The distinction between appearance and reality is one of the most important themes of the novel. No one in The Good Soldier is really who he seems to be, or who Dowell thinks him to be. Edward is not an honest, trustworthy "good soldier"; Florence is not a demure and faithful wife; and Leonora is not an upright, "normal" woman devoid of passion or emotion. The novel traces Dowell's realization that appearances are not reality, that the four are not really "good people."
Dowell's gradual realization, however, is trumped by the fact that the idea of "good people" seems to lose its very definition as the novel progresses. If this well-born and well-mannered English couple is not "good," and if his own wife is deceiving him, then he feels he has nothing to believe in. In the absence of appearances, Dowell is left only with madness, a skewed perception of reality. Ultimately, as the novel's first-person narration shows, personal perception is all one can ever have. "Reality" is merely one individual's version of the truth.
The Good Soldier constructs adultery as a destabilizing force in society. At its very core, it is a violation of the marriage contract, and the betrayal of a promise. But more deeply, adultery undermines the family structure on which the unity of the country is built. It can be both an act of power and of passion. Edward seeks the arms of another woman in order to escape Leonora's total control. Conversely, Leonora regains power by attempting to control even his adulterous liaisons.
The novel presents two kinds of adultery: the conservative type practiced by Rodney Bayham, and the passionate type led by Edward Ashburnham. Of the two, it is the passionate type that is dangerous, because such an affair leads to impracticality and instability. Edward's "abnormal" attachment to his mistresses, not sex, brings about the collapse of his marriage, and his eventual suicide.
In The Good Soldier, Dowell assumes faithfulness in marriage to be a very basic level of human morality. When faithfulness is questioned, all morality seems threated. Confused, Dowell wonders, "and if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or all we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness."
Ford's novel defines and redefines normality. Dowell uses the term to assign people to categories: normal or abnormal, passionate or restrained, hero or villain. Such a system allows him to restore order to a morally chaotic world. He considers women like Leonora and men like Rodney Bayham to be "perfectly normal" individuals, content to live according to society's rules. Dowell associates "normality" with a lack of passion, and he uses the term in an increasingly condescending manner.
But Dowell's use of the term marginalizes passionate, socially threatening people like Edward and Florence. By deeming them abnormal and out of the mainstream, he makes them pose less of a threat to a stable order. However Dowell's sympathy lies with the "villains," and he is eventually forced to the realization that "normality" is something which does not exist. He sees that one group is not more right than another but that there is an "irresolvable pluralism of truths in a world that remains essentially dark." Leonora, the "normal woman," has acted in a decidedly abnormal way, losing her pride and nobility and becoming darkly, subtly treacherous. Yet Dowell also faces the fact that such uncontrolled passion is a serious threat to society. And though he admits that he "doesn't like society much," he also concedes that it "must go on."
The date August 4 functions in the novel to provide what appears to be order in a chaotic life. Every important event in Florence's life happens on August 4: her birth, the beginning of her trip around the world, her first love affair, her marriage, meeting the Ashburnhams, and finally her death. Many critics speculate as to the exact meaning of August 4. Some claim that it refers to the date on which England entered World War I; others suggest that it refers to Augustus Egg's 1859 painting of adultery entitled "Past and Present." Regardless of the author's inspiration, the recurring pattern of August 4 is ironic. Florence's superstition with regards to that date suggests the foolishness of reading meaning into what is chaotic.
Characters with heart conditions, real and feigned, are a recurring motif in the novel. The motif draws attention to the "heart," which represents the intention behind action. Both Florence and Edward pretend to have a heart condition in order to get what they want. Florence uses the excuse to betray her husband and keep him subdued, and Edward uses it to escape from his duty in the army in order to bring Mrs. Maidan and Leonora to Nauheim. Ford uses the "heart condition" to draw a distinction between those with literal and figurative hearts. Unlike Maisie Maidan, who has a real heart problem, Florence and Edward merely use their "hearts" to cover their deceit.
Dowell compares the intimacy of the two couples to a "minuet," a dance with four beats to a measure, which occurs in perfect synchrony. For the nine years of their friendship, he considers them to have moved unanimously together, without thought or signal, but with similar taste and inclination. He considers a minuet to be a symbol of their relationship because it is regular and orderly, music "good people" might listen to. But the minuet, he reconsiders, is not permanent or stable; it is a prison. It is false because it arbitrarily binds them to a pattern that, in reality, they do not fit. Though it may sound good and appear stable, the "minuet" is a mere mask of the cacophany of "screaming hysterics" beneath. It symbolizes the fraudulent stability of their seemingly normal existence.
The scene when the Dowells and the Ashburnhams visit Martin Luther's Protest is the same scene in which Florence first makes advances toward Edward. Happy to be the teacher, Florence explains to the group that this piece of paper is what separates the "honest, sober, and industrious" from people like the Irish, Italians, and Poles. As she says this, she lays one finger upon Captain Ashburnham's wrist, and Dowell feels something "treacherous" and "evil" in the day. Martin Luther's Protest is symbolic here because it parallels Florence's own protest. By making advances toward Edward, Florence protests the rules of marriage and challenges a sexually submissive role for women. Just as Martin Luther's Protest separates two groups of people, so Florence's protest strongly divides she and Edward from Dowell and Leonora.
"Shuttlecocks" is the only word that Nancy Rufford, in her state of madness, can say. Morbidly amusing, such an outburst signifies the way that she is bounced back and forth between Edward and Leonora. But she is not the only character who feels like a shuttlecock. Edward and Leonora also consider themselves to be tossed around by the other characters. "Shuttlecocks" is a symbol for the way each person is flippantly thrown about by fate, by society, and by other people. It is the real manifestation of utter disorientation in a world that has arbitrary means of establishing right and wrong.