, was the perfectly normal woman. I mean to say that in normal circumstances her desires were those of the woman who is needed by society. She desired children, decorum, an establishment; she desired to avoid waste, she desired to keep up appearances. She was utterly and entirely normal even in her utterly undeniable beauty. But I don't mean to say she acted perfectly normally in the perfectly abnormal situation. All the world was mad around her and she herself, agonized, took on the complexion of a mad woman; of a woman very wicked; of the villain of the piece. What would you have? Steel is a normal, hard, polished substance. But, if you put it in a hot fire it will become red, soft, and not to be handled. If you put it in a fire still more hot it will drip away. It was like that with Leonora.
These lines are written by Dowell in Part V, Section VI of the novel. To Dowell, the "normal" woman is the traditional woman. She is one who not only submits to, but desires her role in the old establishment. She does not seek greater freedom or increased power. The "normal" woman seeks to preserve "decorum" and to "keep up appearances"; this is why she is needed by society. By desiring both children and an establishment, she not only preserves the social structure, but continues it by reproducing and teaching these traditional values to a new generation.
If woman transgresses her traditional role, then she threatens not only men, but also the very core of society. In The Good Soldier, Leonora's transgression precipitates the climax and tragedy of the novel. The comparison of Leonora, the "normal woman," to steel illustrates Dowell's conflation of women with both strength and inhumanity. But the emphasis in this passage is on the common danger of change. As women were essential to the family, steel was essential to the economy, and the threat that either may prove unreliable, that they may "melt" or "drip away" in a situation of extreme intensity was a frightening prospect. Leonora, in fact did not continue to act normally when faced with a chaotic situation. She became "mad," which to the narrator is equated with being "wicked," and "a villain." By ceasing to act "normally," and by joining the other characters in her instability, Leonora induces the destruction of the family and the crisis of the novel.