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The Good Soldier

Ford Madox Ford

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Is Dowell a reliable narrator? How does his narration affect the reader's understanding of the events?

The Good Soldier is not a novel which can be taken at face value. Every piece of information we read has been filtered, and perhaps altered, by the thoughts and feelings of the narrator. As readers, it is our job to decide whether Dowell's story is accurate. Frequently, Dowell speaks directly to the reader, stating that he is "trying to get you to see what sort of life it was [he] led with Florence and what Florence was like." Dowell's aim may be to create sympathy for himself; in that case we must question the veracity of his words. In terms of actual plot occurrences, Dowell is an infrequent participant. Thus he can easily be dismissed as naive and ignorant, but morally blameless. However, we must realize that this novel gives us only Dowell's perception of the story, and explanations which he has received from others. If we rightly question the narrator's reliability, then the true story for us is the way Dowell muddles through confusion to tell his tale.

How does adultery function in the The Good Soldier? How does it undermine or reaffirm traditional values?

Dowell separates adultery into two types: the type committed by normal people and the type committed by the passionate. Dowell does not understand the normal adultery to be at all destabilizing or dangerous to society. Even Rodney Bayham, the most bland and normal man in the novel, keeps a separate establishment secretly in Portsmouth and makes occasional trips to Paris and Budapest with his mistress. But the other kind of adultery, which is motivated by passion or social ascension, is considered to be dangerous. Edward's affairs are condemned not because he betrays his wife, but because he chooses women who are below him in class, or who cost him large amounts of money. His sexual affairs destabilize his marriage because, filled with passion for other women, he ceases to love his wife. Similarly, Florence's affairs are denounced because she makes a fool of her husband by flaunting her relations with other men. Florence's liaison with Edward is motivated by her desire to return to Branshaw Manor in England. This kind of adultery threatens the institution of marriage, undermining the family structure, morality, and the foundations of society.

Can Dowell's dilemma be described as that of the modern man? Why or why not?

Several critics have recognized Ford as a trailblazer of modernism. Todd K. Bender asserts that "Dowell and Ashburnham represent the tragic figure of modern man." The modern man to which he refers is the man who came of age during the horrors of World War I and emerged to confront a world seemingly devoid of meaning. Although The Good Soldier was written immediately before the start of the First World War, Dowell's character captures many of the sentiments associated with the modernist period. Modernism, according to M.H. Abrams, was spurred by intellectuals who "questioned the certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion, and morality." In literature, this idea meant that new and distinct features and concepts were employed by authors to more faithfully describe the reality of their time. Dowell is a man in utter confusion; his world has been turned upside down by the discovery of a nine-year deception, and consequently, he has lost his moral compass. Dowell can no longer determine right from wrong, nor can he even decide his own feelings and reactions. This is evident in his narration, which is disjointed, non-chronological, and characterized by large absences. In The Good Soldier, Ford breaks with tradition, using modernist innovations to present his story.

Suggested Essay Topics

Examine Dowell's perception of religion in The Good Soldier. How does he use it to explain or excuse accountability?

What does it mean in the novel to "have a heart"? Discuss Ford's metaphor and why certain characters feign their condition.

What rhetorical and narrative techniques does Ford employ in his novel? How do they affect the novel's overall narration?

Compare and contrast Florence and Leonora. How do the two women approach power in their marriages? How does Dowell's opinion of them differ?

What does it mean to be "normal" in the novel? Does Dowell consider the state of normality to be positive or negative? Why?

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